Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25
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The following is my original manuscript.
If you watched last week’s Christmas episode of Community, you know that Abed led his friends on a journey to find the true meaning of Christmas. And in the spirit of those old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he and his friends searched for the true meaning of Christmas in stop-motion animation. Everyone and everything on the show was animated. No one else is aware that they’re being stop-motion animated. He tells his friends that he sees them as animated characters, and they’re worried about him. They ask him what they can do to help. He said, “First of all, you can commit to the concept by singing.” And so, throughout the episode, Abed and his friends break out in song.
Abed was right: in all animated Christmas specials, there is always singing. Singing conveys a sense of joy—and isn’t Christmas all about joy?
The evangelist Luke certainly thinks so. In his version of the Christmas story, there is much joy and singing: When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, Mary sings. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” When Zechariah regains his speech at the birth of his son John, he sings. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” When the angels tell those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night about the newborn king, they sing. “Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When Simeon meets the baby Jesus in the temple and realizes that God’s ancient promises are coming true, he sings. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…”
By contrast, in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, there is no singing. Matthew presents the other side of Christmas. When God’s kingdom breaks into the world in Jesus—as good and joyful as it is for the people who accept it as good news—it also means judgment against worldly kingdoms. It means that those who profit from the world’s status quo of violence, injustice, inequality, and oppression feel threatened and afraid—and they react: King Herod, so fearful and jealous of this rival king, asks the wise men to find out where Jesus is, so that he may go and pay him homage—yeah right! The wise men don’t report back to him, and Herod ends up killing all the children in and around Jerusalem who two years or under just to make sure.
Even in today’s scripture, in which Joseph gets word about what God is doing in and through his and Mary’s life, there’s no singing. “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.” Mary and Joseph weren’t simply engaged the way we get engaged today. Back then, engagement was really just the first part of being married.
When you were engaged in this way, you were already married in the eyes of the law—even though the marriage ceremony hadn’t taken place and the marriage hadn’t been consummated. You couldn’t just break off an engagement by returning the ring. You had to get a divorce. And when Joseph found out that his fiancee was pregnant—and, well, he knew he wasn’t the father—that’s exactly what he decided to do: divorce Mary, quietly, privately—to spare her as much embarrassment and shame as possible. And possibly to spare her life. According to the Law of Moses, adultery was a capital crime, and if Mary were unfaithful to him, she and the man with whom she cheated could conceivably have been stoned to death. In practice, stonings didn’t happen very often, and rabbis allowed for couples to simply get divorced.
But even getting divorced under those circumstances would have been devastating to Mary’s family and reputation, but Joseph has to do it because, Luke tells us, he was a righteous man, a just man. It wasn’t simply that Joseph could never get over the fact that Mary had been unfaithful. Joseph couldn’t marry her because that child belonged to someone else. By divorcing her, he was at least allowing the real father to take responsibility for the child and marry his ex-fiancee. That’s what he’s decided to do when his plans get disrupted. An angel tells him in a dream: “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.”
As I reflected on this scripture this week, a question occurred to me that had never occurred to me before: Why did the angel visit Joseph after he finds out his fiancee is pregnant? Wouldn’t it have been easier for Joseph to receive this news before he found out—to put his mind at ease; help him make sense of it. We can only imagine how devastating it was for Joseph—how anguished Joseph must have felt—when he found out Mary was pregnant, and he knew he wasn’t the father. Of course, we can infer from last week’s scripture that Mary told Joseph that this child was conceived by God, but he didn’t believe her. Why should he? Would you believe her if you were Joseph?
Couldn’t the angel have spared Joseph a lot of pain and anguish by coming to him before?
I talked to a parishioner recently who has had to make some difficult and painful decisions. Her friends and family, who mean well, second-guessed her and made her feel worse about what were already tough choices. But she believed strongly that she was doing what God wanted her to do; that she was being faithful and obedient in spite of the pain it caused her. And she asked me, “Why? Why does it have to be like this? Why does following Jesus have to be so difficult? If I’m doing what God wants me to do, why can’t I get any peace about it?”
And you know what? I didn’t have an answer for her. I don’t know. Sometimes, even when we firmly believe that we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, we’re not going to feel like singing. Has that been your experience?
If it’s any consolation, I don’t believe Joseph felt like singing, either—for a lot of reasons.
Many of you fathers out there have had the difficult experience of waiting—waiting alongside your wife for the birth of a child. Being an expectant father presents its own unique challenges. I know, I know, some of you mothers are thinking, “Try passing a watermelon through a fire hose, and then let’s talk about challenges!” I get it. But the challenges we fathers face are not nothing. When we find out our wives are pregnant, we’re often filled with self-doubt. We wonder if we can live up to the challenge. Do I make enough money to support this new member of the family? How will I make ends meet? What changes do I have to make to my lifestyle—to our lifestyle, our budget, our home? Will I be a good dad?
Not only that: When we find out we’re having a baby, that child immediately becomes the most important thing in our lives. We would do anything for this new and beautiful life, but the truth is, we can’t really do much of anything! Really, I mean, we can’t even experience the child at all for those many months, except indirectly—maybe when the child starts kicking and moving around.
We have three kids, and we experienced the pain of miscarriage once. But that fear of miscarriage was always there. Lisa would sometimes say, “The baby’s been sleepy today. I haven’t felt him move in a while.” This might have been a completely innocent comment, and for all I know she felt the baby move in the next moment and didn’t give it a second thought, but it set me on edge. You know? I wanted to know that the child was O.K. We fathers feel like outsiders looking in.
We feel completely helpless. Something really good is happening in our lives, and it’s something over which we have no control! It’s unlike anything else in life. I can work hard and achieve success in my career, for example, and that’s good, but I have a lot of control over that… But in this case, forget about it!
Imagine what Joseph felt: helplessness; lack of control; being an outsider looking in—but even worse: he had no role to play in bringing this child into the world. I wonder if he wrestled with doubt? “What if I’m wrong about this dream and this angel? What if Mary was with another man?” It took a lot of faith for Joseph to go along with God’s plan.
Also… Did Joseph dream that his wedding would be a happy and joyous occasion rather than an occasion for gossip and rumor? Did he dream that he and Mary would settle down in his hometown and enjoy a quiet and respectable life? Did he dream that he would mentor his first-born son in the carpentry shop? Did he dream that his first-born son would follow him in the family business? Did he dream that this child would one day bring him the joy of grandchildren?
If so, none of those dreams came true! He sacrificed every one of them when he said “yes” to God’s plan. Joseph had to learn—as all of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ must learn—that our lives are not our own. Our dreams are not our own. Our future is not our own—and we don’t get to control it. We can’t control it. Being a disciple of Jesus means it’s not about us. Does that seem a little depressing? It shouldn’t.
Last summer, we were on vacation in St. Simons Island with our three kids. And you parents know how kids can sometimes try our patience—you know, at least a little bit, right? I think Lisa and I both had made a few comments about how much easier vacations were before kids—and said something about how much easier life would be without kids. Elisa, our precocious 10-year-old smiled and said, “Dad, don’t you sometimes wish you never had us?” When she said that, my demeanor changed, and I said, “What are you talking about? You and Townshend and Ian are the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and don’t you doubt it for a moment!”
I can joke around about life being easier without kids—but easier does not mean better. And isn’t that true of faith?
Following Jesus Christ meant that Joseph’s life was turned upside down; he suffered a lot; he sacrificed the dreams he had for his life. But you know what? God gave him a bigger and better dream than he could have ever dreamed for himself.
And here’s the gospel truth: God wants to do the same for you.