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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Hope in Confusing Times

Matthew 1:18-25 

Hope in Confusing Times 

Sunday December 4, 2016 

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell 

Pilgrim Church in Harwich Port 

This December our worship theme is Hope.  We started the series with a story about an old man who had been faithful for decades but who had endured many disappointments, and over the years his hope had evaporated in the storms of life he knew. He had given up on God but God had not given up on him. Today we have a different story. But it is also about a man who life is a true inspiration. But he is often overlooked in the story of the coming of the Christ child. He is in every manger scene, but we rarely think about him. While his strength is felt in the manger scene we don’t spend much time considering his decisions, and character. Of course, I speak of Joseph.  

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. He grew up trying to do the right thing and striving to be responsible. In those days marriages were arranged and parents were always involved in these decisions but Joseph felt quite fortunate to have found in Mary someone who made his heart sing. Once the marriage contract was signed the couple was betrothed and it was during the period of engagement that the story unfolds.  

Now it happened that Mary became pregnant. She told Joseph about her pregnancy because she loved him and because this development affected both of them and their reputations. Now we know about the Holy Spirit and Gabriel’s prediction but I imagine in their small village tongues were wagging.  Joseph must have been confused, hurt and disillusioned. But he was a good person and suggested that they divorce quietly. Then he had a dream that changed everything. Let’s take a closer look and see what Joseph has to tell us about hope for our lives today.  

In the first-place love gives you hope. We have all seen so many pageants and heard this story so many times that it is hard to appreciate the way that Joseph must have felt when he heard the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Shock and disappointment are hardly adequate to convey his feelings. Even a devout man would have been skeptical about the explanation that the Holy Spirit came upon her. So, Joseph must have felt a whole host of emotions – anger, betrayal, rejection, loss. Waves of sadness must have mingled with hurt pride. But Joseph was a kind man and not inclined to revenge. He knew that his reputation was on the line but he also recognized that the shame of this pregnancy would fall heaviest on Mary’s shoulders, and he would have other options to start a family, while her fate was now sealed. If she remained in her village she would live as an outcast, but if he divorced her quietly she might move to another place and tell the story her own way, and take a chance on some happiness somewhere.  

But the other thing we see here is that he loved Mary. He was upset and sad when he heard the news of her pregnancy but it was more than hurt pride. It was the deeper sadness of grief, because he realized that they could not make a home together and grow old in each other’s shadow. While Joseph pondered this decision, the angel came to him in a dream and verified her story. This was an extraordinary pregnancy and this child would be a one to fulfill the prediction of the oracle of Isaiah, 700 years earlier – that a crown prince born to a virgin.  

Something about that dream awakened new hope in Joseph was his love for Mary. When you love someone then you can weather great disappointment. You can endure a lot of emotion trauma and trial. You can overlook problems and work through challenges. Love makes your heart resilient. When you live with someone you love you can see that they are doing their best. You can recognize that small aggravations and even large problems are not deal breakers because love give you hope.  

Secondly, sometimes hope does not make any sense. We know how the story ends but Joseph did know much. I imagine that when Joseph awoke from that dream he thought about it and his heart found wings because he had flirted with losing her and discovered the depth of his devotion. But he certainly did not have a map. He did not know what lay ahead. He had to figure out the census and how to get their new family to Bethlehem. He had to figure out the how to avoid Herod and get them out of the country.  

         Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who spent several years in a small attic space hiding from the Nazis during World War II. She wrote about her experiences in a well-known book called Diary of a Young Girl.   People have been inspired by her words for decades now, because this teenager never lost her hope in humanity. Though she suffered a kind of imprisonment there and eventually died in a concentration camp, Anne never lost hope.  

It is really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. 


Alexander Dumas wrote, “He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die…that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life. “Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and hope.’”  Alexander Dumas 

         There is no real evidence about the authentic date of Jesus’ birth. His nativity began to be celebrated on Dec. 25 in Rome just about 300 years after his death. (AD 336) It was a Christian counterpart to a pagan festival that came in the dead of winter.  At the very moment when the days are the shortest and darkness seems to have conquered light, the sun passes its nadir. Days grow longer, and although the cold will only increase for quite a long time, at this moment when the earth is darkest we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. It does not make sense to celebrate Christmas now and yet the world makes merry and people gather to remember a baby born in a manger with the stars the only roof in their nursery.  

