The hymns we sing in Advent are particularly haunting and beautiful, not least because they interrupt the relentless Christmas music we hear on television and in big box stores and at Christmas festivities. You will likely recognize the lyrics to Advent hymn:
“Sleepers, wake!” A voice astounds us,
the shout of rampart-guards surrounds us:
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight’s peace their cry has broken,
their urgent summons clearly spoken:
“The time has come, O maidens wise!
Rise up, and give us light;
the Bridegroom is in sight. Alleluia!
Your lamps prepare and hasten there,
that you the wedding feast may share.”
“Sleepers, wake!” we sing, and the majesty of the hymn carries us into the prophetic joy of this Advent season. We are shaken awake like the bridesmaids in that parable about the wise and foolish virgins. The Bridegroom is at hand and we must go witness and share the wedding feast. An “urgent summons”: God is at hand. Jesus is born, Jesus is with us now, Jesus is coming again. Be ready!
John the Baptist has been calling out to us in a similar voice in the Gospels we’ve heard this Advent. “Repent,” he says, “for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near!” “The axe,” he tells us, “is already at the root of the trees!” And indeed, if we look around at our world, the need to awaken and repent is strong with us. It’s obvious. We must awaken to the coming of Jesus among us. Urgently. For the sake of the world and for our own salvation. We get it. Advent. All about waking up.
How strange, then, that an angel appears to Joseph in this morning’s Gospel while he is fast asleep. This isn’t our typical story of Advent awakening. Sleepers wake? Joseph meets his angel in a deep, dark, slumber. Joseph would appear to have been unprepared for the coming of Jesus. We don’t hear anything about Joseph waiting in prayer for his Messiah, the way Simeon and Anna are waiting in the Temple in Luke’s Gospel, at the Presentation. Joseph isn’t a prophet like that. We only know that he is a man of the House of David, who plans to marry a woman. He is preparing for a wedding feast, sure, but it’s not the great feast of the coming of our Lord. Joseph just wants a wedding. And when his betrothed turns up pregnant, Joseph is ready to cancel, not to announce that the kingdom of God is at hand. Joseph doesn’t want any announcements. He wants a quiet divorce and a conventional life with a woman who won’t make him feel displaced and foolish.
This year, this Advent, when I’ve been pinching myself daily and saying “Wake up! Do something about the state of the world!” it haunts me that an angel comes to Joseph in a dream when all Joseph wants is the conventional life he thought he was supposed to have. It gives me great hope, and it fills me with gratitude. It reminds me that God is God, and that God does not need my skill at awakening in order to move powerfully to save the world. At some deep level, I am powerless to awaken myself.
Prophets may come to us in the wilderness, when we are ready for a challenge, but sometimes angels come to us too, and sometimes they come when we are most unprepared. When we are groggy and worn down. When our world stops making sense. When we can hardly sort out the story we are in. That’s how it was for Joseph. What a deep and weary sleep he must have fallen into that night before the angel appeared. What a surrender that must have been to the darkness and the discouragement and the sharp loneliness of losing Mary. What an insult that she is pregnant.
Joseph follows the instructions the angel gives him, and he takes Mary home to be his wife. But angels will come to him again in his sleep. In the second chapter of Matthew an angel will tell Joseph in a dream that he must take Mary and her child to Egypt because a great slaughtering of children will take place in Bethlehem at the orders of the tyrant Herod. And then an angel will come again, in another dream, to tell him when it is safe to return. But then he will be warned again in a dream that Herod’s son is reigning in Judea, so he will take his family to live in Nazareth of Galilee. “Sleepers wake!” we sing, but Joseph moves through the coming of the kingdom as an exhausted refugee, barely able to comprehend what takes place around him. He is visited not by prophets who challenge him but by gentle messengers from his God, who nudge him forward through a world of death and danger.
A world of death and danger, and also a world of miraculous birth and redemption. All of it over Joseph’s head. All of it determined by forces beyond his control. All of it sounding, I guess, like a story he would scarcely believe in his waking hours. When we read Matthew’s Gospel we get all the answers Joseph doesn’t get. We are told explicitly that his unconventional marriage is a fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah, that a virgin will bear a child and they will call him Immanuel, God with us. All Joseph knows is that he is to marry a woman whose child was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. How he would know what that meant I cannot begin to tell you. When angels direct him to travel to Egypt and back, we are told that he is fulfilling the word of the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). But Joseph doesn’t know that. Joseph makes the trip in fear because Herod’s murderous forces are on the march. Joseph doesn’t know it, but when goes down to Egypt he is recalling for us another Joseph, the dreamer with the coat of many colors, the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis. But what could that parallel have meant to him at the time? Even living in Nazareth is a fulfillment of an Old Testament pattern, because the word “nazareth” means “branch,” as in the prophet Isaiah we are told that a branch will spring from the roots of the tree of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). But why would Joseph appreciate the significance of living in a town called “Branch?”
Joseph lives in a world rich with God’s purposes but what he knows is displacement and fear and confusion. Joseph learns from the angels to be willing to give up his fantasy of a normal life, and thus to become a true husband to a woman whose love for God has born incomprehensible fruit.
And as for us: what angel will come to us? What or whom are we to espouse unexpectedly? Whom shall we embrace in spite of the fear of looking foolish or disgraced? What homes are we to leave? Where are we to go? What forces are arrayed to our detriment? And what blessings are waiting to be born? What sleep are we in, exactly? What purposes of God are our lives fulfilling? And beyond all these questions: can we desire the coming of this messiah? The one who comes to us in upheaval and confusion?
It seems that awakening to the coming of the kingdom of Jesus can take many forms. Joseph’s is a true awakening, though it often looks like sleep. When the angel comes to him, he listens, and his footsteps follow the path of God’s inspiration. There may be times in which surrender to God demands not only vigilance but also acceptance that the story we are in is too large for us to comprehend fully. Maybe sometimes we are in the grip of a deeper sleep. Maybe sometimes the sleep and the waking are happening at a level deeper than our full human will can reach. Perhaps there are times when deeper trust is called for, and resting in the arms of God can be a step in the larger process of conscious commitment. Maybe there are times when, even as we prepare to take action in accordance with God’s will, we must also rest in Christ’s peace if we are to function at all as the body of Christ. Can we trust God enough to accept this difficult birth?
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
Preached by Mtr. Nora Johnson
18 December 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia