My Fourth Sunday of Advent Sermon
An Imperfect Christmas
Matthew 1: 18 – 25
December 18, 2022/ Here is a link to the video version of the service and sermon.
At long last, now on this the final Sunday of Advent, we come to something in the appointed lessons that sounds like Christmas. The gospel reading begins with the words, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
And so we begin to picture the beloved story, the familiar images of manger and straw, an adoring mother and protective father, the soft light of a lantern and stars. The devoted animals, the shepherds hastening toward Bethlehem, and though still far off in the distance, three wise men making their star-led journey.
We know it well. We’ve seen it on countless Christmas cards. We hear it in beloved carols. We love it.
But here’s a question, asked by a thoughtful person,* “Do we sense some of the heartache in Matthew’s story of the birth of the Messiah?”
If we have missed it, that’s understandable. As Matthew tells his story of the birth of Jesus, it is so very brief. Only seven verses. It is over before we know it. And though it opens with the words, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” there is no mention, not really, of an actual birth. No agony of labor, no sweat or blood. No tears, whether of pain or joy.
You know how when you watch and eclipse? You don’t, you can’t, look directly at it. Only indirectly. Perhaps it’s like that with such an act of God. So brief and indirect.
But do we sense some of the heartache here?
Or we may have missed it not only because the account of the birth of the Messiah is brief and indirect, it is also laced with the extraordinary or supernatural. Angelic incursions with an angel of the Lord saying to Joseph in a dream what angels always say to a frightened human, “Do not be afraid.” Extraordinary, dazzling, supernatural and yet calming. A flutter of wings, a reassuring word, “all is calm, all is bright.”
Do we sense some of the heartache here?
Brief and indirect, with angelic visitation, those are some of the reasons we may miss the heartache. But here’s another. We have domesticated this story. Mary and Joseph have ceased to be real people. Mary is always radiant. Joseph always paternal and protective. And baby Jesus? “No crying he makes.”
“Look,” we think, “how perfect, how perfect it all is.” And so the perfect Christmas — is divorced from our own imperfect Christmases and imperfect lives, idealized, domesticated.
But it wasn’t perfect. And there was some heartache here. And we don’t even have to read between the lines to find it. It is right there. “Before they lived together, she was found to be with child . . . her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly . . .”
We begin to hear some of the heartache, something that sounds not quite perfect, but possibly familiar . . . The whispers, “She’s pregnant and it’s not his.” “Don’t tell anyone, but . . .” “What will they do now?”
Joseph and Mary were “bethrothed,” which is a like being engaged, only another level of serious. Bethrothal was a legal contract made between the families of a husband and wife-to-be. Often the principals were quite young, at least for the woman, really still a girl. Bethrothal might last for a year or two during which the couple were officially “married,” but the marriage was not consummated nor did they live together.
Mary was pregnant.
What was Joseph to think? It puts a different spin on the carol we’ve just sung, “What Child Is This?” Not so haunting and reverent a question now. A dumbfounded one, “What Child Is This!” “Whose child is this?”
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.” Do you know what that meant? It meant he was a man who kept the Mosaic law. He lived according to the prescriptions and rules of righteous and lawful behavior. Which, in this case, gave him two options.
He could have Mary stoned as an adulterous woman. Or he could give her a writ of divorce and send her on her way. Joseph was apparently not only a “righteous man,” one who would keep the law, but also a decent and a merciful man. He resolved to dismiss the pregnant Mary “quietly,” to avoid exposing her to public disgrace. But even that couldn’t have been as kind as it may sound. A woman had no legal rights or standing, except through her husband. What would become of an unmarried woman with a child?
Yes, there is some heartache in this story.
And there is some heartache in our own stories too. And just as we conjur images of the first Christmas as perfect, so at least at times, we stagger beneath the load, the expectation of the perfect Christmas . . . the perfect gift . . . the perfect family.
“Over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house we go . . .” “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .” “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know, where the treetops glisten, and children listen, to hear the sound of sleigh bells in the air . . .” Night before last we went to Lady Zen’s Christmas show. The images flashed on the screen backdrop were all of snow covered trees, snowmen, and sleighs.
But it’s not just the nostalgia, which let’s admit, can be fun. Who doesn’t love all that?
It’s that some folks, some of us, are just barely holding it together. Anne Lamott says that we should never compare our insides to other people’s outsides, a good reminder at this time of year because our insides may be a stew of insecurity, loneliness and anxiety.
Instead of children listening for the sound of sleigh bells in the air, they may be fussing and fighting or demanding whatever new thing the toy and tech people have come with as this year’s “must have.” Or there aren’t children, any longer, in the house at all. Or instead of pious Joseph and radiant Mary, there is a husband and a wife who are wondering if they can make it through one more Christmas together . . .
