Sermon 12/19/10, Matthew 1:18-25
Redefining Christmas: Recreate
Sometimes when we get what we want, we don’t know what to do with it after all. Sometimes Advent can seem like a long time, when you’re at the beginning of it, reading those strange world-catastrophe texts a few days after Thanksgiving. But then, what seems like just a few hours later really, we’re at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in our text today from Matthew Jesus is born, and maybe we wonder a little: now what do we do with this? I know for me, at least, I found it a little easier to preach about those other strange texts, less familiar texts, than I find it to preach about a text so much more familiar and seemingly simple.
Let's look at our passage. The text we read from Matthew is notable because here, it is really Joseph's story, not Jesus' or Mary's. Poor Mary, the mother of the Christ Child, hardly gets a mention from Matthew. This passage is about how Joseph handled everything that was happening to him. Joseph and Mary are engaged. But before their marriage, before they are living together, someone it is discovered that Mary is pregnant. We don't know how this information was known - we just knew that Joseph knew she was pregnant and knew that he was not the father of the child. Having a child outside of a marriage in those days wasn't just frowned upon. It was a criminal act, and it was punishable, punishable by death to one or both persons involved. Joseph, having made a covenant to wed Mary, could have brought charges of adultery against her, for which she would have faced death by stoning. But Joseph, a 'righteous man', chooses instead to quietly break off the covenant to be wed before it is too late. But, we read, "just as he had resolved to do this," a messenger from God appears to Joseph and tells him that the child Mary bears is from the Holy Spirit. The messenger tells him not to be afraid, but to wed Mary as planned. This child, the messenger says, is one who will save the people from their sins. Joseph did as the messenger commanded. We don't hear of any arguments he put forward, or hard time he gave Mary, or questions he wanted answered. He wed Mary as promised, and she bore a child, and they named him Jesus.
It is hard for us today to realize the precariousness of Jesus’ birth and the whole Christmas story. We think of the birth of Jesus as such a sweet thing – at least that’s my gut instinct. So sweet – a baby being born! The baby Jesus, asleep on the hay. But everything about childbirth in those days was risky. In the best of situations, giving birth was a risky thing. And in Mary and Joseph’s situation: there are some life and death circumstances at play. Today perhaps we don't find this story as shocking - a man finds his fiancée pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. So he wants to remedy the situation by quietly divorcing her, something that was necessary even to break an engagement. In today's world, such a thing might still be disliked or looked down on by some, but it certainly is not something punishable by death. But in Joseph's day, it was of critical importance. Children and lineage and family lines and sons being born - this was important, critical stuff, issues that meant survival and success. Joseph had the facts in front of him - Mary was pregnant and he was not the father. He dreamed of God's messenger telling him it would be alright. But if I took everything I dreamed at face value, I'd be in big trouble!
But Joseph seems satisfied that he has heard God speaking to him, and he knows what he must do. He must risk it. No doubt he loved Mary already - he must risk trusting her and trusting God even though he felt betrayed and confused. He must risk believing what the visions of his dreams told him - that this baby would be the Messiah. He must risk the ridicule he would face when others would inevitably get wind of what was happening. So much that he must do. And for what? Our gospels rarely speak of Joseph after this. He is not the parent that Jesus relates to, the father he depends on - Jesus calls God his Abba – it is God that Jesus speaks of as his parent. Mary plays a bigger role in Jesus' ministry and life, at least. But Joseph disappears from the scene. Such a big risk, and no seeming rewards, no benefits for himself, no glory, fame only in Church Christmas pageants. Why would he do it? For love of Mary? No - he loved Mary, but he would have divorced her if he could. No, I can only deduce that it is Joseph’s faithfulness that helps him act so selflessly. Because of his love for God, and God's love for him, Joseph is willing to put himself in last place, disregard any action that would be in his own best interest. Jesus is not even yet born, the child he will raise, but already Joseph is embodying what Jesus will teach – putting himself last, letting himself be humbled, being servant of all. God's love seems to make us do the craziest things sometimes. Only with God's love and Joseph’s in response, woven through this story, does Joseph's behavior make any sense.
Joseph, following God, is able to do what I think is one of the hardest things of all – and that’s to get out of the way, let the story be, really, about everyone but him. Many of us would say we don’t like being the center of attention. I’m a pretty introverted person, even though I have a very public vocation, and I can tell you I generally try not to draw attention to myself. But, if we are all honest with ourselves, when it comes to making decisions, we’re usually going to protect ourselves, make choices that are ok with us, take actions that are for our own benefit. It’s very hard for us to move ourselves to the sidelines, to make choices that are risky, will cause us pain or harm. To act selflessly – unfortunately, we sometimes limit that impulse for only those whom we love most dearly – our family, maybe our best friends. Joseph acts selflessly for the sake of an unborn child that is not his. But more simply, he acts selflessly because God asks him to.
Christmas, despite our best intentions, often turns into a selfish rather than a selfless time. We don’t mean to be, but somehow we get so worried about making sure things go just right, making sure we can get just the right gift, making sure things are perfect, or at least the best they can be. And sometimes in the quest for the special Christmas, we forget to get out of the way, move to the side, so that the focus can be where it belongs – a child named Jesus is born. Christmas is just a few days away. But there’s plenty of time, always time, to act a little more like Joseph.
“Joseph . . . did as the angel of the Lord commanded him . . .and he named [the child] Jesus.” Amen.