I Will Follow (12/18/16)
Georges du Mesnil de La Tour, The Angel Visiting Joseph in a Dream
As I considered today’s gospel story of the angel's visit to Joseph, the song that kept running through my head was “I Will Follow,” by U2.
Good morning! Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love. Now I don’t know if you’ve noticed this yet, but sometimes I like to use song titles for my sermon titles. But when it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, that’s tricky because there entirely too many songs with the word “love” in the title. As I spent more time with today’s gospel story, the song that kept running through my head was “I Will Follow,” by the Irish band U2.
I grew up in 70s and 80s. When I was a teenager, U2 was everywhere. Their songs were all over the radio and their videos were always on MTV. From the mid-80s and all through the 90s they sold millions of records and millions of concert tickets. They helped define what it meant to be cool in the 1980s. Like many bands, there were active in promoting the leading social causes of the day—famine relief in Ethiopia, release for political prisoners, care for the environment. It was pretty standard stuff. I didn’t realize it at the time, but their activism grew out of their deep Christian faith. Their faith was also front and center in the music.
On the surface, “I Will Follow” is an autobiographical song by the lead singer Bono, whose mother died when Bono was 14. The song is about his loneliness and isolation. The song has a good beat; the music and the lyrics carry the emotion of the song. The first verse reads:
I was on the outside when you said
You needed me
I was looking at myself
I was blind, I could not see.
These are the words of a young man who is so wrapped up in his own pain that he can’t see anything else: “I was blind, I could not see.” The third verse concludes with the words, “I was lost, I am found.”
When I heard this song as a teenager, the spirituality of this song was completely lost on me. Clearly, the lyrics signal a deeper meaning. “I was blind, I could not see;” followed two verses later by “I was lost, I am found.” When I read it now, I can’t believe I missed that reference to “Amazing Grace.” Then again, this was rock-n-roll. It didn’t occur to me that I should be looking for a Christian message in this song. I had no idea that the members of U2 were devout Christians. I just wanted to rock out—to a song about discipleship.
At its core, this morning’s gospel lesson is also about discipleship. In this case, it is Joseph’s willingness to follow God’s call. According to the Gospel of Matthew:
Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
He planned to dismiss her quietly. On the surface, Joseph’s plan seems like the decent thing to do. But is it an act of love? Certainly, it’s an act of kindness, an act of decency. And if it isn’t an act of love, then why are we hearing this story on the fourth Sunday of Advent?
Certainly, Joseph could have responded differently to the situation. According to Jewish law, once a couple was engaged, they were treated as a married couple. That is, neither party could have relations with anyone else. It would’ve been considered adultery and it would have been punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). So Joseph wanted to dismiss her quietly. He wanted to do the decent thing, but something upset his plans; an angel came to Joseph and told him that Mary was bearing a son who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
We already know how this story turns out. Most of us have heard this story many, many times. It’s hard to appreciate the difficulty of this situation for Joseph. His plan to dismiss Mary quietly does not follow the letter of the law--she is to be stoned to death for committing adultery. However, if Joseph goes ahead with the marriage, then that makes him a willing participant in whatever sin Mary might have committed. He’ supposed to obey the Law of Moses. Remember, the Law was a gift from God. But then the angel tells Joseph to set aside the Law.
Now of course we know that Mary did nothing wrong. We know that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and we know that the child was Jesus. We know that this was God’s greatest act of love for humanity. We know this, but Joseph did not. Joseph had to trust that the angel truly came from God and that he was called to respond to God’s love. He was called to act in faith and he followed that call.
Following God’s call is easier said than done. Yes, some people have experiences like Paul on the road to Damascus--that’s the Apostle Paul, not you, Paul Stratton. I mean, maybe you had that kind of experience, but I’m guessing you’ve never been to Damascus. But in all sincerity, most of us don’t encounter God that way. Most of us hear the call of the still, small voice, if we hear it at all.
While the Holy Spirit comes to some of us in the still, small voice, the broader culture comes to all of us--and it screams! Especially at this time of year. The voices of the culture scream at us to buy, buy, buy! We have to buy more stuff every year to achieve happiness. And maybe we need to put up a bigger and better lighting display, too. We have to show how much we love the season!
