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.
As we know, Joseph does not divorce Mary. And the way he will identify himself as the child’s earthly father is that he will name him, just as the angel has instructed; “You are to call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua. The name Joshua was a constant reminder to the Jews of the Hebrew word for salvation. There it is, friends, as plain as day. God steps into the life of a poor, young, scared laborer and tells him that he is to be the father of the Savior. You just don’t plan for that, and it certainly seems far from any ideal scenario. But Joseph humbly obeyed God, and what followed was the most amazing birthday the world has ever seen. The only birthday that is still celebrated by the majority of the world’s people, the “perfect Christmas.”
“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.’” We need God with us, don’t we? Especially, it seems in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season—this time that can be full of both great joy and great sorrow. But are you aware of your need for a Savior? When the prophet Isaiah spoke these words about a child to be born who would be called Emmanuel, the Israelites knew their tremendous need for God’s salvation. They were being held captive in Babylon, and they knew their only hope of return to the homeland would be some act of intervention by God. My friends, if we are to remember, and to know, and to celebrate a “perfect Christmas” this year, it will start with a very humble realization of our dire need to have God present in our lives, and to be saved from ourselves.
I know that it’s very easy to get caught up in the celebration of our modern cultural Christmas. I am a victim myself. And I often find myself more frustrated than happy as Christmas approaches each year. In fact, sometimes I dread Christmas, and I can say without any hesitation that Christmas is not my most favorite holiday. I know that I need to be saved from myself every Christmas, and the truth of the matter is that all of us do, our whole society does.
You know, over the years, the Christmas holiday has changed a lot, hasn’t it? I don’t mean over the years since Jesus’ birth. I’m just talking about in our lifetimes. It used to be that the stores would play Christmas carols over the radio. Schools would host annual Christmas plays and concerts. There was a time when you could drive around Smalltown, America, and see a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. Now, for the most part, those nativity scenes are gone. There are very few, if any, radio stations that play Christmas music 24/7 in the weeks leading up to Christmas, much less on Christmas day. Children certainly don’t sing Christmas songs or do Christmas plays in school anymore. At the stores, all the clerks are trained not to say “Merry Christmas,” but instead something along the lines of, “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings.” And all the while, as we shop the sales, and watch the parades, and hang the lights, we mumble about what a travesty it is.
But did you ever stop to think that maybe it’s better that all those things have stopped. Because in so many ways, along with our own failed attempts to manufacture the “perfect Christmas,” this isn’t the story of Christmas anyway. The Christmas our society celebrates is empty of any meaning. It’s focused all on us, completely forgetting the God who unexpectedly broke into the world through the lives of a lowly, humble couple. It’s not the job of the schools, or the retailers, or the courthouses, or the radio stations to tell the story of Christmas. They just mess it up anyway, and make it about all the wrong things. It’s our job to tell the Christmas story. It’s our job to talk about how God intervenes in the world in the most amazing ways. It’s our job to talk about that scandalous, messy, scene that brought into our midst “Emmanuel”; the “with us God.” We have to be the ones to talk about the Messiah who has saved us from our sins.
Around 2,000 years ago, an angel appeared in the dream of an engaged carpenter living in Nazareth. At its root, the word “angel” means messenger. I heard recently one Christian describe a messenger as one who finds a way to make light shine in the darkness, which is exactly what that Angel of the Lord did for Joseph, and for all of us too. As Christmas approaches this year, we have a choice in this season of preparation. We can go along with the rest of the world, and perhaps come up feeling a little disappointed. Or, we can be angels, messengers who shine light into the darkness. The choice is ours; this is our story to tell.
We have known Jesus who saves us from our sins, and we have known Emmanuel, the “with us God.” So what about it? Are we going to let people know that God in Christ Jesus has made a difference in our lives, or is this Christmas going to be like all the ones before?
Go my friends, be messengers, be angels. This Advent, shine the light of Christ into the darkness of this world, so that people will know that God still works with us in amazing ways!