Advent 4 Sermon

Sermon Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

When I served in Somerset I had a colleague who always celebrated a Blue Christmas Service—a special Christmas worship designed for those who struggle with this holiday either because of grief or illness.  A Blue Christmas, because not everyone is merry this time of year.  I always wondered if they used Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth at that service, because it is pretty short and lackluster, and my hunch is that Matthew’s telling of the story contains an abundance of heartache.  Do you sense the heartache in Matthew’s telling of the nativity? 

I think it is easier for us to focus on the extraordinary elements of the familiar story instead of the heartache. Matthew tells us about the angel in a dream, the fulfillment of prophecy, and the virgin birth.  I think we focus exclusively on these elements of the story because they are not part of our everyday experience.  But when we hone in on those elements we miss the other parts, the pieces that will really connect with us.

But I believe the chief reason we gloss over the heartache at the core of this story is because we have unintentionally domesticated it.  We read the story by candlelight, we sing our beloved hymns that cast a rosy hue, we carefully lay out our beautiful nativity sets, and all of the other traditions that make this time of year special…and lost in all of that is the fact that Mary and Joseph were real people.

In our imaginations Jesus never cried, he never needed a diaper change, he never spit up over the back of someone’s shoulder.  Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who endured a 90 mile donkey ride in her third trimester and had just given birth.  And Joseph is the stoic, calm, quiet, paternal, and reverent figure watching over the whole scene.  But was that the way it really was?  What details of the story are we overlooking with our stained glass windows and our Christmas cards and our beloved carols?

Let’s start with engagement between Mary and Joseph.  In the first century their relationship was not a romantic declaration of intent with a diamond ring.  There weren’t engagement pictures and bridal showers and save-the-date announcements.  Instead it was a legal contact, binding in every way.  To be engaged, or betrothed, or pledged, or whatever other word you want to use, essentially meant you were married, but the marriage was not consummated and the couple was not living together.

Therefore, Mary’s pregnancy is a bit of a problem, and when Joseph learns about it he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him.  Think about Joseph, he is likely experiencing pain, anguish, and a sense of betrayal—reactions that are natural…something that we would probably all experience if we were in the same situation.

In first century Palestine there were only two realistic possibilities when faced with the problem of infidelity.  He could either publically declare his plight and tell the community what had happened, which would likely result in Mary being stoned to death.  Or, he would divorce her, our translation turns that into “dismiss her quietly” and that is what Joseph decides to do.

If Joseph is suffering, it’s hard to imagine that Mary isn’t suffering as well.  In Matthew’s account of the nativity we do not hear a lot from, but she likely knew the unexpected pain her pregnancy caused her fiancée, and, if she knew of his intentions, then she probably was very concerned for herself and for her unborn child. 

I know that much of this is conjecture and you could certainly convict me of reading into the text…but keep in mind that it takes a visit from an angel to calm Joseph down and let him in on God’s intentions.  Also, consider the fact that angels only get involved in the biblical story when there is some heavy lifting to do.  I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Jesus’ birth were not filled with blissful baby showers and diaper cakes and painting the nursery blue, but these months were fraught with anxiety and concern and tumultuous emotions that we have all experienced at various times.

And that’s the point.  We all have experienced similar upheavals in our lives.  We all can relate to Mary and Joseph as they struggle to hold it all together.  Families struggle with discord, couples feel disconnected, kids wonder about what the future has in store, elders wonder the same thing, just from a different point of view.  We seek jobs.  We seek relationships. We seek anything that will give us a sense of acceptance or worth.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t mean to be a downer.  I’m not trying to paint an overly grim picture of the Christmas story.  I’m just being realistic about the challenges the Holy Family faced and the challenges we all face.  I know that we have a lot of love, hope, courage, and excitement.  But I also know that we harbor heartache and loss, and that has to be acknowledged.  Because at this time of the year we can feel embarrassed by our struggles, and perhaps we even wonder if our anguish during this time of year is unfaithful.

But then I look at Mary and Joseph and I’m reminded that God works through real people with real challenges.  God didn’t choose a Disney fairy tale princess or the homecoming queen to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl.  God didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a craftsman with his own doubts and questions.  A man who wanted to do the right thing, but in the end needed some angelic guidance to accomplish it.

For me, this helps to flesh out the mean of the name “Emmanuel.”  Matthew draws the name from Isaiah.  It means “God with us.”  Sometimes I want to say, “God is really with us.”  That is, God comes to be with us as we are.  Not as we know we should be, not as we are trying to be, not as we have promised we will be, or will be some day, but God is with us as we are now…in this very moment.

That’s the promise at the heart of this passage.  God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Jesus.  So now God come to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us by God’s presence. 

Yes, God is really with us.  Yes, God comes to us exactly as we are, with all of our faults.  God doesn’t shy away from our humanness.  This is our Emmanuel.  AMEN

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