Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 | Romans 1:1-7 | Matthew 1:18-25
The great Catholic lay theologian G.K. Chesterton said, and I apologize for all the gendered language, Chesterton said it not me, but when he says “man” know he means “humanity.” Chesterton said,
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but…free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.
Over the course of the last few weeks we have seen the way God is a God of contradictions and surprises. God is always found where we don’t want God to be. On a cross (surprise) and yet a king (contradiction), among the poor and discarded of society and not with the rich and the affluent. In a stable, not in a clean hospital room.
And today we read what we already knew was coming, now God the divine, the supernatural will become the human, the natural. God-above-and-beyond-us will become Emmanuel, God-with-us. And what’s more, God will become the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, a little baby.
The logic of Christianity is so illogical, it’s ridiculous. And yet it sounds so right. And yet it seems that these are the only ways God would or could come to us.
While all logic says that God should come as a mighty conqueror, we know that logically God could never come as a conqueror, because we have seen conquerors through history, and know that if there really is any hope left in the world God cannot be one of them.
While logic – or at least culture, even much of our Christian culture – says that God works through strong willed men, it only seems logical that, of course, God would work through a young girl instead. We have known too many of these strong willed men to believe that that is how God would come.
While logic tells us that the Son of God should be secure and protected, God would not, could not, be born in a stable, logic also tells us that the God of all people could never be found in opulence and safety while others scrape by, going to bed hungry, multiple families sharing cramped apartments.
While logic tells us that virgins can’t get pregnant, how else could God become human? It could only be through the miraculous.
In short, we can’t imagine God acting outside our worldly understandings of power and safety and success, and yet we can’t imagine that these worldly structures and systems could ever save us. Because we’re too familiar with them. We’ve seen the ways they always fail.
We are seeing right now what worldly structures and systems, the ones of war and violence and greed can do, in Aleppo. The death toll in Syria as a result of their civil war has reached 470,000 people according to the New York Times. 470,000. Earlier this week the city of Aleppo was being recaptured by the government, and citizens are being shot on sight. Even children.
We can’t imagine God imposing Godself in the same way that governments of the world impose themselves on their people, and yet we don’t know how God could ever win through any other means than violence and coercion. It’s all we’ve ever seen. It’s all we’ve ever known.
And yet we know deep down that these systems of the world can only be redeemed if they are first overturned and deconstructed.
Chesterton said – let’s change up his pronouns here – “If [The sane woman] saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, she would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. Her spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like her physical sight: she sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.”
God is always asking us to see two realities. The one in front of us, let’s call that “the real,” and God’s reality – let’s call that “the really real.”
“A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
“A virgin shall conceive.”
Do you see the contradiction?
Virgins do not conceive, let alone give birth. That’s just not the way things work. Let’s be “real.” And yet, Scripture tells us it’s true. It’s “really real.”
It’s what’s real at a deeper level, it’s what’s happening under the surface, it’s what God is bringing forth.
Where I would diverge from Chesterton, at least in this context, is that, as Christians we are not meant to simply hold the two truths together, on equal footing. We are actually meant to believe in one over the other. We’re supposed to believe in “the really real” over “the real.” We are to believe the reality of God, over and against the reality that’s staring us straight in the face. So close its touching our nose.
“The real” says virgins don’t get pregnant. “The really real” says Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Later in his life – as we talked about a few weeks ago – “the real” will say that Jesus on the cross is a sham king, but “the really real” will say that he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, that he is before all things and in him all things hold together.
Jesus’ ministry, especially as depicted by Matthew, is the story of the “really real” in conflict with “the real.” His presence with the lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes asserts that God is found with these people, in stark contrast to “the real” which said that such people had been rejected by God. “The real” said that the Pharisees and Sadducees were God’s beloved, but “The really real” said “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven before [the religious leaders].”
Nowhere is this clearer than in the beatitudes, when Jesus says
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
…and so on.
The beatitudes are a laundry list of the “really real” confronting “the real”.
Jesus called the “really real” the “kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven was the upside down world of God, where the sinners were the saints and the saints were the sinners, where the powerful were weak, and the weak were powerful, where virgins get pregnant and young girls are swollen with the hope and promise of God.
The problem is that “the real” does not – will not – lie down quietly. “The real” continually reasserts itself, clouding our vision. Telling us that the “really real” – the kingdom – is a lie. Obviously. Just look around.
In our passage from Matthew “The real” and “the really real” converge on the body of Mary. She is really pregnant (the real) but by way of the supernatural God (the really real). To a lesser extent, “the real” and the “really real” also converge on Joseph. But instead of doing so physically, in his body, as they did in the case of Mary, with Joseph it’s in his heart and mind. In which “reality” will Joseph choose to live. Because he has a choice. We have a choice.
