Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.â€‹
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) on Matthew 1:18-25. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
I’m sure you know we’re only two days away from Christmas Eve. And if you’re like me, just saying those words out loud makes you feel pretty anxious. There’s still a lot that I need to do - and even though I know Christmas Eve comes whether we’re ready or not - I hope it at least waits until after the bulletins are printed, the presents are wrapped, and the cookies and milk for Santa are placed where they’re supposed to be.
Now, one of those things I’d like to do in the next two days is to make sure that our red and blue activity bags that kids can use during worship are ready for Christmas Eve. I want to make sure that all the books, toys, crayons, colored pencils, word searches, and coloring pages inside those bags are up-to-date and clean.. And since I’m a bit of a church geek, I’d also like to make what in those bags match our church season. But that’s not always easy. If you do a quick google image search for Christmas coloring pages, there are plenty available with an older looking Joseph, a Mary who doesn’t look like she just gave birth, and a newborn Jesus who can already hold his head up without help or support. They’re pages that show the characters but they don’t tell the whole story. However, last year, I found a different kind of coloring page. Mary was resting on a bed of straw and she looked completely exhausted. Joseph sat a few feet away from her, giving Mary the space she needed. But Joseph wasn’t asleep, tending to the donkey, or chatting with some random shepherds. Instead, he was busy holding Jesus - gently rocking him while Mary slept. In our Lutheran tradition, we don’t always see Joseph in this way. He’s usually depicted like he is in our creche - faithful, righteous, and kneeling besides Jesus. But then we sort of forget his place in the rest of Jesus’ story because the Bible doesn’t mention him very much. Once Jesus grew up and was preaching around the Sea of Galilee, his mom was the only one the gospels mention by name. Yet our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew invites us, I think, to spend a little more time with Joseph - especially when he was living through his version of Christmas Eve.
Our passage begins with Joseph facing a dilemma: the woman he’s engaged to was pregnant. Unlike the gospel according to Luke, the gospel of Matthew doesn’t have any backstory to this moment at all. Mary enters the story pregnant - and Matthew zeroed in on Joseph’s reaction. We find out, pretty quickly, what his decision eventually was. But we hear very little about the mental, emotional, and spiritual process that led to his making that choice. There’s a gap at the start of Joseph’s story that we can either zoom past or we choose to stay there. And on this fourth Sunday of Advent, I think we’re invited to be in that gap between verses 18 and 19. That gap lets us use our imagination - to see what we would have done if our fiance showed up pregnant. What questions would you have asked? What thoughts would have raced through your mind? And if we take seriously our family history, our cultural background, and what it’s like to be here in Northern New Jersey in the 21st century - what would you do if you were Joseph and Mary came to you?
The process of asking those questions - of being honest with ourselves about what our life is actually like - is the same process we can use to imagine Joseph in his story. And as we reflect on what we would do in that situation - we have to admit that knowing the right thing is something that’s not always easy to figure out. Joseph’s background as a first century Jew living near the Sea of Galilee and influenced by the Greco-Roman economic, cultural, and political systems that informed how people lived their lives - that mix of culture, tradition, and way of life - had something to say about his situation. Because Joseph lived in a place where traditions and legal systems around engagement, marriage, the role of women, inheritance, and property defined what being married and being engaged. And Joseph, raised in that cultural system, probably assumed that there were certain things that worked a certain way because that’s just how things were done. Joseph’s upbringing within his context would have shaped and informed the process his thoughts and feelings would take once Mary showed him what was new. Plus, if his family and friends knew about the situation, they probably had no problem telling Joseph exactly what he should do - giving him their free advice whenever he saw them. It’s also possible that Joseph visited his local synagogue, participated in various religious rituals, an even prayed - hoping that God would tell him what to do. We have no idea if Joseph really did any of those things. But we can imagine that this man, who God wanted a parent for Jesus, did what we would have done: taking what makes us who we are - our personality, our story, our experiences, our background, and our influences - to form his choice. And even with all of that, with everything that made him who he was, when God showed up to him in Mary - Joseph said no. He couldn’t, as faithful and good and righteous as he was, see that Christmas was coming. So God, once again, broke into this world - sending an angel during Joseph’s waiting for Christmas - letting him know that, ready or not, Christmas would come.
It’s hard to imagine that the devoted, righteous, and faithful person we imagine and portray in our creche and in our children coloring would also be the same kind of person who, when faced with Jesus, would first say “no.” Yet his no did not stop Christmas. God chose to do what God always does - to continue to bring God’s kingdom near - but this time God’s kingdom showed up in a new way because God lived and experienced human life up close and personal. And when God showed up, even Joseph couldn’t imagine that this was how God would expand what love, mercy, and forgiveness might be like. So today, when we’re sooo close to Christmas that our anxiety and excitement has blended into one almost unbearable mess, we’re reminded that God still comes. It isn’t our goodness, faithfulness, or righteousness that defines what God will do. Rather God, through the Holy Spirit, moves into our world and into our lives, opening us to what’s possible with Jesus Christ. And those possibilities are not limited by our imagination, culture, context, or by anything ever describe as “just the way things are.” Rather, the only limit to what God is up to is God’s limitless love for all.
Now we might know that we’re nowhere near as righteous as Joseph. Yet we are wrapped up in our own waiting for Christ - and we, like him, need the Holy Spirit to intervene. As we worship, pray, and share in holy communion - we are reminded that we are here because the Holy Spirit continues, in a myriad of ways, to come to us - working God’s grace on our hearts, souls, and minds. We, through the Spirit, are being transformed. And even though we might not feel more righteous today than we did yesterday, God’s Spirit is helping us to become a more active participant in what God is doing in the world. Because even Joseph, when he was face-to-face with what God was doing in the world, chose to send God away. But as the story kept going, he eventually found himself letting Mary sleep while he held God’s new and holy presence in his arms. As we wait for Christmas Eve to come, know that it doesn’t depend on us. Jesus does, and will, come. And as he does, love will grow.
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