Text: Matthew 1:18-25
This sermon was prepared for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A for the class Feasts and Seasons at Wartburg Theological Seminary and was given in Loehe Chapel on Monday, December 13, 2010.
Two years ago, I failed Christmas entirely. I bet you didn’t even know that you could do that, did you? After the High Holy Day of Thanksgiving and the yet Higher Holy Day of Black Friday, it seems like everyone expects you to get out your Christmas decorations and start deckin’ the halls. If you don’t have at least two Christmas trees in your living room by December 1st, people might start looking at you funny.
Two years ago, though, things just… slipped. We were busily wrapping up the end of another semester in seminary, my wife was very pregnant with our daughter, and decorating for Christmas was the last thing on our minds. December 25th came and went, and we hadn’t done a thing to mark the occasion in our home. No Advent calendar, no Christmas wreath, no festive lights, no stockings hung by the (tragically absent) chimney with care. Nothing. Nada. We failed Christmas – hard.
Last year wasn’t much better. We got a few decorations up, just in time for Christmas Eve. I suppose that counts as improvement.
The truth is, though, that I didn’t miss the “stuff.” I didn’t miss the trees and wreaths and lights and trappings of Christmas that we’ve come to expect out of the season. Christmas just felt different. Not better, not worse, just different. Nevertheless, I kept looking around, wondering what my neighbors were thinking about us. There’s that guy in seminary, they must be saying to themselves. He’s definitely not cut out for ministry. He doesn’t even celebrate Christmas! It’s not just a question of whether you do something or not – whether you put up the sixteen foot Christmas tree with the nuclear powered star that can be seen from outer space or keep it in the basement.
What will the neighbors think?
That’s why I want to talk about Joseph today. Joseph, as a character in the Biblical stories about Jesus, doesn’t get much… play. We don’t hear a lot about him. In fact, our Gospel lesson for today is the first time we hear about Joseph in the book of Matthew. Just as soon as he’s introduced, he’s already doing something that makes me cringe: he’s going to divorce Mary. Yeah, that Mary – the Blessed Virgin Mary! Uncool, Joseph!
Why would he do something like that? Well, we know that when the angel of the Lord appears to him in the dream, Joseph is told “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” So we know that he’s afraid that something bad will happen if he goes through with his marriage plans with Mary. Why would he be afraid of that? There was a tremendous social pressure in their day to avoid the appearance that they had had sex before they were married. Plus, Joseph didn’t know who the father was, but he was absolutely sure that it wasn’t him. Joseph was worried that if he went through with this, he would be mocked in the community as a weak, dishonorable man who cared more about women than his honor as a man.
In short, Joseph is worried about what the neighbors will think.
It takes nothing less than a visit from an angel to convince him that Mary has been faithful. But let’s face it – if it had been you, wouldn’t you have demanded a sign like that? Because you know it wasn’t you, and you know that she’s pregnant, and you’re not that stupid. You’d better believe it’s going to take an act of divine intervention to convince me that my pregnant fiance is still a virgin! All the while, you know that Joseph is sweating. Nazareth is a small town. Word is going to get around. What will the neighbors think?
To top it off, Joseph would have been totally within his rights to send Mary away. The Gospel reading tells us that Joseph was to be thought of as a righteous man for putting Mary away quietly, rather than hauling her in front of the local elders and making a public spectacle of her adultery.
But then the angel comes, and we find out that Joseph really is a righteous man, more righteous than we had ever realized. Instead of putting Mary away quietly and going on to live his life in relative peace and security, he makes a radically different decision. He obeys the angel, and names the child. And in naming the child, Joseph acknowledges this baby he calls Jesus as his own son. He says to the neighbors, “What are you looking at, of course he’s mine!”
You see, there weren’t genetic tests or blood typing kits in those days. All that counted was the testimony given by men – not women, just men. And as anyone who has ever watched an episode of Jerry Springer can tell you, men don’t generally claim paternity for kids that aren’t theirs.1 Joseph wasn’t just naming Jesus, he was adopting him as his own son.
