How many of you folks send out an annual Christmas card? How many cards do you get with portraits of a family on front of it? I’m not hating, my family does one every year. These pictures convey a kind of perfectness. Our families at their best, looking their best. Or what about a Christmas party? This is actually the first year we haven’t had a Christmas party in a long time. In a way I’m kind of thankful, because I’m really picky about how my house looks when people come over. When we have a Christmas party everything has to be perfect, the house clean, all the decorations in their proper place, the yard landscaped and the outside lights working perfectly. That’s all in sharp contrast, though, to what my house really looks like the rest of year. You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. My house doesn’t look as great as it does on the day of the Christmas party because, not only am I kind of a messy person, I’m also the parent of two young boys.
If you haven’t had kids yet, it’s easy to have an overly-idealized picture of what parenthood will look like. Take the image below, straight out of a children’s furniture catalog (for even more check out this hilarious blog post called “Warped Childhood, Restoration Hardware-Style.”)
Yeah right. In fact, parenting is probably more like this (pay close attention, there will be quiz at the end):
Did you see it? Maybe you saw it. Don’t worry, if you didn’t see it. I’ll tell you about it at the end.
Here’s another story of some parents who didn’t quite get what they expected. Our scripture, today, comes from Matthew, and it’s one that even if you haven’t been in church for a while, probably sounds really familiar. Let’s dive in to Matthew 1:18-25.
1:18 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.
If we backup for a second, though, we find the Gospel of Matthew opens up with a long genealogy connecting Jesus to the family line of David. David was considered the greatest king of Israel and the prophesies said that the Messiah, the anointed one, who would liberate the israelites, once and for all from occupation of foreign invaders, would come from the Davidic line. In this opening genealogy we find that Joseph, who is to be married to Mary, is part of David’s family line.
With that setup, verse 18 tells us that Mary and Joseph were engaged. In the ancient world, this means that they were betrothed, having been so probably since they were small children. In other words their’s was an arranged marriage. The arrangement was that they would be engaged but still live with their families, probably until Mary hit a certain age. There wasn’t supposed to be any dating and certainly no “relations” until they were actually married. So, imagine the surprise to both of them when they find out Mary is pregnant. I’m trying to imagine that conversation.
“So… Joseph, I’m pregnant, obviously it’s not yours.”
“Oh, do tell, who’s is it?”
“It’s God’s baby, I was impregnated by the holy spirit.”
How did Joseph react to that? Verse 19 is pretty predictable:
1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
One of these days I’ll do some more extensive research on this, and Joseph sounds like a really nice guy, but I’m trying to figure out how you quietly divorce someone whom you’ve been engaged to since pre-school.
We’ll, it doesn’t come to that.
1:20 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.
Yes, and angel appears to Joseph and sets the record straight. There are a lot of instances in the bible where angles appear to bring news, warnings, or a proclamation. The angel confirms what Mary said. This baby is not his, but he should still get married to Mary.
Now, lets set aside the historicity of this for a second and talk about the importance of what these first few verses meant in their original context. In the ancient world, virgin birth was not unfamiliar to folks. In the stories of the Greco-Roman Gods folks would have heard about the God’s impregnating young virgins all the time. In fact, in order for a leader’s story and teachings to be credible, part of their story had to be that they were born of a virgin, who had been impregnated by one of the gods. This birth narrative, then, in Matthew’s gospel is being setup not just to give legitimacy to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but it’s being setup to be the birth narrative to end all birth narratives. This just isn’t going to be another hero or son of one of the God’s: this is to be the son of the one true God, who is coming to dwell with humans as a human. This is God, in the flesh, who comes not to conquer with power and might, but to conquer with love, as a humble king, who serves others.
The scripture mentions again that Joseph is part of king David’s family line, again marking importance that Jesus also be part of that lineage. But the obvious problem here is that, according to tradition, Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father. This is interesting to note, that while Jesus will be born into this family, this birth also technically breaks from this prophecy. Could it be that Jesus will come not as a symbol of God’s love for one particular group of people, but for everyone? It’s a both/and kind of situation – he is (at least according to Matthew) the expected Messiah, who will liberate the Hebrew people, but he’s also come as a savior for all: Jew, gentile, Roman, Greek, Samaritan, male, female, those who are free, and those who are slaves.
