Bearing Christ in our own lives.

annunciationFIRST READING ISAIAH 7:10-16

10Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

PSALM PSALM 80:1-7, 17-19

1   Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, 
          you who lead Joseph like a flock! 
     You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth 
2        before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. 
     Stir up your might, 
          and come to save us!

3   Restore us, O God; 
          let your face shine, that we may be saved.

4   O LORD God of hosts, 
          how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? 
5   You have fed them with the bread of tears, 
          and given them tears to drink in full measure. 
6   You make us the scorn of our neighbors; 
          our enemies laugh among themselves.

7   Restore us, O God of hosts; 
          let your face shine, that we may be saved.

17   But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, 
          the one whom you made strong for yourself. 
18   Then we will never turn back from you; 
          give us life, and we will call on your name.

19   Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; 
          let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

GOSPEL MATTHEW 1:18-25

18Now 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All 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.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Have a confession to make. I love Christmas.

I love Christmas lights. I love Christmas music, Christmas carols and Christmas songs. I love Christmas food and Christmas presents, and Christmas cookies, and I even love Christmas sweaters.

I am not crazy about Christmas ties, and I’ll tell you why. The first Christmas Eve service I did at my last church was going very well, until about halfway into my sermon, when I heard a metallic, “Do doo do do do dodo,” coming from the choir. I turned around to see one choir member furiously beating his chest while that noise continued. It turned out he had a Christmas tie that played Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and somehow it started to go off in the service, and he did not know how to stop it. So choir members, we doing a tie-check on Christmas Eve. No musical ties.

But what I love most about Christmas is the atmosphere. Christmas is a time of good will, of “Peace on earth, good will to all.” It is a time for families. It is the time of the year when we, the human race, at least pretend we don’t all hate one another and we try to get along. It’s about Ebenezer Scrooge bringing the turkey to Bob Cratchet, and making sure Tiny Tim gets his operation. It’s the Grinch learning that Christmas is not about presents. It’s the outcast reindeer becoming the hero of the hour. It’s George Bailey understanding that he really is a rich man because he has friends.

And I have to admit that I love that stuff. I think it is the way we should act all the time.

But in fact the first Christmas was not a time of overt sentimentality. In fact that first Christmas must have been a terrible time for Mary and Joseph. We tend to think of them as the characters going to Bethlehem, Mary on the donkey, Joseph leading it, serenely making their way to the stable where Mary would serenely give birth to a baby who never cried.

But in fact the Gospel lesson tells us that was far from the case.

Christmas starts like this: a young woman goes to her fiancé and tells him she is pregnant with someone else’s baby. We start with two people, Mary who suddenly and very surprisingly discovers she is pregnant, and Joseph who discovers his bride to be is having a baby, and it is not his. Now in that time, when a man was betrothed to a woman, she had pretty much become his property. And betrothals could last a fairly long time, up to a couple of years, depending on the age of the bride. Deals with the bride’s parents were made, often goods were exchanged, and it was not unusual for the woman to then move into the parent’s house of her new fiancé.

Now by our standards this might sound awful but back then, if the bride to be were pregnant with another man’s baby, well, that would be like buying a house today, only to find that another family had already moved in, and you had to share the house with them.

By today’s standards it could be devastating for a man to realize his bride-to-be was having another man’s baby.  But in the first century, it was much worse.

Joseph could have caused a big stir. He could have publically shamed Mary and her parents. Mary, from that day on, would be an outcast. Her parents would be expected to disown her for the shame she brought on her family. In some places, she might even be stoned as an adulterer.

This is how the Christmas story starts—with scandal, an apparent deception, and danger. This sounds more like the beginnings of a nightmare than a sweet story about a Mother and Child. And the even the way Matthew tells it, he does not pull any punches. He wants you to feel the drama. 18Now 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.

We are so used to the story, that we miss some of the impact. At least Luke sets up the story by first telling us the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth, and then the angel’s visit to Mary, but Matthew just jumps in with an unmarried pregnant woman and her fiancé. Imagine reading that for the first time. And don’t make the mistake that these were superstitious people who believe in things like a virgin birth at the drop of a hat. People in the first century knew where babies came from, and they would be just as skeptical of this story as we would be today. Matthew wants to throw you in the thick of it, right at the beginning.

Of course, when God does something new, it often starts with the unbelievable. It often starts with people in dire circumstances. In this case we have an unmarried teen age mother, and you want me to believe what? Of course God’s work at Christmas is bigger than just a tale between a woman and her betrothed. Next week we will see just what kind of world Jesus was born into. I’ll give you a sneak peak. When King Herod finds out that a possible rival to him might have been born in Bethlehem, he just has all the children below the age of two killed in that city. That is the reality of the world of Mary and Joseph.

We are a far cry, even from Grinches and Ebenezer Scrooges here. Compared to King Herod, Scrooge was a sweet old man.

This is the way the son of God comes into the world, and this is the world he comes into. He is born surrounded by scandal, into a world where he can be torn from his mother’s arms and murdered at the whim of paranoid king.

