December 22, 2019

Ending as Beginning

Passage: Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25

Synopsis: As an avid gardener, I know the excitement and joy of new beginnings every spring. But I’m also aware that things are stirring in my garden even in the dead of winter. This is how it was when Mary was “found with child” and Joseph struggled with what he should do. The birth of this child would forever change their lives. Like them, we’re invited to say goodbye to a world that’s ending in order to say hello to God’s new world coming. 


Christmas is about the miracle of birth and new beginnings. In an ever mysterious cycle, endings and beginnings fit together. Ruth and I have especially felt that when we took various mission assignments in Asia. I wanted to quietly slip away but that was emotional denial. We cannot say hello without first saying goodbye.


In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver describes her springtime eagerness to get started working in their garden and orchard on their Appalachian farm:

On the new edge of springtime when I stand on the front porch shading my eyes from the weak morning light, sniffing out a tinge of green on the hill and the scent of yawning earthworms, oh boy, then! I roll like a bear out of hibernation. The maple buds glow pink, the forsythia breaks into its bright yellow aria. These are the days when we can’t keep ourselves indoors around here. . .


As a longtime gardener, I know the feeling. I also know that spring is preceded by a long winter when tubers rest underground and seeds wait to be planted. I put my garden to bed a month ago and only a few cold weather crops like kale remain. I harvested my last broccoli last week and gathered a few remaining sprigs of parsley this week. But this doesn’t mean nothing happens in the garden during the winter. All kinds of things are stirring in ways largely hidden from sight.


That’s how it was in Palestine so many years ago when the baby Jesus was born. We’re more familiar with Mary’s story in the Gospel of Luke but the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth through the experience of Joseph and things are complicated.  As pastor Katie Hines-Shaw explains:

By the time [Joseph], a direct descendant of Abraham finds his betrothed pregnant with a child not his own, the messiness of family life has been well established. Mary is “found with child” and I can’t help but wonder who found her. Mary’s situation must have been known by some, perhaps by all: her parents, the village busybodies, maybe even the local rabbi, Joseph has to do something, but what?[1]


He wants to do the right thing but has no good options. If he publicly exposes her and divorces her she will be socially ostracized and might be reduced to begging or even forced into prostitution.  Yet to ignore the matter and marry a seemingly unfaithful woman would be extremely shameful for him and his family.


Because he’s a just man, he has decided to quietly divorce Mary without making it a public spectacle. That’s when an angel appears and tells him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. That must have been scary. But Joseph was already afraid and that’s the point. The angel is seeking to reassure him and give him the courage to choose a better option.

On the cusp of marriage, [Mary and Joseph] find themselves with a pregnancy they didn’t seek or expect. The very existence of this child may well threaten their place in the community, their synagogue, and their families. Their own relationship may be broken before it has even begun. In the face of this new beginning, fear seems reasonable.


Yet maybe things aren’t as new as they seem. Matthew’s genealogy underscores that the more things change, the more they stay the same. God has always worked through messy and broken families [and faith communities], restoring them and bringing hope.[2]


The biblical meaning of the word “angel” is a messenger of God. The angel that appeared to Joseph assured him that the Spirit of God is at work in and through Mary’s pregnancy. It’s the mysterious doing of the same Spirit that undergirds and sustains the whole world.


And that’s the meaning of the name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” El is the ancient Hebrew word for God and immanu means “with us.” This is where I draw on my experience as a gardener to help me understand. God’s Spirit was moving and working in a way similar to all the barely observable stuff that’s happening in my garden in the dead of winter.


Such trust in God associated with the name Emmanuel first appeared during the time of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was asking Ahaz, the King of Israel to trust in God rather than make a political alliance with Assyria, one of Israel’s enemies. Ahaz responds with fake piety by saying that he will not put God to the test. That’s when Isaiah tells him God will give a sign.


Ahaz’s young wife will bear a son and name him Emmanuel.  By the time the child is old enough to understand right from wrong the political alliance with Assyria will unravel and they will turn against King Ahaz. He will see that he should have trusted that “God is with us.”


We get ourselves all tied in knots if we seek to make the claim that the prophet Isaiah actually foresaw the angel who spoke to Joseph. Trying to make such an historical connection misses the point. The real connection in both situations is the assurance that God is with us along with the invitation to trust in what God’s Spirit is doing. Related to this is the instruction to name the baby Jesus. It was a common Jewish name related to the name Joshua, meaning savior.


This opens up a huge question about what that might mean. How is Jesus our savior? People in Jesus’ time put him in a box that fit their hope for a righteous king who would save them from their enemies. We tend to put him in the box of a savior from ourselves and our personal sins. God’s Spirit is inviting us to step outside these boxes and to again experience the joy and the promise of the baby born in Bethlehem.


In this respect, we’re saying goodbye to an old era so we can welcome a new one. The ending is also a beginning. We say “goodbye” to what’s past in order to say “hello” to God’s new world coming. That’s what we’re celebrating in the birth of Jesus as Emmanuel— “God with us” and as our “Savior.” The original meaning of “salvation” means whole, healed, safe, and unharmed.


Diana Butler Bass writes in her book Christianity after Religion, “Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgment . . . at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it’s being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator.” [3]


[1] Katie Hines-Shah, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, (November 23, 2016): 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 182.

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