Finally, hope is a habit and a discipline. Whatever happened in his dream Joseph woke up with a fierce determination to care for Mary and to lead their family through all kinds of things. It did not make sense at first but once he decided to follow the angel’s advice and give himself to the woman he loved, nothing could stop Joseph. When Mary was pregnant they were summoned to Bethlehem for a census and it was a long journey for someone in her condition, but Joseph kept her hopes up. When they arrived in the city they were so late that all the inns were full but Joseph did not give up. He found lodging for them. When Herod heard about the baby he decreed that all the boy babies should be killed and Joseph again took charge. He did not give up, though it might have been easy to despair. Warned in a dream, Joseph took them to Egypt on long journey over caravan routes.  

Hope is like a muscle. You have to exercise it but when you start to work out your hope muscle it will grow strong in you. With each decision you make to look up and listen to God’s messengers of hope you habit of living with hope will grow stronger. With each decision you make to persevere, you will reap new benefits. When you have your hope tested and found to be strong, you will strengthen your resolve and it will become easier with each challenge you face.  

Now the story in Matthew begins in an odd fashion. He presents us with a genealogy. That is not in itself unusual but most genealogies slide through history hitting the most stellar ancestors. Not Matthew, he slices a broad path through the seamy past. He starts with Abraham and subtly reminds us that the man tried to sacrifice his son. He mentions David and Solomon while alluding to the way David murdered a man to cover his own adultery. He mentions mothers like Rahab who had been prostitutes and foreigners like Ruth. Matthew goes out of his way to disabuse the reader of any notions that Jesus was a purebred. Perhaps it is all to set the scene for Mary’s questionable pregnancy.   

Matthew says that faith has never really been about perfection, or propriety. The story reminds us that perfect families have always been an illusion. They were long ago and they are today. The story in Matthew’s gospel also reminds us that God has always worked through the messiest moments in the lives of families with bad reputations to bring hope to the world. 

God’s hope is always hanging on the horizon for those with the eyes to see and the habit of looking for it. Isaac is not sacrificed. Rahab may have been a prostitute but she saved her people. God chooses the barren and the one found pregnant to bring new hope. God chooses us when we find ourselves in the complicated messes that are the substance of life and offers us a choice. Sink into despair and give up or find a way to live with hope. That is our decision everyday of our lives. When we listen to angel voices and hold onto dreams God can use us like Joseph to be the bearers of God’s new light.  


Pastoral Prayer 

Loving God, you come to us with great signs and wonders. You come to refresh us in the stillness of the eye of a storm. Sometimes you come in the raging heat at the nigh noon of our responsibilities.  

But so often you come quietly, like a whisper, or the sounds of new life.  

This week we celebrate the fact that you have come to us in the birth of Jesus.  

Meet us now as we remember him. 

Inspire us by the story of Mary and Joseph. Help us to work together in our families to support one another when life is not predictable. When we are called to new lands and on unexpected journeys give us courage. Help us to be patient with one another. Nurture us with your Holy Spirit.  

Inspire us with thoughts of those shepherds – We thank you for angels in our midst – voices that inspire us when we sit in the dark hillsides we know. Grant us the ears to hear the angel choirs. When we think we hear those voices, make us unafraid to look up. Help us to listen, and then to get up and go to see the new life that we are being called to see.  

Disturb our dreams of empires and dominion so that like the Wise Men we may search for when is true and good. Help us to keep our eyes upon a star, knowing that we may be led to new territory, out beyond our comfort zone. Help us on our journeys of faith to be true to all that we know to be good. Make us less afraid when we face the Herods we know, and help to trust that God will guide and protect us in our journeys of faith.  

As we have come to know the people in this story make us bold to seek your creating, redeeming presence in one another. Send us forth with new visions and dreams for our future, and a new road to follow toward your realm.  

We say all of this in the name of the one who was born in a stable but who grew to be the light of the world – Jesus Christ our Lord.  






Posted: Sunday December 4, 2016