Something New

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam on December 19, 2010.

Any good reporter starts with the spectacular event and then fills you in on the background. “Man bites dog,” is the classic example.  That’s the headline, but then you need to know who the man was and what kind of dog it was and if it was in your neighborhood. But you start with the headline.

The gospel reading to day seems to me to violate all these standards. It starts, for example, without the headline: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” If the newspaper column began, “It happened this way . . .”  Wouldn’t you want to know what “it” was? This passage starts with the assumption that you know about the birth of Jesus and now you just want to know how it happened.

And probably we do know.  But also maybe we don’t.

It is, after all, not yet Christmas. The culture doesn’t know that, but we do. For us, the birth of Jesus is at the end of this week and we’re not there yet. And for the culture, the society around us, it’s unknown or irrelevant or both. They’re out there celebrating because it’s the thing to do. But anyway here comes this Gospel reading that sounds like something to read next week.  First the event, then the details. But this is what we’ve got so let’s deal with it.

Here’s how it happened: it had to do with Joseph.  Well, that’s interesting.  We’ve focused in recent weeks on John the Baptist and Mary, and Joseph is often the forgotten man in the story.  He’s an onlooker more than a participant.  But today, suddenly – and I would say prematurely – he’s center stage. We’re asked to notice his problem and how he dealt with it, and I don’t really know why we are asked to do that on the fourth Sunday of Advent but that’s what we’re given and I think there’s something to learn.  Joseph, we can see, is a good citizen –  thoughtful, considerate – and suddenly his life is in chaos. He was planning a wedding and suddenly a baby is on the way and however usual that is now it wasn’t usual then.  And Joseph needs to work out what to do.

His first thought is call off the wedding. There’s still time. The invitations haven’t been sent out.  He hasn’t ordered the cake. So let’s just forget about it. But he’s not impulsive so he thinks about it for awhile and it’s while he’s still thinking that he has a dream and gets a message:  Don’t call it off: God is doing something here. God is at work.  God is doing a new thing.

Counter to all expectation, God is doing a new thing.  Why is that so surprising?  God has been doing new things ever since the creation. When God said, “Let there be light,” there were probably angels who said, “Whoa! We’ve never done that before.  Are you sure it’s a good idea? What will the neighbors say?” But God did it anyway and suddenly there were galaxies and comets and black holes and quarks and giraffes and penguins and mosquitos and a wandering tribe on the shore of the Red Sea and God took that tribe out of captivity into freedom and out of freedom into captivity and sent them prophets who told them God would be doing “a new thing.”

“Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says God through the prophet; “Don’t you see it?” And, of course, we don’t.  We don’t want to. Because if God does new things, how can we make rules and follow customs and traditions and have any security? If God does new things, what will become of the Episcopal Church?  Joseph’s problem is our problem.

If you had a dream in which God’s angel told you to violate all the norms of our society, what would you do when you woke up?  I think I would go about my day as planned and hope God wouldn’t mind.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a big fan of change for change’s sake. but I’m willing to try some modest changes once in a while – sing out of a different book occasionally, have Vestry meetings on a different day possibly, adopt a revised Prayer Book once in a lifetime – but I need to bear it in mind that God might not be an Episcopalian or even an American and may have different priorities than I do and may from time to time get creative and do a new thing and I will need to adapt.

I need to bear it in mind that Joseph was willing to put aside his traditional understanding of proper behavior so we could celebrate Christmas. I need to bear it in mind that God does sometimes ask us to open our minds and hearts to change – to new ways, to unexpected behavior – and asks us to come along into the new world God is making.

I wonder whether this is a viewpoint that might be helpful in dealing with some very specific issues our society is facing. It seems to me there’s a rigidity setting in that isn’t helpful in solving problems. Too many Christians and too many Americans seem to think that we can find solutions by just saying, “No.” “No, we won’t raise taxes” on one side and “No, we can’t cut taxes” on the other side. That’s just one example; there are lots more. Do you know, there are still people out there who won’t use the 1979 Prayer Book, won’t accept the ordination of women, still want the Mass in Latin, don’t believe in evolution, think the world is flat?

Everyone, they say, is entitled to his or her opinion.  Maybe you believe in a God who never does new things. If so, thank you for listening and let’s get together some time to talk about it. But meanwhile let’s agree to give thanks for Joseph who stepped back and let God do something new.  That’s how it happened that Jesus was born and we have something to celebrate next weekend.

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