I have mentioned before that my brother and his family had converted from Lutheran to Pentecostal and when I returned home for a Highschool reunion he invited me to attend a Pentecostal worship service with him. I will admit I was a bit apprehensive but out of love for my brother, I went.
It turned out not to be the “Tower of Babble” that I feared and after the service, my brother introduced me to a few members of the Church. Our conversation seemed centered quite a bit on the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. My brother informed the group that I was an Episcopalian which prompted one woman to exclaim that she didn’t think my denomination believed in the Holy Ghost. I think the assumption behind that remark was that people don’t believe in the Holy Spirit if they don’t talk about her often and if they don’t regularly manifest the outward gifts, especially speaking in tongues.
I don’t deny in any way that the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians are real manifestations of the Holy Spirit. However, I do believe that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is not necessarily found in spiritual gifts.
The primary works of the Holy Spirit are found in creation and in re-creation. Here in our Gospel reading, as it is often in Scripture, the focus is on the Spirit’s work in creation, this time the creation of God in the flesh.
Here we are on the fourth Sunday in Advent we are almost finished with our anticipation and preparations for Christmas. This year, year A of our lectionary cycle, we get to hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’s Nativity. At our Christmas services, we get to hear Luke’s version.
You may not be aware of this, but there are three versions of the Christmas story. There’s the Gospel According to Matthew, where we get Joseph’s dream and the wise men and the star in the East. Then there’s the Gospel According to Luke, where we get the shepherds and the angels and the fact that there was no room in the inn. And then there’s the Gospel According to Hallmark and Christmas pageants, in which we get a smorgasbord of all the above including the wise men, the shepherds, a host of angels, lowing cattle and maybe a drummer boy.
The latter is, of course, a combining of Matthew and Luke’s narrative. Now this serves the purpose of getting all the elements into a very limited window of time, but to me, it is like combining a story by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They are both similar but surely not the same. Both Matthew and Luke tell the same story but from different perspectives. Luke’s narrative gives us Blessed Mary’s perspective and Matthew’s that of Joseph.
Joseph is sometimes called the silent character in the Bible because we never hear him speak. In fact, we don’t hear much about Joseph in the Bible.
We hear quite a lot about Mary, and rightly so. Afterall she is the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the bearer of our salvation. She was with Jesus from the manger to the tomb and beyond. But After our passage for this morning, Joseph pretty much disappears. We know from the verses preceding our Gospel reading he was related to King David. We know he was a carpenter–a tradesperson which would have put him pretty much in the Middle Class of his time and local economy– and we know that he was chosen by God to be the foster-father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Beyond this, we know nothing.
We can infer from Matthew that Joseph was a kind, loving, and caring man. To give you an idea of this I’ll read a portion of our Gospel reading with a very important phrase missing.
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
The public disgrace would have probably meant Mary’s death.
We heard in the Gospel that an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream to set the record straight, that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Not only that he relayed a command from God that the child in Mary’s womb should be named Jesus or Yeshua which means Yahweh saves or is salvation. This adds another adjective to Joseph – trusting. By trusting that his dream was indeed a message from God’s and not from his agonizing over Mary’s situation.
There were no assurances of a burning bush or parting clouds on a mountaintop, only the dream of an angel. In adopting Jesus and publicly naming him Joseph enters Jesus into the house and lineage of David.
If Joseph is considered the silent person in Scripture the Holy Spirit likewise is called the shy person because her operating is not often upfront and obvious. But this belies her activity in all the history of our salvation. Just as the Holy Spirit brooded or overshadowed creation so Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in Luke’s account. The Holy Spirit made the preexistent second person of the Trinity into a human being for our salvation.
In Hebrew Scriptures salvation meant freedom from slavery and return from exile as a people. The freedom from slavery to sin and return to Yahweh. Isaiah’s people knew they needed a savior. The angel in today’s Gospel recalls one of those dark moments when the people must have wanted to yell out for deliverance. It was during the time when God’s people had been taken captive in Babylon.
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him "Emmanuel"
which means, “God is with us.”
Sin is the choice to minister to ourselves, rather than allow the savior to minister to us; and often we preclude that divine help by removing ourselves from community. Some people choose to minister to themselves by following those who preach racial purity and superiority and hatred of outsiders, immigrants, and refugees. Through chemical dependency, others through acquiring money, shopping, gambling, addiction to work, or simply going it alone, being spiritual and not religious or having nothing to do with God. The Christmas season invites us to trust Jesus to truly fill that emptiness that we know is within us.
We find salvation when we open our hearts to the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit that allows our hearts to be a manger for Jesus.
Rev. Jess Moody a prolific Southern Baptist preacher tells this story in his book “Club Sandwich” about an encounter with Rose Kennedy, the Kennedy matriarch.
She tells of how she had been a pampered and spoiled young bride, and quite a socialite. When she had her first child, a beautiful girl, she could not have been happier. But when her new baby was examined it was discovered that she was mentally handicapped. She became so angry at God and at the world, she became a recluse. Her maid who loved her and hated to see her destroy her life.. So she told Mrs. Kennedy "you’ll never be happy until you make your heart a manger where the Christ Child may be born". Rose Kennedy was so irritated by the maid she fired her on the spot.
She later was so distraught about her actions she knelt and prayed. She explained: “I have loved Christ my whole life and tried to be a good Catholic, but now I knelt beside my bed and prayed, ‘Dear God, make my heart a manger where the Christ Child may be born.’ I felt a fresh, new, divine entry into my life, and there was born in me a love for [mentally handicapped] children.” She said she hired her maid back.
Although the Blessed Mother gave birth to Jesus in a unique way, we’re called as Christians to continue to “give birth” to Jesus in our time and place. We start by welcoming him with joy into the manger of our hearts.
In his incarnation, Jesus turned the world upside down. It becomes a place, even in our weakness, were we can bring Emanuel to the world.