Summary: Christmas is not about us, it is about Emmanuel, God with us. What sorts of preparations are you making this year? Are you preparing like the rest of the world, or are you preparing to welcome Christ?
I hope you all had a wonderful and joy-filled Thanksgiving holiday. I know I certainly enjoyed time with my family. We did all the usual Thanksgiving stuff. We ate too much food, watched some football, played some games, and then ate too many leftovers. And then, the next day, we got up, ate too much food, and some of the family headed off bright and early to do some Black Friday Christmas shopping. Then, the day after that, we got up, ate too much food, and got out the Christmas decorations to decorate the house for the next big holiday.
I imagine many of you followed a similar schedule over the last few days. In fact, I’m a little curious: who did some shopping on Black Friday? Anybody have your house all decorated for Christmas now? Who has been to a Christmas parade already this year? When it comes to Christmas, we don’t mess around, do we? Many of us have been getting ready for Christmas in one way or another for at least a few weeks already, if not more. After all, the stores are all decorated for Christmas the day after Halloween is over! I mean, Christmas is kind of a big deal, isn’t it? And so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves every year to make Christmas perfect. But the thing of it is, our so-called “perfect” Christmas is 100% centered around what culture—Hallmark, the department store catalogues, the shopping malls, and so on—tells us is the ideal Christmas. So we have these false expectations of family harmony and good cheer. And we invest a good deal of time and energy each year trying to achieve such perfection. While at the same time, many of us feely emptiness or sadness that our lives or families prevent us from having the sort of Christmas we feel like we should have. In the end, Christmas never ends up being quite as perfect as we imagine it to be, does it?
So it is that we come this morning to Matthew’s story of Mary and Joseph; a young couple engaged to be married, when Joseph finds out that Mary is already pregnant, and he knows it’s not by him. Talk about a messed up Christmas! That just about takes the cake! But this isn’t just another story about how what could’ve been a great Christmas got ruined. Without a doubt, the first Christmas was not perfect or flawless. There was no elaborate preparation. It was unexpected, scandalous, and messy. Yet, this is the story of the only Christmas that has ever been totally perfect; because this is the story about how God works in our world in completely surprising, unconventional, yet amazing ways, and it’s all for our sakes.
This Advent season, this is the “story of preparation” I want us to consider; God breaking into our world to be with us, even still. So that’s what we are going to do. As we step into this place over the next four Sundays, I want us to forget about all the preparations that are going on out there in the world, and instead I want us to focus on the pure, simple, unhindered preparation that occurred in those weeks leading up to that first Christmas so many years ago. We are going to reflect on the words of the people who first heard the news that God would be breaking into their world in a new way. We will hear, “The First Carols of Christmas.” And my prayer for these weeks of Advent 2014 is that as you hear these words, these songs of praise and triumph, these statements of faith in a God who still loves his people and acts on their behalf; that their words will become your words, and their preparation for Christmas will become your own preparation for the “perfect Christmas,” a Christmas that truly welcomes God into our midst.
So let’s consider first Joseph’s encounter with the angel of the Lord. Let’s start by remembering that Joseph was a lowly man, a simple carpenter, a common laborer; not exactly the type you’d expect to raise the Savior of the World. You remember he lived and worked in the middle of nowhere: “Does anything good come from Nazareth?” And now, he’s engaged to be married to a woman who has turned up pregnant…not by him, by the way. We have to constantly remember that this is the story of God’s surprising work in the world. And Christmas celebrated the way God celebrates it starts with the forgotten, the lowly, the downtrodden.
Still, the scriptures tell us that Joseph is a righteous man. As a righteous man, the best thing for Joseph to do is to call of the engagement immediately, which would result in significant public disgrace for Mary, and possibly even her death for adultery. So Joseph decides he will divorce Mary quietly, in the hopes that she will be spared the worst. Then, as Joseph sleeps one night, he is approached by this angel of the Lord, who explains how Mary became pregnant, and how Joseph is yet the earthly father of the child who is to be born. And what follows, I think, is one of the most amazing moments in scripture. Joseph believes it! Indeed, he is a righteous man, but not in terms of the Jewish law. He is a righteous man because of his pure faith in God.