Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Good morning. Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love.
You know I like to borrow my sermon titles from songs, especially rock songs from my childhood. 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, they 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 is:
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 Mar