The angel continues:
1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
These verses setup so much, but also undo a lot of what was traditionally believed about divine beings, in the ancient world. So many believed God or the gods to be angry and violent, to be vengeful and spiteful. Your entire life was based around pleasing the gods so they provided for and protected you and your family.
The birth narrative of Jesus would have been a familiar story to those hearing it, but it would have been in sharp contrast to what they were used to. Instead of being born into pomp and circumstance, or born as a mighty hero, he’s born to a couple living on the margins. Born to a young woman living in poverty. Born to a couple of scared teenagers. Born to a father who was only his father by adoption.
Born into a situation that is anything but certain, anything but perfect.
When this baby is born the angel says he shall be named Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” These would have been words of hope for a people who had little and who lived in fear and distrust of divine beings.
This is key because this is poignant reminder considering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70. This is where God dwelled, this was the sacred space in the sacred land that God had promised. It seemed God had abandoned them. But, God had never abandoned them. God had never abandoned God’s own people and God’s won creation. Jesus, then is Emmanuel, he is the proof that God is with us, that God came to walk side by side with us, that God’s love is everywhere and is with us at all times.
Indeed, Jesus’ time on earth shows that God’s love doesn’t wait for the perfect time, God’s love breaks in during the worst times, especially during the conflict, the pain, the suffering and the confusion.
The incarnation, Emmanuel, God is with us, is God’s love fully present, because we fundamentally have a problem loving one another. God came to be with us, so that in the midst of all the uncertainty and imperfection we might know what it looks like to love each other better.
That’s what is different and unique about Jesus. Jesus is what God looks, sounds, and acts like, in the flesh. Divine love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and peace all in the form of a person. And that’s the miracle, that God doesn’t sit high up on a cloud, only making God’s presence known through thunder and lightning bolts, earthquakes, and floods, or that God is indifferent to some of us, but not others. The miracle is that God comes down into the mess of it all and says, “it’s okay, love is the answer, I will always be with you.”
When the world is moving fast and sometimes collapsing around us it can be hard to have the faith that God is a God of love who calls us to love. It’s hard to stop comparing ourselves to this idealized notion of who we are and what our place should be in the world. It’s hard to stop and recognize that love for us and that call to move forward. It’s hard to trust that despite all the uncertainly that God’s love will indeed prevail. We’ve waited and waited and waited and instead of the clear sign, the big miracle, the mind blowing revelation, we get news of a baby being born to a couple in poverty. We have to trust, then, that the love this baby will bring is more powerful than anything else. More powerful than excluding those who are different from us. More powerful than ignoring those on the margins. More powerful than destroying our enemies. More powerful than war and violence, death and destruction.
And that’s what Joseph and Mary had to do, and that was what the original audience who was reading this passage had to do, they had to trust. Despite the pain, death, and destruction that they had been through, they had to trust that God had acted in the world, through Jesus, and that in the end, love would prevail.
This is a call that is timeless. It’s still what we are called to do, today. We have to trust that love is more important than anything else and that love will prevail.
This passage indeed ends with Joseph trusting in love and a call for us to trust, as well.
1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Joseph acts entirely on faith. The situation isn’t perfect, there are so many unknowns. God doesn’t wait for perfect, however. God doesn’t set conditions on grace. God loves and calls us to love and to move forward in faith.
And so, Joseph and Mary take a big leap, trusting in God, trusting in one another.
In the end, this section of scripture is fundamentally about God not just loving some, but loving all, calling us to not only love and trust God, but to love and trust each other.
Let’s watch that video, again. In case you missed it the first time, pay close attention to the very end.
Like the couple, who are exhausted, their house is trashed, they wonder if they will ever sleep again, and they see the positive pregnancy test and all of that chaos, that exhaustion, that insanity of what they went through with their first child, flashes before their eyes and they have that look of panic on their face… and then it hits them: Life is coming into the world. And all of the sudden hope and joy overtake them and everything else they were feeling. Love is coming and love will prevail.
As we prepare for another Christmas. Will you take a leap of faith with me? Will you trust that love is the answer? Will you walk with God on this journey of hope? Will you bring compassion, love, hope, and joy to a dark place in this world?
May we do so as we await the one who truly came in the name of love.