Sermon 12/18/16 – Fourth Sunday in Advent
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. – Matthew 1:18-25
There’s a video going around on Facebook now, a version of the Christmas story as told by a group of young children. Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I’ll include a link to it when I post this sermon online (click here to see the video). In the video, adults in costumes act out the story as the kids tell it, while lip-synching the characters’ words verbatim in the kids’ actual words as voice-over. It’s cute, and funny, and touching. One of the things that I like about it is that the kids captured all the special, supernatural parts of the story – the angels singing in the clouds, the star, the Wise Men, and so on – but at the same time, they captured the very real humanity, sometimes in interesting detail, of Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus.
That caught my attention because it’s easy to lose that human aspect of the story. We can focus on all the extraordinary parts, because they’re so, well, extraordinary. You just don’t see angels appearing in the sky belting out tunes every day. Those parts of the story stick in our minds because most of us have plenty of common and normal. It’s nice to think about the miraculous parts of the story.
And that’s a good thing, as long as we do like the kids in that video, capturing both the miraculous and the ordinary with the same wide-eyed wonder. That’s important, because focusing on all the extraordinary, otherworldly parts can make Jesus seem like someone otherworldly and distant, untouchable and unlike us. But I think the real power of the story for us doesn’t really hinge on the extraordinary stuff, but rather, on it ordinariness, its commonality with us.
The gospel text we heard today is the entire Christmas story as it appears in the gospel according to Matthew. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there’s really almost nothing to it. Yes, Mary becomes pregnant by way of the Holy Spirit, and there is one angel – but it isn’t the angels in the sky appearing to shepherds; it isn’t even the angel appearing to Mary announcing that she is most favored among women. It’s the one who comes to Joseph, and he seems to almost be phoning in his appearance, showing up in a dream, to coax him not to divorce Mary as he’s struggling with his very real-world, human emotions.
Just imagine Joseph’s emotions. The scriptures say he’s “betrothed” or “engaged” to Mary, but in that time, that meant that Joseph and Mary had already entered into a legal contract of marriage – they were already married in the eyes of the law and the eyes of their neighbors, but for some reason, they just weren’t living together and hadn’t consummated the marriage yet. And now, somehow, Mary turned up pregnant, which must have led to some interesting conversations between the two of them. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy still raises eyebrows today. To be frank, that’s how I came into the world, born to two teenagers who quit high school to get married and raise me. And I’d bet that I’m not the only person here today who has that same story, or a very similar one. Even within just my lifetime, single young women who got pregnant were sometimes shipped off for extended visits to some distant relative during their pregnancy, until the baby was born and given up for adoption, and then the young woman reappeared as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. That was bad enough, but in the days of Joseph and Mary, it was even worse, and it came with far more risk to Mary than just having to put up with small-town gossip and chit-chat. It could have cost her her life, since the punishment for adultery was being stoned to death.
So Joseph struggled with what he should do. And imagine the distress that Mary must have felt, knowing how much hung in the balance for her, based on what Joseph would decide.
Here’s where I’m headed with all of this: Jesus came into the world in the midst of a very human back story. Just as he said in last week’s Lectionary text talking about John the Baptist, Jesus didn’t come into the world in some privileged existence, born in a palace, with all the privileges and perks that the world could offer someone it considered important. Matthew’s way of telling about Jesus’ birth drills down on the reality that Jesus came into the world in a very human way, a way that almost no one noticed or paid any attention to. He was just another baby born to just another baby born to just another couple. Just like us.
And that’s precisely the point. That’s what God’s good news, God’s “glad tidings of great joy for all people” absolutely hangs on. Jesus coming into the world isn’t “God-Looking-Down-On-Us,” or “God-Studying-Us,” or even “God-Taking-Pity-On-Us.” It’s “God-With-Us;” it’s “God-Being-One-Of Us.” Truly knowing, firsthand, all the ups and downs of human existence, from our perspective. Knowing the joy and love, and grief and suffering. Knowing human hopes and dreams, and disappointments and temptations. Our good news is that God has chosen to experience all of that with us, and has promised to walk with us as we go through all of those things and many others too. God has chosen to extend grace and mercy to us from a position of being able to identify with us; having solidarity with us.
I read a story sometime this past week about a man who was dragging out the family’s Christmas decorations, and his small child – probably about the same age as the kids in the video I mentioned earlier – wanted to help set up the expensive, elaborate, family-heirloom nativity set. The man was nervous that his child’s little hands might drop and break one of the precious ceramic figurines, so he went to look for another nativity set that they had, one that was very kid-friendly – simple wood construction, and all the figures were made out of totally unbreakable, quilted fabric. As he was up in the attic trying to find it, he heard the child call up to him from down below, “Hey Dad, did you find a Jesus I can touch?”
Don’t forget all the amazing, miraculous parts of the Christmas story. They’re an important part of it all. But don’t let all those parts take the focus away from the most important aspect of it all. Just for a bit, hold off on the star; keep the Wise Men at bay; the angels can wait. Just for a bit, consider Matthew’s simpler version of the story of Jesus’ birth. To me, that’s truly the “greatest story ever told” – the story of a Jesus we can touch.
Thanks be to God.