At first, Joseph has no concept of the “really real.” He only sees “the real.” It’s all he’s ever known. So when Mary gets pregnant and tells him “God did it!” he does the best he can, but he can only do so much. Instead of having her stoned, as was his right, he decides to divorce her quietly, which might be a little confusing, since they were just engaged. But in that culture, being engaged was a legally binding commitment, like being married, even though they hadn’t been married yet.
So Joseph is trying to go above and beyond, he might even be trying to reach for the “really real.” Maybe he knew Mary, knew her heart. Maybe he genuinely loved her and knew that having her killed for her supposed infidelity was wrong. But his imagination wasn’t big enough to think that maybe she was actually telling the truth, maybe this really was the work of God. Would any of our imaginations have been that big? I doubt mine would have been. So he does what very well could have been unthinkable to others, he decides to end the relationship, but wants to do it with minimum shame to Mary.
How many times have we been guilty of the same thing. How often have we failed to believe the testimony of women, and tried to send them away quietly? For how many centuries did the Church see no problem with the incarnate word of God being carried in the womb of a woman, being born of a woman, and yet did not think the preached word could also be carried by women, could be delivered by women. How often do we still question women’s call to ministry?
I know our church affirms women in ministry, so I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I think we need to make a point of affirming this conviction, because women hear – so often and from so many corners – that they are not meant for preaching and teaching and church leadership. And that’s a lie. I pray for the day when Grant Park can send a woman from our congregation to seminary, or ordain a woman in this sanctuary, or call a female pastor.
I’m so thankful for all the strong women in this congregation, who I can go to for advice and counsel. The fact that the majority of the search committee and the board are made up of women told me right from the get-go that this was a community I wanted to be a part of. I’m excited for our church to continue this legacy of empowering and affirming women to places of leadership within the Church, especially as Baptists, who are so often associated with patriarchy.
But back to Joseph. He wants to do what’s right, but he can’t imagine actually marrying Mary and fathering her illegitimate child. It’s beyond the realm of possibility.
Until he enters the world of dreams. The world where angels speak to mortals. The world that G.K. Chesterton called “fairyland.” The world where imagination knows no limits, where the impossible becomes possible, where God reaches into the lives of humans, where “the really real” becomes more real than “the real.”
The Angel of the Lord enters Joseph’s dreams – that place where “the real” has less power – and tells Joseph that – if he can believe it – Mary was actually telling the truth! The angel says to Joseph,
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
The angel tells Joseph that “the really real” has come crashing into “the real.” The world in front of him – the one where Ceasar Augustus rules, the one where the Jews are second class citizens, the world we all live in, the one where racism still exists, the one where the people of Aleppo are being slaughtered – will not last. God is doing a new thing, “the really real,” the kingdom of heaven has and is breaking into the domain of “the real”.
In the midst of suffering the prophecy has come true: “the virgin has conceived and will bear a son” and his name will be “Emmanuel…God with us.”
“Joseph,” the angel says, “do not listen to ‘the real’, but believe in the ‘really real’.” Don’t believe in the reality of the world, believe in the reality of God.
And live accordingly.
Carry the reality of God into the reality of the world.
The dream changed Joseph’s understanding of reality. But Joseph couldn’t live in the dream forever. When he woke up, he was back in the world of “the real” where he and Mary and Jesus would live the rest of their lives as outcasts – Mary because of her pregnancy before marriage. Jesus because he was her illegitimate child. Joseph because he chose a sinful woman and her illegitimate child over a “proper” family. This scandal followed Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the rest of their family for the rest of their lives.
That is what happens when “the really real” crashes into “the real.” “The real” fights back. The next chapter in Matthew tells the story of Joseph taking his young family and fleeing to Egypt, while Herod slaughters the infants of Bethlehem.
“The real” will always resort to violence. It knows no other way. It will try to kill all that threatens it.
To live in the world of the “really real,” the world of dreams, the world of Emmanuel – God with us, is to resist “the real” at every turn. And so it is also to place ourselves in danger. It’s to assert the way of peace in the face violence.
It’s to worship an infant king while Herod’s soldiers bear down on us.
So what reality will we inhabit? “The real” or the “really real”?
When we enter the world of Scripture we enter the world of dreams. What will we do when step out of that world and set foot on NE 34th Ave., Portland, OR 97212?
“And then Joseph woke up, and did as the Angel of the Lord commanded him.”