This is the sermon I shared with God's people at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. It is based on Matthew 1:18-25.
Is it Christmas yet? If you are around small children this time of year, you know what a burning question this is for them. We have two more days to go until Christmas Eve, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Perhaps today’s gospel seems a bit misplaced. It is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, not Christmas Eve. Yet we’re talking about the birth of Jesus---or are we?
Only the first and last verses of today’s gospel reading are about the actual birth of Jesus. There is a larger story being played out driven by Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. These birth verses act as bookends to that drama.
Divine works and signs permeate Matthew’s account of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. But for God’s Son to become incarnate with us, a lot depended upon people cooperating with God. Human beings are not automatons without wills where everything happens to them and around them. On the other hand, God does not make grand decrees and then just leave us to our own devices. The interaction between God and humanity is more like a dance of partners flowing together gracefully. Throughout the gospel, we see this collaboration of human and divine.
On the human side of things, Jesus’ birth in many ways was quite common and unremarkable. But that is really the point of God sending His Son as one of us. Jesus was born, lived, loved, laughed and suffered as we do.
And yet, there is a hint of something special about this baby in the opening words of the today’s gospel where he is called, “Jesus the Messiah” (v. 18). Messiah means “anointed” as does “Christ.” In the Old Testament, kings, priests and prophets were anointed. It was a sign of being set apart for God’s service. By referring to Jesus as “the Messiah,” Matthew is simply indicating that God will use him for a special purpose, not necessarily related to divinity.
God’s role is more prominent when it comes to the issue of “how” Mary became pregnant. It was the work of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine? One day Mary was an inexperienced young virgin woman and the next day she was pregnant. We know of Mary’s response to the news from Luke’s gospel.
However, Matthew gives us the details of Joseph’s reaction in this drama. When Joseph finds out about Mary’s pregnancy, things get dicey. Joseph was not a happy camper. What was his problem? Women who are unmarried get pregnant all the time in our society. But not so in that day.
Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, so who was? Although not yet fully married, Joseph and others would suspect Mary of adultery. Joseph and Mary were still in the first stages of the betrothal process, which was so binding that a certificate of divorce was needed to terminate the relationship. If one of the partners died, the other was referred to as a widow or widower.
At this time, the bond between Mary and Joseph was contractual, not merely social. Unlike our engagement and marriage process, the espousal/betrothal/engagement constituted the legal contract and pledge of marriage. The actually wedding was strictly the time to feast with friends and family and celebrate the joining of the couple’s two households.
What would Joseph do? He was obviously in distress, felt betrayed, disappointed and his mind and heart were swirling with conflicting emotions. Joseph had every right to divorce Mary. That would free her to marry the baby’s father. According to the culture of that day, Joseph really had no choice but to divorce Mary. Her shame would reflect upon him. He was a righteous, God fearing Jew. This was a life and death problem in Joseph and Mary’s honor/shame society.
Joseph cared enough about Mary that he didn’t want to expose her to harsh treatment and “public disgrace.” Joseph was not only righteous, but merciful as well. Joseph decided he would divorce Mary, but as always, God had other plans.
So, God has a talk with Joseph about this, to give him the opportunity to do the right thing, the way God, not society wants it done. God has one of His angels speak with Joseph through a dream. The angel lets Joseph in on the plan. He explains Mary’s condition, calms Joseph’s fear and directs him to marry her. Joseph is also given the name of the baby, Jesus, meaning salvation from the Lord. Now Joseph understands! The angel goes so far as to connect what God is doing with Mary and Joseph to the words and situation of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Matthew sees Jesus’ coming as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus’ birth is the sign of God’s presence. A lot is resting on Joseph’s response to the dream since people are not automatons.
Everything now relies on what Joseph will do. Would the child be born to a single mother or to a couple? Would the child have a lineage or would he wonder where he came from? Would Joseph name him Jesus, his people’s savior or would the baby be given a family name? All was being entrusted to the obedience of one human being, Joseph. Would he take Mary as his wife and claim the child as his own?
Joseph’s angelic encounter made him a new man. He no longer wondered or questioned what he should do. Joseph simply obeyed God and did what God’s messenger had told him. He was no longer afraid of the repercussions of taking Mary as his wife. And Joseph did name the baby Jesus.
Matthew mentions another name for Jesus, which others will call him, Emmanuel, which we translate as “God with us.” Saving people from their sins results in the experience of God’s presence. However, the words, “God with us,” do not truly capture the sense of the Hebrew word from which Emmanuel is derived. The essence of the meaning is more “"God is in common with us people" or "God is one of us" (Brian Stoffregen).
We know Mary’s response to the news of the Savior to be born through her. We know Joseph’s initial reaction followed later by his response to divine intervention. What is our response to the news of being saved from our sins and the announcement of God’s presence with us no matter what we’re going through in our lives?
Some people look at faith in Christ as it were an “inoculation” to prevent them from being infected with a radical all out love relationship with God. Heaven forbid, we might be accused of being fanatics. For some, Christmas is like a “booster shot” that ensures we will not catch the “real thing.” Although at this time of the year we celebrate “God with us,” a “savior” that has been born for us, more people experience bondage, stress and depression now than at any other time.
We can celebrate the birth of Jesus by making our lives more chaotic and busy with parties, shopping and spending too much money. If that’s what Christmas time does for us, then that indicates that we need more of the real thing of a dynamic relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Mary and Joseph are not characters from a fairy tale or stained glass window. They were flesh and blood people with ups and downs in their lives, just as we experience in our own lives. The more we imagine Mary and Joseph to be like us, the more we can imagine ourselves to be like them—people who go through all kinds of things in life—good, bad or indifferent—and yet ordinary people God uses to accomplish his purposes.
What does God want to accomplish in our world right now?
People are lonely. Jesus is God with us and with them. Will we pay special attention to those experiencing their first Christmas without a loved one?
People are hungry. Jesus is the true bread from heaven. Will we give to and spend time working at the food pantry?
People are homeless. God wants to provide a home for them. Will we spend time volunteering at Genesis House or one of the warming centers on nights in the single digits?
Will we do God’s work with our hands?
God invites us to work with him to be bearers of God’s great good news of life in Christ. Will we be God’s partners in this grand dance of salvation for all people? Amen.