My wife and I are among the millions of people around the world addicted to Downton Abbey. In case you haven’t heard, this is the hit PBS series about a wealthy English family and their servants who are trying to cope with a rapidly-changing world. The story begins just before WWI and continues into the 1920s.
We’ve wondered why we like the show so much. Is it the acting? The directing? The music? Yes! Most of all, it’s about the story. Here is a family that has immense wealth and privilege. But when it comes down to it, they’re a lot like their servants. All the characters, whether nobility or servants, face situations in which they have to come to terms with loss, grief, and fear. They have to cope with scandal and betrayal. They decide to forgive or not to forgive. They choose hope or despair. Time and again, one thing we notice is that when a character in the story is facing an impossible situation, feeling fearful, confused or just plain stuck some ordinary person will show up, and like an angel from heaven, they’ll say something that sends the person in a direction they wouldn’t have gone on their own. That direction is often life-giving and even life-changing.
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. Although the world has managed to turn this into a cozy tale, the birth of Jesus is a story that is full of danger, confusion and fear. It’s a story about a family and like most family stories it has hints of scandal, betrayal, disappointment, and temptations to despair. It also includes hope, dreams, second chances, and even miracles. Strange as it may sound, the Christmas story is a human story not that different from our own.
Tradition and law said that Joseph should preserve his family’s honor- -and his own honor–by publicly renouncing Mary. But being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. 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.” Under the circumstances, that was probably the last thing Joseph thought he would do.
The Christmas story is about God’s love, and our salvation. The angel told Joseph that his son would save his people from their sins. How do you think that happens? How does God save us? For Joseph, it was an angel appearing in a dream who saved him and his family. I believe in angels and maybe they do show up in dreams but I believe that angels usually show up in our lives unexpectedly as flesh and blood human beings.
A few days ago we saw the movie Saving Mr. Banks. It’s the story of P.L. Travers, the unhappy woman who wrote the original Mary Poppins books. Much of the movie is flashbacks to the author’s childhood and these flashbacks reveal that she loved her father very much. But he was an alcoholic, he couldn’t hold a job, and he died young of influenza. Her grief and disappointment set the tone for the girl’s adult life for decades to come.
What transformed her life was Walt Disney. Disney had been hounding her for twenty years, trying to buy the rights to make the Mary Poppins movie. Eventually she gave in and, of course, he did make the movie. What turned the tide was the day he sat down with her in her London apartment and told her the story of his own life. Walt Disney, as it turns out, had a father whom he loved. But his father in some ways was a hard man and Disney’s memories of his childhood were painful ones. As Walt Disney told the story of his childhood, P.L. Travers realized that she had allowed the pain of her younger years to make her unhappy for most of her adult life. In Walt Disney she discovered someone who had made a different choice. Walt Disney was the angel who appeared and changed the direction of her life, saving her from her past and further unhappiness.
Joseph could have given in to his disappointment. All of us are tempted in this life to allow tragedies and disappointments to set the tone for our lives. Each generation is tempted to dwell on the past and the disappointments that have gone before them. But the Christmas story offers us hope for something different. In the verses leading up to today’s gospel reading is Matthew’s genealogy, beginning with Abraham and continuing to Jesus. Read the Bible stories of these people’s lives and you will find a world of hurt: tragedies and disappointments similar to our own. But through these stories is given the same assurance of hope given to us: Emmanuel=God is With Us. The promises that began with Abraham continued through Joseph and Mary, and are passed on to us: Through whatever life throws at us, God is with us, often sending angels to point us in directions we wouldn’t go on our own: Flesh-and-blood angels whom we call family and friends. Often surprising angels—maybe even strangers– that show up at unexpected times and unexpected ways, ready to save us from the sin of bitterness and despair.
This wasn’t the only time an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Next Sunday you’ll hear the story of how an angel appeared to him in a dream—not once, not twice, but three more times! In some ways, today’s reading is a dress rehearsal for the challenges Joseph and his new family face ahead. So one question we might ask as we approach the Christmas season: Can we, like Joseph, recognize the angel voices that speak to us, and do we allow ourselves to be saved?
Three weeks ago I invited you to look for at least one opportunity during this season of Advent to experience awe and wonder. The first week we were asked to consider the wonder of God’s creation. (Remember comet ISON?) The past two weeks we have had the opportunity to consider people in the world who by their example of faith and courage and patience inspire in us awe and wonder. (Remember Nelson Mandela?) Today, on this final Sunday in Advent, may we remember that the Christmas story is a human story, not so different from our own. Angels appear to us personally, unexpectedly–hopefully inspiring in us awe and wonder and gratitude. These servants of the Christ-child are sent to save us from our sins, to save us from ourselves, to help us allow our disappointments and grief to give way to hope, to give way to awe and wonder of God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness and God’s love. Thanks be to God!