Sunday, December 18, 2016
© Stacey Steck
As I thought about Mary and Joseph this week, I remembered the story of the very important job that needed to be done. It’s the one where EVERYBODY was asked to do a certain job. Now ANYBODY could have done this job but NOBODY was willing to do it. Then SOMEBODY got angry about this because it was EVERYBODY’S job to do. Well, EVERYBODY thought that ANYBODY could have done it! But NOBODY realized that EVERYBODY blamed SOMEBODY for not doing the job. Still NOBODY did it. The arguing got worse and finally NOBODY would talk to ANYBODY and EVERYBODY blamed SOMEBODY. What a shame that ANYBODY could have done the job and EVERYBODY could have helped SOMEBODY but yet NOBODY did it!
In fact, nobody is responsible for a lot of things in this world, including a certain famous pre-marital pregnancy. At least that’s what Mary was claiming. You see, when she revealed she was pregnant, the first question anybody and everybody, including Joseph, would have asked would have been, “Who is the father?” to which Mary could only have answered, “Nobody.” And she would have answered truthfully since beyond the fact that it wasn’t somebody she knew, it wasn’t anybody else either since it was a spirit. It was that no-body again, the Holy Spirit, that presence of God that leads us into God’s mischief, that helps us to do the right thing even when it is difficult, that sustains us through all of our uncertainty and all our anxious moments. Certainly Joseph would have had many of those upon discovering that his honor had been compromised by somebody, yet it was a nobody who helped him make Jesus more than just anybody. Let me explain.
In Joseph and Mary’s time, the naming of a person had more to do with establishing identity than with labeling. Although in our own time, we often give children names that link them with family traditions, such as using the name of a grandfather, or a favorite aunt, these names are still a lot like other names: they mostly help us sort out who is who. Of course there is significance in naming but in comparison to Jesus’ time, our own names are more or less like social security numbers instead of proclamations of what God has done like in so many of the great Old Testament names. But beyond the meaning of a name, important as that was, the act of naming a child in Jesus’ time made them a person, and the person doing the naming also did the claiming, the legitimizing, so to speak, and hence the importance of the angel telling Joseph that he, Joseph, is to name the child “Jesus.” The fact of Joseph doing so links Jesus with the great genealogy that begins the Gospel of Matthew, for it is Joseph, not Mary, who is the culmination of the generations beginning with Abraham. Joseph may not be the biological father, but his naming and claiming of Mary’s son assures Jesus’ place in the ancient story and makes him a somebody, at least in the eyes of those for whom lineage was important. Not to mention what it did for Mary, getting her off the hook for the work that nobody did.
Apart from the fact that Joseph’s courageous act makes Jesus a somebody, it is clear that Matthew is trying to make sure we understand that Jesus wasn’t just anybody, and certainly wasn’t everybody. It may be uncomfortable to learn that Jesus was not the only character in the ancient world to be reported as having a divine parent and a miraculous conception and birth, but that does nothing to change the fact that it was God’s activity, rather than chance or circumstance, that was responsible for Emmanuel, for God being with us. The role of that no-body, the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ conception distinguishes him from everybody else, making him a unique agent of divine revelation to his people. That Mary was a part of this event is, of course, supremely important as it establishes Jesus as a real human being, not just a divine being appearing as a human being, making him again, a somebody, instead of a nobody. Jesus is one of us, a somebody, but at same time, he is not everybody, because if he were, there would have been no need for him, his role in salvation rendered moot by his sameness with all of us. If Jesus were everybody, we’d all be perfect and Jesus would be imperfect.
I’ve been playing with these words – nobody, anybody, somebody, and everybody – because they hint at the dual themes of body and identity which are so important for Matthew. The more theological buzzword we use for the question of Jesus’ body is “incarnation,” enfleshment, the embodiment of God in the human person of Jesus Christ, an embodiment which makes possible the salvation indicated in the name Jesus, which means “God saves.” To quote St. Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Even though it is the humanity of our own persons and bodies which betrays us, there is something crucial about that same humanity, in the person and body of Jesus, which redeems us. For reasons known only to that great no-body, Jesus’ body is important to God’s purposes and it is this important fact that we celebrate each Advent and Christmas as we welcome not a remote, hidden, and abstract divine force, but a very fragile, vulnerable, and human child who demonstrated in the most wonderful way possible the truth of Emmanuel, that God is with us. As important for Christian theology as the crucifixion of Jesus may be, there is no crucifixion without incarnation. Thank God that nobody did something!