It can be difficult to hear and feel the movement of the Spirit amidst all the noise and confusion of the holiday season. For us, the church is one of the places that we go to calm the chaos of the consumer culture. Yet the institutional church seems less able to speak peace into the culture with each passing year. Our numbers are in decline across the board; fewer people participate in worship. Perhaps they think they can do it on their own--whatever “it” may be. It’s a great temptation to think that we can go it alone, that we can do the right thing on our own.
Joseph wanted to do the right thing; he wanted to do the decent thing. Joseph was trying to do it on his own. He was trying to navigate a difficult path between obedience to the Law of Moses and his own sense of kindness. Simply obeying the Law wasn’t the right answer. Neither was turning away from God’s call.
Joseph is not the main actor in this story; he’s not the one who initiates the action. No, the Holy Spirit is the star of this story. It is the Spirit that conceived the Son of God, the baby that is about to become the Word made flesh. It is the Spirit that beckons Joseph to follow the call to discipleship.
Matthew wrote this gospel for a community that was already familiar with the story. They would have known the penalties for adultery under the Law of Moses and they would have recognized Joseph’s dilemma. So Matthew:
[Presents] Joseph as a model for all who encounter the message of Jesus through the church. Per our comments on the Spirit (above), Joseph was face to face with an unlikely manifestation of the Realm of God. Matthew wants those who encounter this message and this movement in similar fashion to do as Joseph did: To believe the message is of God and to become part of its movement. (Ron Allen, “Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25,” retrieved from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3092)
That is, Joseph responds as a disciple, and so should the church! In a sense, Joseph is the very first disciple. God is about to enter the world in the person of the Christ. This is God’s greatest act of love for humanity. Joseph understands this and responds to God’s love by serving the Lord.
The same is true for all of us: Christ calls us to continue his reconciling work here on earth, to participate in building the Kingdom of God. We are called to do this as individuals and even more so, we are called to do this as the Church, the Body of Christ in the world. This is the message for the fourth Sunday of Advent; it’s also a message for a congregation in transition. Now more than ever, you need to listen for the call of the Holy Spirit. This is not the same congregation it was fifteen or twenty years ago. Nor is this community the same as it was. Therefore, your call to be the Church in this community is going to be different.
This is not an easy process. Most of us don’t have Road-to-Damascus experiences. And personally, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had an angel visit me in a dream to tell me of God’s plan. In the absence of those booming voices, we have to look within. We have to pray, we have to study the scriptures, and we have to have lots of conversations with one another. These conversations are sacred spaces, and in the coming year we’re going to be having a lot of these conversations.
I began this sermon with some lyrics by the band U2. As I said, they were lyrics with a deep Christian message--that went straight over my teenage head. I didn’t hear the call of the Spirit in their work because I didn’t think I’d find the Spirit in a rock song. Heck, I wasn’t even listening to it, but it was there. Bono, the band’s lead singer, found the band’s calling in Scripture:
He identified Isaiah 40:3 as “the Scripture that the Lord has basically shown us with regards to the band,” adding: “I see our position as Christians as to make way, make straight a path for the Lord a second time. In that sense we have to make the rough smooth and get involved in making the rough smooth.” (John Jobling. U2: The Definitive Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014; p. 82.)
Bono identified Isaiah 40, verse 3, as God’s calling for the band; this is also the Scripture that John the Baptist quotes in the Gospel of Matthew.
In this time of transition here at Rehoboth, it’s up to all of us to listen to everyone’s voice. No one person has all the right answers, and none of us can do the right thing on our own. We have to listen for the Spirit; we don’t know how it is calling us until we begin to listen. The Spirit sends strange messengers. Like John the Baptist. Like Irish rock-n-roll bands. Like members of this congregation who have been here their whole lives, and also new members who have never served in leadership before. To hear God’s call for this congregation, we must listen intently to all of the voices. This is how we must respond to God’s love in this place, at this time. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember to listen for the call of the Holy Spirit. Study and pray and talk to one another to discern God’s call for this congregation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!