Here is my sermon from the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016. This week, we get to read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew, told entirely from Joseph’s perspective!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
At the first service this morning, we had our annual Sunday School Christmas Pageant. The children shared, through their words and songs, the message of God’s love becoming human in the baby Jesus. I used to love the Christmas pageant growing up, because, there weren’t a ton of kids at my church, and I almost always got to play Mary.
And it was pretty clear to me from a young age that Mary was the star. She tends to be, not just in our Christmas pageants, but in our imaginings of Christmas, too. Joseph comes off as a bit of side note. When setting up my parents’ nativity set, we always have a great debate every year over which figure even is Joseph. He’s so nondescript that he tends to blend in with the shepherds. That’s not a problem we have with Mary.
And yet, this week we read the Christmas story entirely from Joseph’s perspective. It’s a blink or you’ll miss it kind of story: because that was the whole thing, those eight verses that I read. It’s honestly not too terribly interesting—I’m not surprised we focus more on Mary. In Mary’s story in the gospel of Luke, there’s a whole cast full of characters, and drama, and songs.
Matthew has no shepherds, no manger, and just the one angel. On closer inspection, though, it’s anything but drama-less. But what we have instead of the imagined peace and placidity of the children’s pageant, or of our nativity sets, is some serious family problems.
That bland, nondescript, Joseph is anything but—he doesn’t take to kindly to the idea that his fiancé somehow is pregnant without his involvement. The words fiancé and engagement are kind of misleading in this case, since for all intents and purposes, Joseph and Mary and married. They have signed a marriage contract, but aren’t living together yet.
And Joseph finds out that she’s pregnant. Can you imagine the turmoil he must have been going through? Because he is a righteous man, the story says, he plans to dismiss her quietly. Righteous man is code for follower of the religious laws. Well, the religious laws, at best, would condemn Mary and her child to a life of poverty and shame. At worst, being stoned in the center of town. This nice, peaceful story just got a whole lot more interesting.
The conflict is resolved pretty quickly from there, though—the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and explains the situation. Joseph believes and obeys, and, in naming the child himself, essentially adopts Jesus as his son, and brings him into the line of King David.
It’s the conflict that I find interesting, though. Not in a drama-loving way—there are plenty of bad reality TV shows I can get that fix from. But the conflict opens the door, and lets us see this family—this family we so often see only as stained glass, or small carved figures—lets us see them as real, flesh and blood people.
Joseph reacted to this situation much like most of us would—with feelings of betrayal, sadness, distrust. He was hurt, and probably more than a little mad. We don’t hear about Mary’s perspective but she must have been frightened, maybe anxious.
And it’s into this situation—this real, messy, anxious family—that God enters into human history. Although we have literally idolized Mary and Joseph, there were not perfect people. They were real people. People with feelings, and arguments, real-life problems. And this is where God chooses to set in motion the redemption of the world.
It’s easy to forget that sometimes. It’s easy to romanticize this story, to sanitize this story. But when we do that, we miss out. We miss out on the fact that Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, and God chose them anyway! God doesn’t wait for perfect people—probably because God would be waiting a long time.
When we remember, and when we celebrate, the fact that Mary and Joseph were ordinary people like you and me, it opens the door to the question: how might God be able to work through me? Through my life?
Our messiness—our feelings, our doubts, our fears and hopes and anxieties—none of it is a deterrent to God using us to do important and meaningful things. In our reading from the book of Romans, the first couple of verses of Romans actually, Paul stresses the importance of being called.
He is called, he says, to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Romans, the church he is writing to, are called to be saints, and called to belong to Jesus Christ. It’s a call that we share, with all of them actually. We too, are called to belong to Jesus and to be saints. And we, too, with Paul, are called to share the gospel.
We’re not called the same way as Mary and Joseph (although if an angel appears to you, come talk to me). We’re not called the same way as Paul, or even as the first century Romans were. But God has called us, flawed imperfect people that we might be, to proclaim love and grace in this time and place through our words and actions.
In the next week, as it seems Christmas takes over everything—TV, news, radio—we will be surrounded by the messages of peace and tranquility. Of a sweet, beautiful story. And it is, it is as beautiful story. But if, in the next week, you don’t feel quite peaceful, or if you don’t feel the calm of Mary and the quiet presence of Joseph, remember that God doesn’t just work through peaceful people and things.
God works through messy people, too. And imperfect situations. And it’s often just as beautiful in the end. Amen.