Sermon Archives

Sunday, December 18, 2016
The 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A
The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Immanuel - God with Us

Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts* show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved. Amen

A few summers ago, my partner and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Being church geeks, we went to visit the Loretto Chapel,[1] at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.  We toured the beautiful little church, which was patterned after Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. It claims to be the first Gothic structure west of the Mississippi. We learned that in completing the Chapel, the architect did not offer any access to the choir loft, some 22 feet above the sanctuary.  For the sisters running the convent, all the options were undesirable: a conventional staircase would interfere with the already small space, a re-built balcony would be too expensive, and a ladder would be too dangerous for the nuns to climb up and down.  So the Sisters of the Chapel did what you and I would do: they prayed.

This dilemma reminded me of Joseph’s situation: difficult to get out of – bad options all around.  It seems that Joseph’s options were undesirable: to divorce her publicly would disgrace her or to divorce her quietly and disgrace himself. Either way, he would have to divorce her.  No possible way to redeem the situation. Only pain.

It did not cross his mind that Mary’s unbelievable story might be God’s truth. He could not imagine that. Only the truth, embraced, would transform the situation.

What do we do when our situation seems difficult to get out of? When it seems there are only undesirable options? We over function:  We torture ourselves. Overeat. Complain. Take it out on people we love.  Or we under function: Isolate. Sleep. Have someone else decide so that we can blame it on them. We know this feeling when there are only bad options all around.

Don’t you just feel for Joseph?  His human mind was only capable of knowing negative options.  Biblical Scholar Alyce McKenzie suggests Joseph’s self-talk:

 I cannot believe that she has done this to me…For one fleeting moment, I even considered the possibility that she was telling the truth, but it is more than I can swallow…I believe I will divorce her and save her the public humiliation of accusing her of adultery… I confess I feel somewhat betrayed by God as well as by Mary…now  the sun is setting, and I am filled with pain. I will go to bed with my pain, and hope for sleep. Tomorrow I will send a message to Mary letting her know of my decision.[2]

Well, we all know how *that* dismissal went.  We see Joseph in every crèche scene.  Joseph is portrayed in many artist’s work, at Mary’s side on the night of the birth, hair tousled, face lined with concern, protective stance over mother and babe.  Something dramatic *must* have happened in that sleeping conversation with the Angel.  The story reveals what happened: it was “…a night of birthing just as real as Christmas eve: this was the birth of a father for the Son of God.”[3]

In his sleep, with his mind out of the way, Joseph opened his soul to God. And in that opening, in the whispering of the Truth, God offered a resolution to Joseph’s dilemma: one that human reason could not detect.

On that night, prefiguring Christmas Eve, the angel invited Joseph to imagine a different future: one of an intimate birth in a manger, a rambunctious boy with many gifts, a young man with a prophetic purpose, and himself as a proud parent.  The possibilities made him giddy with excitement.

The angel revealed to Joseph a key to his dilemma: belief. Belief in an impossible story.  Belief in himself as the father of God’s child, belief in himself as one who can nurture the boy and honor him with a name: Immanuel – God-with-us.

The angel explained that to save the people from their sins, “you know that the boy will need examples.  He’ll need you to teach him to take risks like the one you are taking now, to teach him how to withstand severe disapproval like the kind you will experience, and to believe in the unbelievable good news when it seems all hope seems lost & only pain remains – like they way you feel now. You know that the boy will need you to walk to Bethlehem so that he can walk to Calvary.”

In that moment, the angel mid-wifed the birth of a father for the Son of God. Waking from his sleep, perhaps he thought, “not my will but your will be done.”

Jesus is not the only one who needs examples like Joseph. We all struggle with dilemmas and situations that seemly only have bad outcomes.  We need people to assure us when we take risks. We need people beside us when we get disapproval. We long for assurance from someone who knows from experience that God’s unbelievable good news is true!

Maybe you are that light-bearer being birthed this advent. Maybe you are the one who is to offer assurance in God’s unbelievable good news of God’s love and reconciliation for all humanity is possible, despite what appears to be an irredeemably broken world.

This is why Joseph whispers to you today: to know that God will work in us as God worked in him. God is with us – Immanuel.

Which brings me back to Loretto Chapel.  How did the sisters resolve the choir loft access? Well, one night while the sisters were praying, a man appeared at the door of the convent with a donkey and a toolbox, asking for work. When the nuns told the man about the predicament, he offered to build a spiral staircase.   That staircase was, and is to this day, an engineering feat: thirty-three steps and two complete 360-degree turns, made of only wooden pegs and no nails.  Once the miraculous staircase was completed, the carpenter disappeared. Many believed it to be St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers.

Maybe it’s just a legend, but I like to think that St. Joseph is out there this Advent, with his donkey and toolbox at hand, hoping to re-craft imaginative resolutions to hopeless dilemmas. And, whispering God’s love to you with unceasing hope, imaginative dreams and unbelievable possibilities.

This advent, may our hopes and fears of all the years be met by the hope of the birth of an infant savior, Immanuel.


[1] Cited at on December 14, 2016.

[2] Cited at on December 13, 2016

[3] Ibid., McKenzie