A sermon from John Reardon for Advent 4. John is an intern at St Martin’s, a former Roman Catholic Priest who is seeking recognition of his Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church.
I suspect I am not the only one here this morning who has Roman Catholic roots. If you do, perhaps you remember being at a middle or high school dance and having a chaperone—nuns were notorious for this—approach you and your date during a slow dance and remind you not to dance so close, and instead, to “make sure you leave room for the Holy Spirit.” It never happened to me personally, but I know the custom remained in the collective memory until at least the 1990s. At the time, I was teaching Religious Studies at a Catholic prep school in Ohio—that’s how Jesus punishes people who leave Roman Catholic seminaries—and we had an event to raise money for charity in which different teachers had to kiss a pig brought in from a local farm. The idea was that the pig would be not terribly appealing to look at and would squeal and create a fuss, so students could be amused by their teachers’ distress. But one year the farmer brought a very young piglet. The poor thing was very sweet and obviously overwhelmed by being stuck in a gymnasium full of yelling teenagers. I felt for it. I bonded with it. The yearbook from that year shows a photo of me cradling it tenderly to reassure it. The caption reads, “Mr. Reardon, religion teacher, forgets to leave room for the Holy Spirit while kissing a pig.” The point of leaving room for the Holy Spirit was of course that the Holy Spirit would make a preemptive strike on any possible shenanigans the young couple might get up to. The Holy Spirit was the ultimate chaperone.
How ironic then that in today’s Gospel we encounter the Virgin Mary as a “girl in trouble” who has conceived a child “from the Holy Spirit.” Orthodox Christianity has generally understood this to be a literal, biological claim that upholds the teaching that Jesus Christ is both truly and fully human and truly and fully divine. Others, like Scripture scholar Jon Dominic Crossan, have pointed out that many biographies at the time the Gospels were written claimed great men like Augustus Caesar to have been conceived by a human virgin and a god. For Crossan, the main point to take from the Gospel stories is the radical claim that it is not Augustus, but a nobody like Jesus who was so conceived. How to respond? As a scientifically minded 21st century American, my only honest answer is, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. It’s not a part of my experience for virgins to conceive children. I know that parthenogenesis does happen in some species, such as komodo dragons, but when it does the offspring is always female.” But my faith tells me that, for the God in whom I believe, all things are possible, and that God can bring about the birth of a child from a virgin’s womb if God wishes to do so.
Joseph cannot have found it easy to believe the angel’s message he heard in a dream. And yet he did. He started out by making realistic calculations based on what he knew from human experience. He had been cuckolded. He had been wronged under the law. A mild and just man, he did not want to expose Mary to the brutal legal penalty prescribed under the Torah for adultery, namely stoning. He decided to make the situation fade away as quietly and discreetly as possible. But God had other plans and communicated to Joseph in a dream with a vision of an angel. Joseph could have written off the dream. But he did not. Joseph had left room for the Holy Spirit, not understood as the protector from temptation and chaos, but as the presence of the Living God constantly at work in human history, bringing about new life, healing, redemption, and renewal in ways that no human being calculating rationally would consider to be likely or even possible. By naming his son Jesus, which means, “God saves,” Joseph ratified his faith that the voice of the Holy Spirit was stronger and more creative than the fear-based calculations of human beings.
Joseph’s openness stands in stark contrast to the attitude of King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz was a frightened man. The kings of Israel and Syria wanted him to join them in an alliance against the Assyrian Empire. He knew that was a bad bet and would not join them, so they plotted to overthrow him and replace him with a puppet who would do their bidding. Fearing them, Ahaz made an alliance with the powerful Assyrians in order to keep Judah safe. He compromised his mandate as a descendant of King David to keep the practice of the Torah pure and blended in pagan practices, including the sacrifice of children. He did not trust that God would keep God’s promises to protect the Kingdom and the Davidic line. He clung to his fears and his calculations of what was probable and did not trust in the God who can do anything. He did not even want to hear from God for fear that his plans might be disrupted and he might instead be asked to place his trust in something unbelievable. So when Isaiah tells him that God will allow him to ask for any sign he wishes, he affects a false piety and says he does not wish to tempt the Lord. God gives him the sign anyway—a young woman will be with child and will give birth to a son to be known as Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
God saves. God is with us. How easy is it for us to believe these things? Like Ahaz, we see a world filled with violence, horror, and fear. The suffering of the people of Aleppo. The ravages of poverty, abuse, and addiction. The surreal hardening and coarsening of our national life. The personal challenges and difficulties that beset our personal lives and those of our loved ones. The Reign of God does not appear very probable. The vision approaches at times, only to elude our grasp, apparently swallowed up in madness, chaos, and cruelty once more.
As Advent progresses towards the celebration of Christmas, we are invited to place our trust, not in our fear-based calculations of self-interest and survival, but in the child born of the Virgin from the Holy Spirit, the child whose name means “God saves” and whose title means “God is with us.” The advent of God’s Reign has never involved linear, incremental progress in human history. It has always been more hidden, more paradoxical. Times of apparent progress have given way to times of backsliding, violence, and hard hearts. But out of the very rubble of past hopes, the Holy Spirit has always been at work, operating deep down inside the workings of the world and the workings of human hearts, raising up new possibilities from the rubble created by human sin. This truth came home to me recently when I heard a lovely poem by the Irish writer Michael Coady, entitled “Though There Are Torturers.”
Though there are torturers in the world there are also musicians.
Though at this moment men are screaming in prisons, there are jazzmen raising storms
Of sensuous celebration, and orchestras releasing Glories of the Spirit.
Though the image of God is everywhere defiled a man in West Clare is playing the
concertina, the Sistine Choir is levitating under the dome of St. Peter’s,
and a drunk man on the road is singing, for no reason.
We are invited to imitate, not Ahaz, but Joseph. Angels speak in our dreams too. In
Aleppo a man puts on a clown show for children and another creates a sanctuary for cats. There are torturers but there are also musicians. Calculation based on the fear that we are alone and without help does not have the final word. The final word is for those who, like Joseph, leave room for the Holy Spirit, not just to protect us from temptation, but to stir us to faith, to risks, to daring, and to song. God saves. God is with us.