Now 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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 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.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Earlier this week while I was working in my study, I heard the church doorbell ring. There was the noise of coming and going in the hallway and then after a few minutes I heard Pastor Amy, exclaim “The angels are here!”
Without skipping a beat, I called out “Oh thank goodness!”
For you see I had been wondering where the angels had gotten to. Not those that Amy was now unpacking from Oriental Trading Company, but the heavenly host whose presence is all over the Christmas story.
I had been wondering: How come we are not being surprised by the sudden rustling of wings? How come our day jobs are not beset with a flash mob of the heavenly host? How come our night time dreams are not filled with angelic advice?
And then that got me wondering about the Christmas story in general. What is Christmas all about anyway? At Christmas are we just remembering something that happened long ago or is Christmas still happening now? Has revelation been reduced to discovering of what is inside the presents under the tree? Or does this season have something more to tell us?
But before we go any further let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN
By this time in December, I am getting pretty tired of Christmas. One cannot walk into store, fill up ones car at the gas station or work out at the gym without being inundated with continued droning of Christmas carols and overwhelmed by a visual onslaught of red and green.
Just yesterday, I was standing in line for coffee at my favorite neighborhood coffee spot yesterday when I almost jumped out of my skin when a life sized, mechanical Santa that I had overlooked on entering, suddenly sprung to life singing a carol and doing a little dance routine. I am so done with it all. As a Christian pastor, I find myself wanting to go around apologizing this time of year for how out of control Christmas has become!
I’ve come realize that what is going on this time of year really has very little to do with Christmas. What is being celebrated out there has become its own freestanding, contemporary holiday with its own narrative that has much more to do with the coming of Santa then of the Christ child. And as long as we are clear about that then I suppose it is fine. There is nothing wrong with a party and you know how much I love presents!
But I think that we lose something tremendously important if we let go of, or fall asleep to, what Jesus coming into the world has to say to us. We lose something very powerful if we let mystery be drained out of Christmas. The point of Christmas is not that we are to tumble into January feeling absolutely exhausted, depleted and a bit hung over by the excesses of the season. Instead this is to be a time when we are to be renewed by the revelation of mystery that has the power to change our lives.
For on that night so long ago, a critical insight into the working of God in the world was revealed. And that is that God’s presence is being revealed and is at work in the places we may be think God is not. God’s presence can be found most powerfully in places of absence. This is the mystery of God with us that has been present since the beginning of time, but that was made manifest in a new way on that night so long ago. Christmas is a particular revelation of an ongoing reality that is at work in the world and in our own lives. This is the truth that saves us, heals us and sets us free and that is the heart of the Christmas story.
We see this at work in the Gospel passage this morning. Can you imagine what Joseph must have been going through at the news that his betrothed had betrayed him, that she was pregnant? Can you imagine the shame that must have been kicked up in him? Can you feel the hot hunger of vengeance rising in him? And can you imagine how much self-control it must have taken for him to have gotten to a place of wanting to quietly dismiss Mary and how dispirited he must have felt by having to do so?
You can, I know. I know because betrayal, shame, vengeance, despair are no strangers to us. For many of us, this is a story we know all too well. We have lived a version of what Joseph is going through. It is our story. But the Christmas revelation is that the story does not end with betrayal, shame, vengeance and despair. The Christmas revelation is that it is precisely in this deep dark moment for Joseph that he meets mystery and his life is changed by it.
This is what the Gospel writer is wanting his community to see and hold onto. The Gospel of Matthew it is believed was written sometime shortly after 70 CE. Matthew was writing for primarily a Jewish audience who were in the midst of one of the most catastrophic moments in the life of their people. It was a moment of deep, deep darkness. In the words of one commentary, Jerusalem “The city of God’s presence had been overwhelmed by Romans. Thousands of Matthew’s readers’ friends and relatives had been brutally killed, hundreds of them by crucifixion on purposefully sadistic Roman crosses. The world and the future did not look good for Jews, or even the small but growing Jesus movement.”
