Advent 4, Year A, 2013, All Saints’ (Matthew 1:18-25)
What is your favorite Christmas movie? I imagine you have several. I asked this same question to all my Facebook friends last week and what I discovered was really fascinating. I found out that people are really invested in their Christmas movies, people would fight over their favorite movies. It was unreal. I must have received close to 100 responses. I even heard from people who I haven’t seen or talked to in years.
I also learned that I haven’t even watched a quarter of the Christmas movies out there such as Ernest Saves Christmas (don’t plan on seeing that one), Joyeux Noel, the 1964 edition of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And who knew that Die Hard with Bruce Willis was a Christmas movie?
Of course the classics were all mentioned, White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Some romantic comedies were named, The Family Stone and Love Actually. And my personal favorites all received a lot of mention, Home Alone, Elf, and Christmas Vacation.
I believe one of the reasons why we love our Christmas movies so much is because on some level they speak so much to our own experience with Christmas. We all know what it is like for the Christmas season to fall short of expectations and none of these moves describe the “perfect” Christmas. All of these stories name the disappointments, failures, and let downs of the Christmas season.
Rudolph got made fun of because he looked different. Little “Ralphie” Parker gets hit in the face with a snowball. Kevin McAllister, an 8 year old boy, got left home alone for Christmas. I imagine none of you were left home alone for Christmas, but I think many of you know what it is like to feel alone during the holidays. Liam Neeson’s character Daniel grieves the loss of his wife. And for Clark Griswold, everything that could go wrong goes wrong.
However, these Christmas stories don’t end with the disappointments. Something unexpected happens. Joy is experienced in the most ordinary places like at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas morning. And in order for Clark Griswold to get his Christmas vacation cousin Eddie has to kidnap somebody, something scandalous has to happen.
In other words, joy and hope are born out of the unexpected, out of the ordinary, and even out of the scandalous. This sounds a lot like another Christmas story we know, doesn’t it? It sounds like it because that other story is the first Christmas story, it is THE Christmas story.
I know we haven‘t technically celebrated Christmas yet, at least not on this side of the road (see image). However, on the 4th Sunday of Advent we begin reading the infancy narrative of Jesus. And this year we get to hear about the sparsely mentioned Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, and his role in the most wonderful Christmas story ever told.
What is Joseph’s story? We know that Joseph is a descendant of Abraham and David as the writer of Matthew spills a lot of ink tracing his genealogy (check out Matthew 1:1-17). For the readers of Matthew, it is critical that Jesus follow the line of Abraham to David to Joseph in order to fulfill what scripture says how the world will receive its Messiah. But there is a problem.
As we learn from today’s story, Joseph isn’t Jesus’ biological father. The child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Disaster is averted because the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus. And because Joseph names the child he is legally the father.
There is another peculiarity with the genealogy of Jesus. Four women are listed. Typically, only the man’s name is used. For example, verse 6 says, “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah (who is Bathsheba).” This is important because it gives us a clue into what God is up to here. If you remember, King David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed so he could be with her. Subsequently, David and Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon who continued the Messianic line.
The mention of Bathsheba should tip the readers off that God is in the business of making good out of the most unlikely of circumstances. This is our first clue as to how God is introducing the Messiah into the world. This is our first clue that God is executing His plan of rescue for the world outside of the safety of social norms or conventions.
Joseph is a man who is accustomed to operating within the boundaries of social norms and structures. Scripture says he is a righteous man. He knew that he would not be able to conceive a child with his wife until marriage. And so this righteous man is faced with a dilemma when he learns that his betrothed is expecting a child without his knowledge.
Quietly divorcing Mary, in Joseph’s estimation, is his best option. He wants to do this quietly to try and protect Mary from public disgrace. In other words, Joseph doesn’t air his family’s dirty laundry on the Jerry Springer show. He is a righteous man and respects the dignity of other human beings.
So here we are at the critical point of the story—the moment of decision. Will Joseph stick with social law and norms? Will he carry on his plan to dismiss Mary quietly and avoid social humiliation? Or will he listen to the call of God to go against the grain and remain committed to Mary?
For those who know the story of God, it comes as no surprise that Joseph remains committed to Mary because when God says something is going to happen in scripture it happens—it might take a detour, it might take awhile—but it always happens. Joseph goes against the grain because God asks him to. God’s Word is the most important word in Joseph’s life.
This is the beginning of the greatest story ever told not only because of what Joseph did but because of what God did. God intervenes into our world in an unpredictable and unexpected way. In this case, God makes Himself known through a social scandal. The story of Christmas begins with a scandal—Joseph marries a woman who is pregnant outside of bonds of marriage. The story of Christmas begins unexpectedly in a manger in Bethlehem and the story starts with two ordinary, yet incredibly faithful people—Mary and Joseph.
The story of Christmas was lived out in a small way last Saturday. About 60 children whose parents are incarcerated gathered for a party. Some of these children are lucky enough to live with family members. Others live in foster care programs. Needless to say, these are not who we would typically invite to a holiday party. But those children and our children played together. They made cookies together. They sat on Santa’s lap together. They heard the story of Christmas together.
For those two hours the hope of Christmas was visible in the world today. It wasn’t a big fancy party but it was thrown with great love. Small children, including my own child, were terrified of Santa Claus but at least we got a free picture! Children interrupted the Christmas story again and again but the Christmas story was still told and heard. None of it was perfect by human standards but God made it perfect through the love of Jesus who was born in an ordinary, unexpected, and even scandalous way.
The Gospel lesson for today and the season of Advent tune our hearts to be ready to receive our Savoir when he breaks into our lives in unpredictable ways. I will remember this Advent for how God intervened in my life in an unexpected way. A day after Thanksgiving my grandfather had a massive stroke and eventually was released to hospice care and died this past Wednesday.
We have a big family so all of my aunts were here to hold vigil in his last days. I was able to get to know my aunts in a way I never have before. I will be forever grateful for that opportunity for many reasons. Above all, it was a reminder that God takes even the bleakest of circumstances and gives us hope and joy. I wonder how God is giving you hope in the most unexpected places?
I don’t think I would have seen the incarnation of God’s love in Christ at the Angel Tree Party or in the days leading up to my grandfather’s death if I was looking for joy and hope in the big and fancy, if I was looking for joy and hope in the perfect and pristine. God’s love is about breaking into the messiness of our lives so that we may see the wonders of his love.
The season of Advent calls us to look for God not in the grandiose and ostentatious, but in the ordinary, in the unexpected, and even the scandalous. Finding God in this way may be surprising hear but God’s story of grace and love is surprising. Today, God surprises us again and tells Joseph to take Mary as his bride even though the Jewish law forbids it. And as the story goes on the surprises only get better and better. Amen.