Let’s take a deep breath and open our hearts, mind, soul and spirit to receive the message that God has for us this morning. Let’s focus our thoughts on the mystic presence of our Holy God. Let us pray: Lord God, Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, please let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength, our Rock and our Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
The virgin birth is hardly the most "unbelievable" thing that Christians are asked to believe in at Christmas. An immaculate conception of a virgin seems like small potatoes next to other claims of Advent texts. As examples, we read from the First Sunday of Advent, in Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore." And, from the Second Sunday of Advent, in Matthew 2, we read: "The kingdom of heaven has come near." Then, from the Third Sunday of Advent, we read in Luke 1: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty." So far, we have heard testimony of the nearness of (1) an end to war, (2) a time and place where God's will is done on earth as in heaven, and (3) the reality of the hungry having enough to eat while the rich stop getting richer. Certainly, none of these possible realities is easier to imagine in the natural world than is a virgin birth. Each of them depends on God's intervention into the natural order of things to make it all happen. So, at Advent and Christmas, Christians testify that God is shaking up what we have come to think of as "natural" through the birth of His Son, Jesus. Pastor and author The Reverend Erwin McManus, in his book, “an unstoppable force”, writes that, “God is continuously inviting us to believe that His future is better than any past we have experienced with Him…For too long the church has longed for the good old days…hoped that the future would simply be a detour to the past…(God) wants to shake heaven and earth and shake us loose from all that holds us back from entering His future. This future cannot be experienced without embracing and experiencing change.”
For Joseph, God’s shake-up of Joseph’s life must have felt seismic in proportion. PICTURE THIS: Joseph is betrothed, or promised, to Mary. They’re going to be married! He’s a good Jewish son of David who has done everything the “right” way. But suddenly, everything goes sideways for him. He finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant at about the same time that Caesar Augustus decides he wants to raise taxes! What else can go wrong!? Well, having to walk the 105 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem is no small matter, either!
The Matthew text says that Joseph is a righteous man, which is high praise in Matthew's Gospel. This is the Gospel in which Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied and that his hearers should "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness." At both the beginning, and the end of the life of Jesus, Matthew tells the story of Jesus in such a way as to remind us that Jesus means to bridge the gap between the brokenness of humanity, and God's holiness. Remember an angel speaking to Joseph in a dream, saying, "He will save his people from their sins."
The name, "Jesus", is a variation of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yeshua, which means "Yahweh saves", or “God is salvation.” In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we see that Jesus forgives sins, and offers love and forgiveness to anyone who seeks it. Jesus institutes the Lord's Supper and says that his blood will be poured out for many "for the forgiveness of sins." This is God’s love, shown to us. Although the use of the name "Emmanuel" only appears once in Matthew, the good news that Jesus as "God with us" is clarified throughout the Gospel, and the promise of the ongoing presence of Jesus in a world which hears His ministry of faith, hope and love is made manifest. For example, when Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds marvel at his authority. When he rebukes a storm at sea, the disciples wonder, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the seas obey him?" Or, when He is calling His future disciples, after he had borrowed a
boat from Simon to teach from, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered and said, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets." When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, that their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw what had happened, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not fear (Don’t be afraid), from now on you will be catching people." And when they had brought their boats to land, they left EVERYTHING and followed Him.”
Getting back to Joseph and Mary, righteousness is rooted in faith, which leads to grace and mercy. Being a righteous man, Joseph plans a merciful course of action toward the woman who is found to be pregnant before they are married: Joseph will "dismiss her quietly" rather than insist on a more public disgrace than that which she has already endured or WILL endure once her curiously timed pregnancy becomes common knowledge. She could have even been stoned to death for this seeming indiscretion. But
Joseph changes his mind about rejecting Mary because of a dream in which he hears that Mary's honor has not been harmed, that he need not fear, and that the child will "save his people from their sins." We read that, "while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” Joseph is righteous, merciful, courageous, and faithful in the face of frightening circumstances. He is also faithful to the angel that appeared to him in the dream. Even though he had every opportunity to “put Mary away quietly,” "he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him." Looking at Joseph, we see that he could have responded to Mary's pregnancy by marrying her and being the father to Jesus that the angel called him to be, or he could have basically left Mary to face whatever would happen to a young unwed mother of those times. Joseph had a choice; would he choose the logical way of the mind, or the way of the heart. Would he choose by his heart and take the high road of the spirit of what the angel had said to him, or would he choose by the logic of his mind as to what mattered only to him. Would he make the logical, heartless choice, and run away from that which he had no responsibility toward, or would he listen to his heart and the angelic spirit that had spoken to him in a dream? "Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS." Heart wins out over logic and mind. Love wins!
When we find ourselves in a position of having to choose between doing God's will or running away from God's calling to us, how do we decide? Is it heart or heart-less? Are we able, as Joseph was, to make the heartfelt choice and take the high road that always leads into God's presence and grace, or do we, like Jonah, follow our own heartless logic that puts us on a manmade highway, which always leads to a dead end, or into the belly of a whale! Are we mindful of the spirit of God with us; are we filled with the Holy Spirit of Emmanuel (God with us), or do we feel alone, unloved and defensive, angry and forsaken alongside the wide road that always leads to a destructive end, a dead end that we, through our sinful living, always bring upon ourselves? Heart or mind; do we listen to our heart, or are we heart-les
My hope is that when we meet Jesus Christ, metaphorically, face to face, we will welcome Him lovingly. Like the disciples who exclaimed, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the seas obey him, (?)" we, as worldly citizens, recognize through our own experiences that in Jesus there is someone who is greater than the temple. And the temple I’m talking about is the inner temple of each one of us, body, soul, mind and spirit! Jesus is the One who will fill the empty, spirit-less, dead-end temple
s?that is our inner self with new life and a hopeful, loving way into the future! As we meet Jesus, it is as if the Old Testament vision of the nations coming to know and worship the Lord, the God of Israel, has really come true!
Joseph made the right, heartfelt choice and responded lovingly to the angel's message, by taking the high road that leads into God's presence. Joseph was faithful to God's calling. When God spoke to Joseph through an angel in a dream, and said, "Do not be afraid," Joseph responded faithfully, courageously, fearlessly and lovingly. Today, as we continue to celebrate the coming birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, I invite each of us here today to do no less. Let us faithfully come into His presence with singing and know that the Lord is God. We are His people and the sheep of His pastures. It is God who has made us, and we are His. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: God with us. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Let us pray:
Rev. Jan Ekstedt, MDiv.