And then there are the Christmas letters. Oh, we’re glad to hear from . . . but goodness do they always have to remind us of their grandchildren — the one who started his own on-line businesses at age 15, making their first million by age 16, and his sister who at the age of 12 founded her own NGO and has saved three African villages from drought and disaster this year alone?
Christmas perfect is what I have been calling “the Law.” It is all the images and expectations of how it is supposed to be, how we’re supposed to be, how our family is supposed to be. Even when we know it’s a lot of crap, it still gets a hold on us. We measure ourselves against the images of perfection, against the law, and come up losers. Good news, Jesus loves losers.
Perhaps you heard the joke about the two ministers who went to a conference on “The Dysfunctional Family”? One of the expert presenters said, “According to our estimates 95% of all families are dysfunctional.” One minister leaned over to the other and whispered, “I think that’s low, don’t you?”
Our Christmas story, the real Christmas story, isn’t about perfection at least not of the sort that is called for by the law, whether the Mosaic law or the laws and expectations of the perfect home and family. It is about the God who is with us not in our perfect lives, but in our real lives.
Isn’t it something that after these weeks of preaching that ours is a religion of grace not law, not a religion of virtue, but something more radical and shattering, here in this central event and moment of the Christian calendar — the birth of Jesus, the Messiah — it all seems to come down to this — the law or grace. Will Joseph do what the law requires? Will we beat ourselves up for failing to achieve the perfect Christmas or family or life? It is so clearly focused, so sharply crystallized for us here that you might think I had planned it. Trust me, I’m nowhere near that smart or clever. There really is a Holy Spirit.
Once again, to be clear, the law of God is not bad. It is good. But it cannot bring about what it requires, a changed heart, a new being. Only grace, only God’s one-way love, can do that.
Joseph, a “righteous” man, meaning a man who lived by the law and fulfilled its rules and requirements, was called in a dream — in a dream — to what Jesus will call “a higher righteousness.” In the Sermon on the Mount, he will say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Does he mean by this that he will ratchet the requirements of the law higher, demand more, require utter and complete perfection?
I think not. The higher righteousness is the righteousness of grace, the incursion of a new creation into our insecurity, loneliness and resentments. Saying to us as to Joseph, “Do not be afraid. You are beloved of God, forgiven, healing underway. Joseph was asked to trust that what appeared a moral outrage was in reality not that, but a holy disruption. Grace as I said last week is a moral outrage to the world of law.
Last week three of you thanked me for my sermon in exactly the same words. Each of you said, “Thank you. I always seem to need to be reminded of grace.“ One of you added, “I’m not why I always need that reminder.” I’ll tell you why, we live in a world where the law rules. We internalize it the same way the Hebrew slaves had internalized Egypt. And as the saying goes, “it took a day to get the Hebrews slaves out of Egypt, but 40 years to get Egypt out of the former slaves.”
You made me think of a young woman in one of the congregations I served. At the time, she was the mother of two small children and a high school math teacher. She thanked me for a sermon in words I’ve never forgotten. “I don’t need, every Sunday,” she said, “to be reminded of my responsibilties. They are staring me in the face. But I do need to be reminded, every Sunday, of God’s grace.”
God comes to us not as we are supposed to be. God comes to us as we are. The first Christmas was not perfect.
It was the first Sunday of Advent at the First Parish Church of Middletown. 7-year-old Rachel was at her post at the back of the sanctuary ready, per instructions, to process up the long central aisle of that New England sanctuary to the front, where she would begin the service by lighting the first candle on the Advent wreath. But nothing was ready, nothing was right.
The choir was inexplicably running late, the organist extending the prelude for a third time now. Two of boys in the Sunday School class, convinced that their classmates were out of order, were pushing and shoving the lot, with one little guy disappearing under a pew with a wail. The minister, looking anything but spiritual, as he tried frantically to get word to Rachel to wait. Not yet. We’re not ready. The huge Christmas tree appeared to be listing dangerously to the right, threatening to fall on the choir, who were now straggling in.
Seven-year-old Rachel was undeterred. Holding the long golden candle lighter with both hands, her eyes fixed on its flickering flame, Rachel advanced oblivious of the mess. She carefully skirted the furnace vent, with it’s blast of warm air, so that it wouldn’t blow out the flame. With a singleness of purpose — to bring the light — Rachel came into the chaos. But as she climbed the steps to the chancel and arrived at the Advent Wreath the hub-bub somehow subsided. All eyes turned to Rachel and the light she bore so carefully, so intently. She lit and first candle and the service began. God comes, ready or not.
God has come to us, God is with us, Immanuel, not as we are supposed to be, but as we are.
*David Lose, at WorkingPreacher.org