And what name does Joseph give? He calls the boy Jesus, which means “Savior.” He chooses a name that tells us not who or what the boy is: bright, charming, strong, loyal, brave; but what the boy will do: he will save. This child – this baby – has come to save you!
Now I don’t know if you have had a chance to look at a baby very closely recently. I happen to have a two-month-old at home, and I can tell you definitively that they aren’t going to save anybody. My son’s name is Peter. Peter comes from the word “petros,” meaning “rock.” But a two-month-old baby’s bones aren’t even fully hardened yet. The only rock-hard place on a baby is his head, which my son wields like a drunken wrecking ball right now if you aren’t careful. We give children names not based on who they appear to be when we meet them, but on who we hope they will become.
That’s why the angel gives two names. Not just Jesus, which while a very true name was nearly as common a name in his day as John or Andrew or Jason is in ours. He is also called Emmanuel: God With Us.2
Think about that for a moment! Let that sink in! God Is With You. God, the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, the maker of all that is, seen and unseen, the One God, THAT God, is what? With you. Finite, fallible… sinful you. It doesn’t even make sense. How can that be? How can the Creator be with a mere creature? How can the Holy One be with an unholy sinner?
Our sins go far beyond forgetting to put up some Christmas decorations – in fact, don’t tell Walmart, but that’s not even a sin! No, like Joseph, we actively strive for the kind of righteousness that puts people away quietly. You might not be the kind of person who fights loudly and openly with people, but you’ll quietly lie to their face to get your way. You probably even explain it to yourself as being for their own good. Or maybe you’ve decided a long time ago about what is just and good and righteous: whether that’s a family matter, something at church, a conflict with your boss, or just how you vote. Now you talk a good game about being respectful and open minded, and you truly have good intentions, but your mind is as closed as a steel cage. Some people call that “Lutheran Nice.” On the outside, it’s all about appearances and what the neighbors will think, about justifying ourselves by following the letter of the law. On the inside, it’s how we do away with those we despise. “Put them away quietly. That way the neighbors won’t be too upset, and I can move on with my own, so very important business.”
Every one of us is in rebellion against God. So how then is it possible for this tiny child to be called Emmanuel? How is it that this unlikely Jesus, this unlikely Savior, can be called God With Us? It’s only possible because of who Jesus is: the Word of God made flesh, God made a human being. The miracle of Christmas is not that a baby is born, because in that sense, every child born everywhere is a miracle. Instead, this tiny child is fully God (having God as his Father) and fully a human being (having Mary as his mother) at the same time. In his body, he is the union of the human and the divine, and in that way he is the true place of meeting between God and humanity, creature and Creator, sinner and Savior.
Jesus might not have seemed like a Savior at the moment of his birth, squirming and fussing, but he was God With Us. Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus himself assuring us that he is Emmanuel, that he is with us forever as he ascends into heaven. From the moment Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant to the Ascension and beyond into the present day, Jesus Christ is with you.
Imagine what life would be like if we could actually act like that was true! Think of what would change! Think of the relationships that would be transformed! Things wouldn’t change because suddenly you decided that God would be with you, so God is. Jesus isn’t in the business of taking orders from you and me. No, just realizing and remembering that God is with us, just knowing that Jesus is present with us always, could really transform the way we live.
But, what would the neighbors think? Maybe they would start to see you in a new light. They might think that something is different in your life. And you know what? They’d be right. Something is different. That tiny, defenseless child was named Savior for a reason. That child, born so far away, was named God-with-us with good cause. Even today, he is your Savior. Even today, he is with you. You are his son, or you are his daughter. And those around you, your neighbors, are also those for whom he lived and died and rose again.
In gratitude for God’s salvation, be a sign to your neighbors of the love of Christ, who came and who is coming again. In his name, Amen.