Due to a major technological glitch, all of my sermons from the month of December were deleted. Bummer; some of them were pretty good. But my favorite was the one from Advent 4 about Joseph, which was also tied to my Christmas Eve sermon. Since I promised a friend I would not lose my sermon notes, and then promptly did, here is my best recreation of my thoughts this Advent and Christmas.
(Sermon notes from December 19 and 24, 2010 – Matthew 1:18-25)
God is trying to tell us something scandalous in the Christmas story, but we don’t want to listen.
We carry on about how there’s a “war” against Christmas, but the truth is that we, the observers of Christmas, have sanitized it more than anyone else. We have stripped it of a huge portion of its meaning. We love to hear about the angels in their majesty and miracle. We love to talk about the wise men, or kings as we call them, and their expensive gifts and their expansive travels. We love to carry on about Mary, and gloss over her youth, her poverty, her status as a woman who might have been cast aside by her community, and focus instead on the miracle in her, God’s work in her, virginal, without sin herself.
We spend far less time on the shepherds– smelly, common types. And Joseph. Poor Joseph. We hardly ever mention him.
Joseph seems like a good enough guy, and by the time he comes into our story– only briefly, mentioned only once more in the Gospels after his son’s birth– he has very limited options. In Joseph’s time, a couple would be engaged for a period, and there was a formal ceremony for that, but the couple would not live together or be intimate until after the marriage was finalized and they had prepared a home to move into. But during this time, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Clearly, he doesn’t totally buy her cover story; “the Holy Spirit,” yeah, right. But he loves this woman. And she tells him that she is pregnant, and so he has a couple of options. He can claim the child is his. This will mean that anyone who can do some simple math will figure out that Joseph is not a virtuous man, that he has violated the covenant of the engagement, and taken advantage of his fiancee’s trust prior to their marriage. He can denounce Mary, declare that she has been unfaithful to him and call off the marriage. If his does this, she will be shunned by her community, possibly disowned by her family to avoid deeper disgrace, and could be put to death. He loves her and doesn’t want to see this happen, but neither does he want to smear his own good name for something he has not done. So he chooses a third way, and decides to “divorce her quietly,” so she can go off into the country somewhere and have her baby quietly, and he can get on with his life.
But, the Gospel tells us, just as he’s decided to do this, and angel appears to him in a dream and tells him, “Do not be afraid…” Gotta love it when angels say that; it lets you know something really frightening is coming. But Joseph listens.
“Be not afraid,” the angel says. Take Mary as your wife.
Don’t be afraid of what people will say. Don’t fear for your reputation.
Don’t be afraid that she has been unfaithful to you; trust in what she is telling you.
Don’t be afraid– most importantly, most amazingly– don’t be afraid of what all this might mean, that the son you will raise is God’s own son, that you will be responsible for his childhood, his understanding of “father,” of “daddy,” the name he will use to address his Father in heaven, too.
And Joseph, inexplicably, miraculously, Joseph says yes. Like Mary– aren’t they perfect for each other!– he says yes to God.
He takes the angel’s word. He casts aside his fear. He marries his fiancee. When her child is born, he names him. I was reminded that in the Judean culture of the time, for a man to name a child is to claim him as his own. In claiming him as his own, he adopts him into the lineage of the Davidic line. You see, the people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah who would be a king in the tradition and line of David, and Jesus gets that through Joseph. Mary’s yes to God allows Jesus to be Lord; Joseph’s yes allows him to be King. Mary allows him to be God; Joseph allows him to be human.
And here’s the thing: Joseph isn’t special. He’s just an ordinary guy, your average Joe. He’s an ordinary guy who does an extraordinary thing. He is no different than you or I.
Which brings us to the scandal inside of Christmas.
The scandal is that the Christmas story isn’t only, I would argue, isn’t even primarily, the story of God performing a great miracle. It isn’t only, or primarily, the story of how God can bend the laws of nature, break into the world despite the world, reveal God’s self in the miraculous, the supernatural. The Christmas story is the story of God working in the ordinary, the plain, the simple: Asking a simple man to give up fear and reputation and distrust so he can say yes to God’s presence. Growing and taking shape in a poverty-stricken teenager, and then being born through nothing more, and certainly nothing less splendid than the miracle of human birth. Announcing this birth, this entry into the world, to the smelly, uncouth shepherds on the ordinary hilltop, trying their best to stay awake in the dark and mind-numbing boredom of their night shift.
The scandal is that God appears to us, as to the shepherds, in the ordinary moments of our lives, to the ordinary people in the world. The scandal is that God breaks in not despite us ordinary, average people, but through us. God calls to us and tells us not to be afraid. God asks us to say yes, yes to letting Christ be born in us and into the life of the world.
But to do this, we have to cast our fear aside. we have to be willing, as ordinary people, to do extraordinary things. Like good old average Joseph, we have to be not afraid– not afraid of what people think and say and do, not afraid of being a fool or at least a fool for love, not afraid of taking on the crushing responsibility of nurturing the Christ-child, letting God grow in our lives, our families, our world.
Where do you need to say yes to God this Christmas? Where do you need to seek God on the ordinary hilltops of your everyday life? What angels must you heed? What fear must you cast out so Christ may be born in you today?
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
(O Little Child of Bethlehem, stanza 4)