The Fourth Sunday in Advent.

                  There can be times the trees leap out at you, and this isn’t about the impact of today’s ice-storm.  All you see are trees: endless obstacles, in the way, stopping you from seeing beyond what you’re crashing up against.  Does this resonate at all?

                  Maybe it’s a challenge you face with work, with a relationship?

                  Maybe it’s as simple as getting ready for Christmas and realizing this morning that there was no way you were going to be able to get out and do the Christmas shopping.  When am I going to do it all?  Stuart Maclean’s story of Dave and Morley and the Christmas turkey comes into mind.  If you don’t know the story, will open the link            

            The details, the complexities seem too much.

                  But, take a step back.  Stop, look.  Take a breath. 

                  Does it really matter whether or not you forgot to order the smoked turkey at Starsky’s?  What matters is coming together, being together, the offering of what we have to the other person in love and kindness.  And in that moment, there is more present than you can see.

                  But between today and Christmas Eve are a whole lot of hours.  A whole lot of trees, and shrubs, and creaking branches.  We’re still in Advent.

                  Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of Joseph, the man entrusted to be the role model, the parent of Jesus.  Plenty of trees in this story.  Here it is, in Eugene Peterson’s translation: “The Message”:

                                    The birth of Jesus took place like this.  His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant.  (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that). Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

                  While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream.  God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived.  God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant.  She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus – ‘God saves’- because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

                  Watch for this – a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;

                  They will name him Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us” )

                  Then Joseph woke up.  He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream.  He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby.  He named the baby Jesus” (Mt.1:18-25

                  It’s easy to get side-tracked by the details in the story.  What does the reference to the virgin birth mean? How could this pregnancy have happened? Why is Joseph described as “ noble” (“honest” or “upright” in other translations) when he fully intended to cast Mary aside?  Modern scholarship does shed some light on these: the reference to a “virgin” is apparently a question of interpretation in the process of translation.  The Isaiah text (7:10-16) to which the gospel refers speaks in the original Hebrew of a “young woman” becoming pregnant. When the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) was translated into Greek a couple of centuries BC, the term “young woman” became “virgin” in the Greek.  This had the additional effect of presenting a version of the coming of the expected Messiah more in line with other religions that also mentioned the miraculous birth of a deity. Hence the gospel writer’s use of the word “virgin”, rather than “young woman”.

                  I am aware that this description may trouble some and that is clearly not the intent. But ultimately, the point of the birth and infancy stories of Jesus is not logic or rational explanation, but that God works in ways that are incomprehensible to our, limited, understanding. We call this: mystery.

            God chose to take on human form.  God chose to share our frailty and humanity in a way that would enable people to see in Jesus who or what God is.  No longer distant, unreachable, fearful but identifying with the poor and outcast, those looking for peace in their hearts, searching for a deeper meaning for their lives, for release from handcuffs that bind them to practices and behaviours that they are unable to free themselves from on their own. God chose to do this by becoming fully present in the world as a tangible human being.

                  No little surprise that Joseph hears of this in a dream for what the world is about to experience is more than we can comprehend in the course of daily life.  Yet, astonishingly, the content of Joseph’s dream makes it clear that the hope of the coming of a Saviour, Messiah, Jesus (the One who Saves) is no longer a dream, but a present reality. 

                  “With us – God” as the gospel writer states.  Emmanuel has come.

                  This is what we are preparing for. 

                  This is the big picture we have been swept up into. 

                  So take the trees for what they are.  Without them there would be no forest, but they do not dominate.  The questions you have, the challenges you face, the crazy running around before Christmas is all part of something bigger, but not ultimate ends or purposes in themselves. 

                  That purpose is clear: Emmanuel.  “With us – God”  “God – with us”.

            So, take a breath.  Open your heart and mind, and prepare to welcome him.

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