Matthew wrote down the story of Jesus and spoke it to the people who were in no mood for a party and for whom going shopping was the last thing on their minds. Matthew wrote down the story of Jesus for a people whose back was up against the wall (to borrow a phrase from Howard Thurman). Matthew wrote it down so that they would remember the coming of Emmanuel, so that they could come to see God with them right in the midst of the deep dark of their lives.
And so he tells them to “remember the story! Remember what happened 40 years ago when we thought all was lost? Remember how Jesus was born in the most unlikely of places, and grew to be the most unlikely of leaders and remember how when they thought that all was destroyed when he was murdered, they discovered the unlikely truth that he was with them still. Remember how Jesus came to them in the darkness of that upper room where they had locked themselves away in fear and how he opened a way for them.
But even more than that, Matthew ties, the revelation of Jesus to another revelation deep in the people’s history. The passage say “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.”” Matthew’s hearers would have immediately recalled the passage in the book of Isaiah that speaks of a time back in the 8th century BCE, when the people were under siege by the aggressive Assyrian Army that threatened to annihilate them. In the midst of that deeply dark time, they would remember that a child would be born, whose mother would name the child “God with us” and that child would be a sign to the people what God was still at work in their lives and that a way would be made for them.
Christmas, you see is not just an event that happened once over 2000 ago. Christmas it is about what God has been doing since the beginning of time. And that even now is reaching in to the deepest of our darkness to bring forth light.
Now it is noteworthy, that in our passage this morning the angel came to Joseph in a dream, for when we dream our defenses are down. We are not “armored up” as researcher and author Brene Brown calls it. We are more vulnerable and receptive and that is key. For in order for God to draw a new way out of our deepest darkness, in order to be transformed by mystery we must first be willing to surrender to it.
Can we have the courage to stay in the darkness and not flee from it or fight with it? Can we find a way to enter in and engage with a soft and open heart? Can we accept our own fragility and risk humility to ask for help? Can we let go of what needs to be released, in order that we may experience the mystery of something new being born within us, for as the choir will sing in a few minutes, “it is soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.” This is not easy to do. It takes great intentionality and practice, so but if we can, we may very well find ourselves, like Joseph, in the heart of the Christmas story.
With Amy’s pronouncement that the angels had arrived, I got up from my desk and went out into the hall to see what Amy had found. Amy had the box open and an angel in each hand. Smiling broadly she said. ‘Don’t you just love them? Aren’t they the most down to earth angels you have ever seen!?’ And they were! Some of these little plush beauties had brown eyes. Some blue. Some light skin, some dark. Some blond hair and some with black.
I had been wondering where the heavenly hosts and gotten to when in fact they had been here all along. Not angels from the realm of glory, but down to earth angels that turns out look a lot like us.
And then I remembered, that I had heard the rustle of wings that day in my office as two of you sat with one who has lost hope and said to her, “we will hold hope for you until you can feel it again for yourself.” I remembered I had heard the heavenly host in your cry on the Boston Common for the end of gun violence and the coming of the reign of peace. I remembered all the time in council meetings, retreats and so many other settings, when I had heard you speak dreams for not only for the future of this church but for the future of our world. I remembered all the times I had seen you show up in the deep dark of illness, loss and grief with casseroles and tender care. And how you have shown up with shovels after snow storms to dig out our elders and with pumps to clean out contaminated wells in Nicaragua. And I remembered that that is what Christmas looks like in 2018. Not boxes with bows, but heart and hands wide open to accept help and to be of help. To heal and to be healed.
Hear the good news, people of God. God’s presence is being revealed and is at work in those very places where we may be convinced God is not. For God’s presence is found most powerfully in places of absence and we often times must die to safe playing it safe in order to find the seed that with the suns love in the spring will become the rose.
This is the mystery of God with us that has been present since the beginning of time, but that was made manifest in a new way on that night so long ago. Christmas is a particular revelation of that ongoing reality that is at work in the world and in our own lives. This is the truth that saves us, heals us and sets us free. It is the revelation at the heart of the Christmas story that we too are to participate in and proclaim to the world. Thanks be to God.