But let’s move on in the story: 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 

Now to our modern ears, that might sound a little harsh, but he could have taken her to the town square and demanded she be stoned to death. He could have publically humiliated her and her family, and caused to her be an outcast for the rest of her life. But he didn’t. Joseph was a righteous man. That meant, he was a kind man. He did not want Mary to be executed. He did not even want her to suffer public disgrace. When it says he was going to dismiss her quietly, that probably meant he was doing to do something to take care of her and her baby. Oh, he was not about to marry her. That would be a public disgrace. But he did not want to see her hurt.

God found fertile soil for the seeds of his new kingdom in Joseph. Luke tells us about Mary’s reaction, but Matthew shows us the heart of Joseph, and both are important to this story. Both Mary and Joseph must bear Jesus into the world, each in their own way. Each has a different task, and each has a hard task. Mary has to bear this miraculous child, and Joseph’s job is bear the Christ child by accepting the scandalous work of God.

People are going to talk about Joseph. They are going to whisper behind his back. They are going to laugh at him. They are going to call him a fool for believing that cockamamie story Mary gave him about the Spirit of God coming on her. They may even question his devotion to God, because he is harboring that sinful woman in his house. She committed adultery, and he just took her in as if she were pure as the driven snow.

Joseph could identify with the Psalmist this morning:

6   You make us the scorn of our neighbors; 

          our enemies laugh among themselves.

The writer Anne Lamott tells of her conversion to Christianity, and she says that the hardest part of following Jesus was the fear that people would laugh at her. She ran with a fast crowd in San Francisco, a crowd of artists and intellectuals, all with liberal sensibilities, and as she began to realize she had an interest in Jesus, she was afraid of letting her friends find out. She was afraid they would laugh at her.

“No one’s a Christian these days, except for that loony right-wing crowd.”

“Please don’t tell me you take all that religious mumbo-jumbo seriously. After all this is the 21st century!”

“Excuse me, you cannot stay out late on Saturday because you have to go to CHURCH in the morning?”

But she begin to feel that Jesus was being born in her. She began to feel the presence of Jesus in her life, in small ways at first, but that presence began to grow in her, like the baby grew in Mary’s womb.

She was not alone in that. St. Augustine felt the exact same way. He was an intellectual and a philosopher and felt that becoming a Christian would be intellectual suicide—not to mention a very bad career move. But he too began to feel Jesus being born in him.

Have you ever been in a place where you felt your faith was an embarrassment? Have you ever been in a position where you had to bear your faith in an awkward way? I have, and I am a minister. Two of the churches I served were right next to universities.  I remember having a discusson with a graduate student in psychology once, I don’t remember how we met, but we talking about different psychological theories, and he asked what I did for a living, and I said I was a minister, and he just looked blankly at me and said, “But you seem like such a smart fellow! How can you believe all that folderol?” And I realized that from that point on, simply because I was a minister, he had no more interest in our conversation.

We live in one of the largest unchurched areas in the country. The Pacific Northwest had fewer people who attend church than any other region in the country.

And yet, here we are called to bear Jesus. And I believe we called to bear Jesus the way that Joseph was—with a righteousness that is surrounded by kindness. The real scandal of Christianity is not believing in unscientific things like the virgin birth, or the inspiration of the Bible. The real scandal is believing in love and hope. When we dare to believe that God love us, that is when we find Christ being born within us. When we dare to believe in a hope that can take us into a fulfilling future, that is when we find God’s love being born in us.

I don’t have a problem believing that Matthew or Luke got it right when they were talking about Jesus’ birth. And it does not bother me that some people have a hard time accepting that. And to be honest, what you believe about Mary’s sex life is not as important as believing in the love and hope represented by the virgin birth.

When I was a chaplain, I spent every Christmas morning in the hospital, sitting with patients who literally drank themselves to death on Christmas Eve. I never did that on New Years’ day, but Christmas, that was the hard one.

These people were alone, and they could identify with the Psalmist:

5   You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure. 

 

We are supposed to feel all happy and cheerful, and experience the Joy Of Christmas, Peace On Earth, and all that, sometimes it is just hard to do that. I remember the first few Christmas’s after my parent’s divorce. They were hard times.

Some of you will be having a rough Christmas this year. Some of you will not be with the people you want to be with on Christmas. Either they live elsewhere, or perhaps they have passed on. And it will be a hard Christmas. Some of you have issues in your life that will make it a hard Christmas. The money is tight, and you like to spread the Christmas cheer, but there is not enough cheer to go around. Some people will be unemployed this Christmas. Christmas can be hard.

You know what a virgin birth looks like today? It is when God looks at the rocky terrain of a heart, when God sees the infertility of a soul, and yet still choses that Christ be born in that person. It is when God looks into the heart of an Anne Lamont, a bulimic, alcoholic who would not know a healthy relationship if it bit her in the nose, and yet God still choses to be born in her. It is when God looks at the heart of Augustine, a cold-hearted, intellectual philosopher who could get his sex life under control and who treated women like objects, and yet God chooses to be born in him.

It is when God looks into the rocky terrain of my heart, into the infertility of my soul, and yet still choses to be born in me.

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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