"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother 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. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord
appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. She will bear a son, and you are to name
him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been
spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord
commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne
a son; and he named him Jesus."
--Matthew 1: 18-25
Expectation is in the air. On Sunday we sang about it with all eight verses of that wonderful Advent hymn, O come O come Emmanuel. I don’t know about you, but my heart races each time I sing that song. With each verse I feel it more and more, the hope, the expectation of God coming into the world. This is why I love Advent so much!
It’s Expectation with a capital ‘E.’ It’s God’s own expectation. We’ve been breathing it this season at Good Shepherd. We’ve gathered in it and talked about it in our Advent Sunday School. We’ve shared it with the community through Operation Red Sleigh and ringing the Salvation Army bell. Our collectively hearts have been racing, and our spirits are stirred. God is expecting, and so are we.
The story of God's expectation, of the birth of Jesus, is told to us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism, and John, well, John might give us the best Christmas story of all, but it doesn't start in Nazareth or Bethlehem, rather it is the story of Jesus the Word being in the beginning with God. Beautiful, but not the same story. As this is the year that we spend most of our Sundays hearing from Matthew’s gospel, we heard that story of expectation on Sunday. While Luke’s story focuses on blessed Mary, our Lord’s mother, Matthew chooses instead to tell the story of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father and guardian.
An angel visits Joseph.
In this version of the story the angel visits not Mary but Joseph, and gives the news that Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit. All this, according to the angel, is to fulfill what Isaiah spoke of almost 8 centuries earlier, that the young woman would bear a child who will go on to save his people. Matthew is not really concerned with the notion of Mary being a virgin, however—yes, the word is used in the above text, but the Greek word used here is parthenos , which also means "young woman" or "maiden;" in fact, it is translated as "young woman" in the NRSV version of Isaiah's prophecy. So Matthew’s story stresses not so much that Jesus was born of a woman who was a virgin, but rather that Jesus’ birth is the work of the Holy Spirit. And if we know anything about the Holy Spirit, we know that the Spirit is God’s own agent of expectation.
A common mistake among Christians is the notion that the Holy Spirit somehow did not exist before coming at the Day of Pentecost. Actually, Judaism taught that the Holy Spirit was certainly real and active in the world. So for Joseph to hear that the baby to be born would be of the Holy Spirit, that held certain conotations. And when we think about those connotations we notice that they are still very much applicable to the Spirit, even now in 21st century Christiniaty.
For Jews like Jospeh the Holy Spirit was the agent by which God’s truth was brought to humanity. The Spirit taught the prophets what to say. Not only that, but the Spirit enabled people to recognize that truth when they saw it. Human eyes are often blinded by their own ignorance, led astray by their own prejudices and pride, and eventually they build walls between each other and God, using those qualities as the mortar. But the Holy Spirit is the sledgehammer that knocks down those walls, opens those eyes, and allows human beings to get a glimpse of the truth of God in the world and in each other.
Perhaps most important of all, Jews understood the Spirit to be the agent of God’s creation. In Hebrew the word for Spirit, breath, and wisdom is all the same word—ruach—and it is that word that is used in the creation story of Genesis, God’s ruach that moves over the waters of chaos, calming them and giving life, and that word is repeated by the Psalmist, by Job, and by the prophets over and over again. The ruach of God—the Spirit and breath and wisdom of God—is not only the agent of creation, but also re-creation. Remember Ezekiel and the dry bones? It is God’s breath, God’s Spirit that enters them and gives them life. The rabbis of old had a saying, “In this world God’s Spirit has put wisdom in you, but in the future God’s Spirit will make you to live again.” So, yeah, Jews had a pretty good understanding of the Holy Spirit as a very real agent at work in the world.
An artist's depiction of God's ruach calming the waters of chaos.
So if Jesus’ birth is of the Holy Spirit then that means that all of this is fulfilled in him. Thus, in the birth of Jesus the Spirit of God is now more operative, more at work in the world, than ever before. It is the Spirit who brings God’s truth now in the form of Jesus; it is the Spirit that enables us to recognize that truth in him and in each other; it is the Spirit who, through him, brings order out of the chaos of our lives and gives us new hope, new meaning, new life. This is the expectation of Advent. This is what has not only already come into the world but what is about to come into our world again. This is what the Spirit was stirring in Joseph on that fateful day in Nazareth, and it is what the Spirit is still stirring in us right now.
The Spirit has planted that seed of expectation in each of us. Sure we have expectations this time of year. For example, we expect to get a Christmas bonus or time off from work. We except to succeed, to be the best. I expect all of you to love my blog posts! These are more burden than expectation, they weigh on us and cripple us beneath their weight. We end up placing expectation after expectation on ourselves, and we let the world around us place expectation after expectation onto us, and eventually we cave in from all that weight. But when we draw nearer to God, especially during this holy season, we let go of our own expectations and we embrace the greater expectations, that which God has planted deep within us, that which God’s Spirit is stirring and moving in us. I wonder what might happen if we did that for real. What would happen if we let go of our expectations, the expectations the world has placed upon us, and embraced God's expectations for us? It might change our lives! It changed Joseph's life, after all. He expected to dismiss Mary--it's what society expected of him. Still, he listened to the Spirit and embraced God's expectation for him, just as Mary had. His life was changed, as was ours. What might our lives, our world, look like if we let go of our own expectations and more fully embraced God's?