First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
If you were with us a couple weeks ago, you might remember that the gospel according to Matthew is sort of our bridge between the Old Testament and the New. Matthew is very concerned with making sure that we know that Jesus is not coming out of left field somewhere, but comes to fulfill all of the grand promises God made to God’s people in the days of old – and make some new ones, too.
What we’re about to hear from Matthew comes directly after that long list of names we heard on the first Sunday in Advent, linking Jesus generation by generation all the way back to Abraham.
Second Reading: Matthew 1:18-25
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 fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call 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.
I grew up in a small town – a little bigger than Hanover, but not much – where my parents and most of my grandparents also grew up. Most of my extended family still lives in town. This means there is no such thing as privacy.
When my brother and I were kids, my mom used to get calls from random people that always started with “…is your child supposed to be…..?”
“…Is your child supposed to be walking home from the high school wearing flip-flops in the snow?”
“…Is your child supposed to be doing donuts in your minivan in the church parking lot?”
“…Is your child supposed to be on the roof of the neighbor’s garage looking down at a mini exercise trampoline he put on the ground?”
We couldn’t get away with ANYTHING.
In retrospect, that was probably a good thing. But in the moment, it was INFURIATING.
Mary’s hometown sounds about the same. The secret of her child didn’t last long – and it didn’t seem to take long at all to get back to Joseph, to whom she was engaged.
Unfortunately for her, this surprise was probably not a happy announcement. In the ancient world, adultery or infidelity was punishable by public stoning.
Thankfully, Joseph doesn’t make a scene. After an angel appears to him in a dream, he makes up his mind to keep the engagement and raise the child as his own – although we can only imagine the rumors and gossip that definitely swirled around both of them.
But here’s the thing: at this point, both Mary and Joseph have been visited by angels of the Lord, seen miraculous things, and been told that they would bear and raise the Son of God.
But how much of that good news did they share? Who would have believed them?
Rather than celebration and anticipation, Mary’s news was likely met with great shame. There’s a reason that Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth in another town, far from home, for three months. There, she wasn’t The Problem Child – she was welcomed as another mother-to-be. There, the mother of Jesus and the mother of John the Baptist could rejoice together at what God was doing within them.
But eventually, she had to go home and face the glare of her neighbors and the whispers in the market.
I don’t think I need to explain to any of us what shame feels like – it’s so powerful and so pervasive that we could probably go around this room and every single one of us could tell a story of being shamed somehow, somewhere.
But I do want to take a moment to remind us of the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is actually a good thing – feeling bad for doing something wrong means we have a conscience. Guilt can help motivate us to make it right here and now and do better in the future.
For example: when we cheat on a spelling test and feel bad about it, that’s guilt.
Guilt is: I did something wrong. Shame, on the other hand, is: I am wrong.
Sometimes, shame comes from a person or an institution saying straight up: you’re bad, and here’s why.
Most of the time, though, I think shame happens when we internalize an unspoken message that something about our way of being in the world is inherently wrong.
For example: this is my Lexapro prescription. Lexapro is a medication that treats depression and anxiety by adjusting your internal chemistry and helping your brain absorb more serotonin – which is the chemical your brain usually creates when you’re happy.
Now, there is a LOT of stigma around mental illness. If we have it, we don’t talk about it. If we have to talk about it, we do so in hushed whispers. Especially in churches, where folks get told “well, if you just prayed more” and “if you had more faith, you wouldn’t be so depressed!” So there are lots of opportunities for me to feel shame about being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I could feel plenty of shame about taking medication that adjusts how my brain works.
But I don’t.
I love Jesus, and I know that Jesus loves me. I have lots of good people in my life. I walk my dog almost every day. I have a job that I really, truly enjoy – and yet, two years ago, my brain decided that it didn’t want to properly regulate its own serotonin anymore. That had consequences for my life and well-being, and so I chose to treat it just like you would any other time your body chemistry is off.
We don’t shame folks who endure chemotherapy to treat their cancer. We don’t call anyone a wimp when they get a cast to help heal a broken bone. We don’t begrudge anyone their cholesterol medication.
And so I’m not ashamed, either, of the ways that anti-depressants, along with therapy and lots of other coping skills, help me be who I am called to be – more fully myself and more fully alive.
Guilt can motivate us, but shame will immobilize us and prevent us from asking for the help we need. And holding on to that pain, keeping those secrets and clutching them so closely to your chest, is one of the biggest ways that abuse gets perpetuated and wounds remain unhealed.
Because when we bring those painful moments out of the shadows and into the light – when we can embrace our vulnerability and share our stories and our scars with one another – there will usually be at least one voice that pipes up to say: “I thought I was the only one.”
Maybe you can take on the world and all of its sadness and hurt by yourself – but the gift of Immanuel means that you don’t have to.
Part of the joy of Advent is the invitation to bring all of your crazy out into the light – to find your tribe and tell your story. Tell one another about the ways that God and God’s people have shown up for you when you thought all was lost. Talk about the weird moments that you could swear were a message from God just for you. Talk about the times you prayed so hard for a flashing neon sign saying “this way!”, and got a trail of breadcrumbs instead.
This Advent, my prayer for you is that you would find the family of God a safe and helpful place to share your whole vulnerable self as we celebrate God coming to us in a tiny, vulnerable little human.
The angels told Mary and Joseph: “do not be afraid!”
And so I say to you: do not be ashamed, for you are a beloved child of God right here and now – and Christ is with you always, to the very end of the age.