Any News? Reflections on Matthew 1:18-25, Advent 4
December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Our first grandchild was born at eleven pm the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. He was two weeks past his due date. In those two weeks, I couldn't walk down the hall at the school where I teach without people asking me "Any news?" To which I would reply, "No, nothing yet."
Our daughter Rebecca, after twenty-four hours of labor, underwent an emergency C-section under general anesthesia. It all happened so fast at the end that her husband, Dallas, was not allowed into the operating room but had to wait in the hall. After five long minutes he heard a baby cry and, in ten more minutes, they brought his 7 pound 11 ounce son Graham to him swaddled in a blanket and pointed him to a room down the hall and told him to wait there. He sat there holding his son for forty-five minutes waiting for news of his wife. Whenever someone would walk by he'd ask, "Any news?" to which they would respond, "We'll let you know." "Any news?" he'd ask the next person, and would get the same answer. Finally a nurse came to him and told him, "Your wife is going to be fine. We're taking her to recovery now. Follow me."
"How did you pass the time?" I asked Dallas later. "I held my son and told him about what a great mom he was going to have and we prayed," he said.
In this text from the first chapter of Matthew, Joseph's in for a tough waiting time as well, only the circumstances are quite a bit different. He's received some disturbing news that makes him wonder whether the prospective mother of his children is such a great person after all. He's deciding to break things off with her privately tomorrow. Caught between what he knows of her and this strange news, he tosses and turns in anguish, waiting for sleep. When it comes, he is visited by an angel standing beside him. Although he doesn't ask "Any news?" it is the angel's job to announce it anyway: "Don't hesitate to take Mary as your wife! For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Listen, the virgin shall conceive a child! She shall give birth to a Son and he shall be called 'Emmanuel' meaning "God is with us" (Mt. 1:20ff).
Those are the good tidings the angel brings to Joseph that move him from dilemma to decision. He wakes up and does as the angel commanded him to do and brings Mary into his home.
A whole genre of jokes begins with the statement: "There's good news, and there's bad news." There is good news in the world and people's personal lives this Advent 2013. There are peace agreements, and shrinking unemployment levels and promotions and weddings and improved health and healthy births. There is bad news in the world and people's personal lives this Advent 2013. There is violence and brutality; there is greed and corruption; there is loneliness and isolation. There is the news of a malignant tumor, a layoff or firing, a stillborn child. Any news?
Our experience in life is unpredictable from day to day. We wake up in the morning and we are not entirely sure what combination of good news and bad news the day will bring. Looking ahead to the long view of our lives, we hope that we will experience good news, but we can be pretty sure that we can expect bad news as well. I came down with a horrendous toothache a few weeks ago and ended up at an endodontic specialist. Who knew there were a whole sub group of dentists who specialized in root canals? My dentist was quite cheerful. "You know what they say...the only certainties in life are death and root canals."
We need the Good News of God's presence with us in Jesus Christ to face the bad that life inevitably holds. We need the Good News to face into the bad news.
As my son-in-law Dallas waited, first in the hall for news of his son, then in a waiting room for news of his wife, he had no assurance that the news would be good. He seems, however, to have taken comfort in the Good News, as he held his newborn son and prayed.
When my mother was in the hospital years ago delivering my younger brother Robert, she was in a room that had a curtain down the middle partitioning her half of the room from her roommate's half.
Her baby, my brother, had arrived hale and hearty, but her roommate had delivered a stillborn child a few hours earlier. My mother woke up the next morning and could see her roommate standing at the window, her face in profile looking out. She was whispering over and over again words from Psalm 118:24, "This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it. This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it."
"How can you say that today of all days?" my mother couldn't help but ask.
"Why should today be unlike any other day?" the woman replied.
She was, apparently, hugging the Good news to her heart, that God is with us, we are not alone.
Any news? There certainly is. And his name is Emmanuel. Let us embrace this child, this God with us. Let us embrace this Good news whatever bad news we may face today or in the days ahead.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.