4th Sunday of AdventMatthew 1:18-25
22 December 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Some people are good at giving gifts. They know just what to buy. They are confident in knowing what others would like. Some people are good at receiving gifts. I have never seen my mother receive a gift that she was not happy to receive. Our seventeen year-old Rebecca has become very gracious as she matured, but I do remember the Christmas when Santa brought her siblings shiny metal scooters while she, the youngest received the bright, plastic safe little kid scooter. She was not happy with that gift. She was mad at Santa for that mistake.
Sometimes at Christmas we get things we do not want. It all began with Joseph. He got what he did not want – a pregnant fiance’. This amazing gift of a stepson, Jesus, was not the gift he anticipated as he waited for his marriage to Mary. Joseph accepted the unwanted gift with grace. He listened to the angel in his dream. He protected Mary and trusted that her son was in fact a gift from God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Hear the story of the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective.
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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)
Joseph’s loyalty begins with his compassion toward Mary. Under the circumstances of her pregnancy the law of Moses required that she be stoned to death. But Joseph, being “just” our scripture says, which really means compassionate more than fair, plans to dismiss her quietly. That means he is willing to break the law in order to serve the higher law of being compassionate, something Joseph had probably heard about in the prophets, like Isaiah. Joseph listened to that higher law of compassion rather than the letter of the law of Moses. Now as he was considering the problem of Mary’s pregnancy and probably even fuming over it (the Greek word there can be translated considering or fuming) Joseph suddenly has a visit from an angel, who reassures him. “Don’t worry about taking Mary as your wife. This child she is having is conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is God’s Son she’s carrying.”
Would that be reassuring to you? Hey, don’t worry this baby you’re going to raise is God’s Son. At some level all wise parents know their children belong to God more than them, but in Joseph’s case with Jesus, it is even more so.. He must be a man of faith. He could have left Mary and gone to be registered in Bethlehem alone. Women and children were not required for that. But Mary goes with Joseph. He protects her in a time when women had to be protected.
Joseph demonstrates loyalty by his determination to keep Mary safe. Jesus surely learned some of this loyalty, some of these nurturing ways from his stepfather Joseph. Of course, there’s nature and nurture. By nature Jesus is human and divine. He is God’s child and Mary’s child. By nurture he is raised by Joseph and Mary. Think of the time he spent with Joseph, of all he learned from watching him, and of his observation of the love between his parents. How did Jesus know the law and the prophets so well that he could quote them, except that Joseph and Mary had taught him the Jewish faith well.
For these four Sundays of Advent, we have been focused on the gift of peace given to four different characters. Isaiah, who helped us see the vision of peace. Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist, who encouraged us to prepare the way of the Lord. Mary, the Mother of our Lord, who challenged us to think about what it really means to radically open to God and turn the world upside down. And Joseph, who shows us that sometimes we must defy religious law and customs to be compassionate, to serve, to receive the gift of God. Each of these characters have helped us to see who Jesus is and what it means to embrace the peace that he brings.
The two names given to Joseph “Jesus” and “Immanuel” help us to appreciate the meaning of this glorious season. In this tiny helpless infant, born to a most unlikely couple, who had several visits from angels, God was saving the world by coming to be with us. And when God comes to be with us all divisions between people are removed. God does love everyone. That’s the message of the Christmas. And that’s why Christmas bells ring even for those who doubt God exists, because deep down in their souls, they feel the spirit of Christmas and they know that it is much more than bright lights on houses and colorfully wrapped presents under decorated trees. The real magic of Christmas is the presence of a God who wanted to be fully with us in order to save us.
So whether you are called to bear a gift from God, to embody the gift, or whether you are like Joseph, called to receive the gift that initially seemed like more of a curse than a blessing – certainly a gift he did not want, remember that God’s gifts always have the ultimate purpose of bringing peace to all people. Whether you are like a shepherd with no money in your pocket or a king with the ability to bring valuable gifts, whether you are a pregnant young women, overwhelmed by news that you are carrying God’s Son, or a loyal fiancé, trying to be compassionate and do the right thing, whether you are lonely this Christmas or your house is loud and boisterous, whether you are confident in your long-standing faith or you are a new and uncertain Christian, God in Jesus Christ is saving you by being with you in life and in death, in joy and in sorrow, in calm and in fear. Put your trust in the One who is a gift that you sometimes think you don’t want. Receive this gift in faith and trust that it is the best gift ever!