It is then a testimony to how important is this incarnation we celebrate at Advent and Christmas that the Church’s own identity is founded on this very fact. “You are,” the Apostle Paul says, “the body of Christ and individually members of it” a metaphorical statement perhaps, but no less true for being metaphorical. If there is a more divinely inspired description of the church than that it is Christ’s body, it has yet to be revealed to us. And so we too, like Christ, are called to be somebody in this world, not just anybody, and certainly not nobody, but somebody who demonstrates to the world that God is with us still today, that God is present in, and for the world, despite all the signs which seem to indicate otherwise. Where is God? people ask, when seven year-olds get shot in their grandmother’s beds in the middle of the night? Where is God? people ask, when Aleppo is being reduced to rubble? Where is God? people ask, when cancer claims a life long before anticipated. But don’t you know that these questions were answered in Bethlehem, when Christ was born? “I am here,” God says, through a baby’s cries. “I am here,” God says, despite all the odds. “I am here,” God says, to walk with you, to touch you, to listen to you, and to comfort you, but also to challenge you, and provoke you, and to cause all kinds of divine and wonderful mischief in your lives. Friends, if the incarnation of Jesus Christ is to have any meaning beyond fulfilling a toy retailer’s greatest wish, it will be because the body of Christ lives on in every generation to bear the same witness today that God is indeed with us. But how can we be with the world the way Christ was with the world? By being somebody to someone. Like a certain Mrs. Thompson was to a student named Teddy Stoddard.
There is a story many years ago of an elementary teacher. Her name was Mrs. Thompson. And as she stood in front of her 5th grade class on her very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.
Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn't play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X's and then putting a big "F" at the top of his papers.
At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child's past records and she put Teddy's off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise. Teddy's first grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners... he is a joy to be around." His second grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle." His third grade teacher wrote, "His mother's death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn't show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren't taken." Teddy's fourth grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is withdrawn and doesn't show much interest in school. He doesn't have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class."
By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy's. His present which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children's laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.” After the children left she cried for at least an hour.
On that very day, she quit teaching reading, and writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one her “teacher's pets.”
A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he'd stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had in his whole life. Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor's degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer-the letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.
The story doesn't end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he'd met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom. Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together. They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, “Thank you Mrs. Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.” Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, “Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”
This morning, we celebrate the final Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting and expectation. We can celebrate because like children who know there is a gift waiting for us under the tree, we are assured of Christ’s coming, because we’ve already experienced it in our hearts and lives. Our time of waiting is symbolic, and joyful, and optional. We already know that God is with us. Yet we are not everybody. You see, there are a lot of somebodies out there whose Advent is neither seasonal, nor festive, nor limited to four weeks in December, but is in fact all too real, and painful, and permanent and obligatory. For a lot of somebodies, their own personal advent lasts years, or decades, or even a lifetime, the time spent waiting and hoping to experience fully the life God gave them, the time spent until they experience the body of Christ, that symbol that God is with them.
In our community, there are people who need somebody, and in fact, the church needs somebody for its tutoring program. We don’t need everybody, but we do need somebody, or more precisely, about ten somebodies. We don’t need just everybody and certainly not nobody, but we do need somebody to step forward and make a difference in a child’s like, like Joseph did in Jesus’ life, and Mrs. Thompson did in Teddy’s life.
As I thought about Mary and Joseph this week, I remembered the story of the very important job that needed to be done. It’s the one where EVERYBODY was asked to do a certain job. Now ANYBODY could have done this job but NOBODY was willing to do it, and EVERYBODY thought that ANYBODY could have done it! But NOBODY realized that EVERYBODY thought SOMEBODY else was doing the job. So NOBODY did it. What a shame that ANYBODY could have done the job and EVERYBODY could have helped SOMEBODY but yet NOBODY did it!
Friends, let’s not leave this job to nobody! Let us be the body of Christ in this world, to share the good news with everybody of Emmanuel, that God is with us, in Advent and unto the end of the age. Amen.