Since our services were cancelled yesterday due to the weather, I've posted what would have been yesterday's sermon here instead. During this holiday season, may we all know and find strength in God's love.
Well, my friends, I can hardly believe that it’s the end of December already. Honestly, I have no idea where our fall went…and yet here we are, in that already-but-not-yet moment that is the fourth week of Advent.
We’re already at the week of Christmas, but we’re not quite ready to light that fifth, that white, candle. Not yet, anyway. Our presents are already wrapped, our holiday travels already planned, and in two days we’ll be back together again to proclaim and praise the coming of our Lord God to this very earth…but not yet. Because stickler that I am for our liturgical calendar, it’s not yet Christmas. No matter what ABC Family might say, the 12 days of Christmas start on December 25th.
But no matter. I didn’t come up here to rant to a captive audience today, in our already-but-not-yet, Christmas and Advent state.
Instead, we turn to another member of the nativity scene, another person who was surrounded by chaos, turmoil, confusion at the time of the events we celebrate this week. Last week, we looked at Mary, the mother of God and a powerful prophetess. This week, we turn to the calm, trusting, faithful man by her side, Joseph.
We hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story today in our Gospel reading. It’s brief – if you blink you might miss it – but it happened. More of the focus seems to be on the turmoil in his family. Which makes sense, I suppose, when you think about the upset and distress that must have consumed both Joseph and Mary right after they learned that Mary was pregnant.
Let’s start with a brief explanation of first-century Jewish marriage, which will certainly help set the scene. Different translations use different words to explain Mary and Joseph’s relationship at this point. The New Revised Standard Version says they were “engaged.” the New International Version says they were “pledged” to be married, while the King James says Joseph was “espoused” to Mary. No matter what word was used, it’s important to note that their bond, at this point, was contractual and legal. It wasn’t merely social, like engagements are today. It wasn’t a time solely spent planning the reception. Money – though more likely, animals, and goods – were exchanged, the legal contract had been signed, marriage had been pledged. It’s the part of our marriage service where we ask the couple if they will take each other in marriage, before we later ask them if they do. That part, the actual wedding, happened at least a year – sometimes many years – later, when the bride and groom were surrounded by family and friends and music and food to celebrate the occasion of actually joining their households.
So here are Mary and Joseph, in this already-but-not-yet stage of marriage, where they were legally bound to each other but not yet pronounced man and wife. Which is why it seems tumultuous, problematic, when Mary discovers that she was pregnant. As far as Joseph was concerned, that only meant one thing: that Mary had been unfaithful.
Now Joseph, as we know, Joseph was a righteous man: he lived according to the Law. And so, wanting out of what he believes is an unfaithful union, a disgrace to his name, he has two options: public stoning, resulting in Mary’s death, or divorce. He chooses the latter course, planning to divorce her in secret, not wishing, as Matthew describes, to expose her to public disgrace and likely the former punishment anyway.
Regardless, Joseph was stuck. In the options he saw, there was no good coming from this story. He was a peasant carpenter, an older man whose already-but-not-yet wife was of child-bearing age, old enough to get married, and bearing someone else’s child. Imagine the distress that fell upon Joseph – and perhaps Mary, if she had any inclination of what might have happened!
As much as we often focus on the beauty, wonder, and peace that surrounds the birth of Jesus, it’s important not to forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and various other emotions that Joseph must have experienced in the chaos of this episode. He was entering into a divinely complex relationship with Mary, one that was bound to affect his reputation and the rest of his life – more than he thought his marriage already would.
When we see Joseph as a human, which he was, swimming in emotions we’ve all experienced from time to time – which he did – we can finally get him off of that stained glass window and back into our lives as a person. And that’s important. It’s why I preached about Mary last week and about Joseph this week. It’s not just because they’re important, but the fact that they’re human – with hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, struggles, and faith – makes them like us. Which makes us people like them – people with their own issues and life experiences, people who God uses nonetheless to accomplish God’s work on this earth.
Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ birth is actually shorter than his depiction of Joseph’s struggle over his relationship! It’s actually the frame – two verses book-ending the larger story about the turmoil this birth created.
Our Christmas story, as we often hear it, comes to us from Luke – the angels, the shepherds, the mangers and all the rest. But as much as we all know and love Luke’s portrayal of the story, they’re something incredible about Matthew’s depiction as we read it this morning. Because truth be told, most people did miss Jesus’ birth. There was no news team following Mary, no camera crew around Joseph. No baby showers beforehand or christening invitations afterward. From all we can tell in Matthew’s story, just about no one noticed.
Which, of course, is why Matthew wrote a gospel, an account of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, that little nobody-baby who was actually God. By writing his story, Matthew bears witness to an event that most of the world ignored. It was a birth, just like millions of others, and an apparently unremarkable one at that.
Which, of course, is why it’s so important. Alongside his earthly parents, Jesus also was one of us. Jesus was born like we are, lived as we live, loved and laughed and suffered just like each one of us does. And Jesus died, just as we will die. And then on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, so that we may no longer live in fear of death.
And now, I’m getting ahead of the story. But the entire point of Jesus’ story--especially as Matthew tells it – is that God came and dwelt among us as Emmanuel. Not even that God came and hovered near us, but that God was human, was nearly invisible, began his life in a worried family who probably stared at their newborn baby and then looked at each other saying “well, now what?” By telling us about Joseph’s concerns and the baby-daddy drama Matthew tells us how the holy family is just like every other family. The only exceptional thing about this couple is that we know the ways in which God worked through them to draw nearer to us in love, grace, and salvation. We have been told, time and time again, about the perfect love that swelled up in Joseph amidst the chaos of the law and concern of the crowd before Jesus’ birth. And that, through this perfect love, this god-like heart, the fear he had was cast aside. For as Paul reminds us in 1st John:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to sacrifice and deal with our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another…
By this we know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world…
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”
This is the extraordinary story and promise that we anticipate this week, my dear brothers and sisters. This is the time of year not just of singing and sighing and shoveling and so on, but of Love. It is the time of year when we remember that God comes through ordinary, mixed-up people in order to save ordinary, mixed-up people. God is born like a billion others were born to promise us that we, too, are children of God. And that our story, too, can be retold as the one in which God’s love so filled out hearts that all fear was cast aside. It’s an odd story, a strange story, but one that deserves to be told. So when you gather with family and friends around the table or the tree, don’t just marvel, but celebrate. Celebrate that through this birth, we too know that we are workers in God’s divine story.
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