(Ice Storm Sunday – aka ‘The Sermon (almost) Nobody Heard!”)
If you were going to make a kids Christmas pageant out of the nativity story according to the Gospel of Matthew you would be in a heap of trouble. Journey to Bethlehem? Nope. Birth in a stable? Nope. Shepherds? Nope. Angels? Nope. Drummer boys, wise men, or reindeer? Nope, nope, and we need to talk! Well, there are wise men in the next chapter, but they don’t arrive for a few weeks! So we don’t have any of the usual Christmas nativity trappings here in Matthew’s gospel. All we have is Joseph, and in the background a scandalously pregnant Mary.
You know that whole controversy and argument that people get into over whether Mary was a virgin or not, and how did she really become pregnant, and maybe it was actually Joseph’s baby after all, and, and, and…
I am going to settle the controversy for you this morning once and for all because I have a very strong opinion about this, and it happens to be correct, and I’m not afraid to tell you what it is. Are you ready? The truth is…It doesn’t matter!
It totally doesn’t matter. The means of Jesus’ conception does not matter one tiny bit. What does matter, and what we ought to be focusing on, are Joseph’s reactions!
Ok, to be fair, maybe you’d argue that Jesus’ conception matters theologically. I’d agree. But to make that argument you need to know a little Greek. (I looked it up!) You’d need to know that the word in verse 20 that has an angel telling Joseph about Mary’s child is a form of the Greek word gennao. It is the same word that dominated the first 17 verses of Matthew – what we affectionately call the “begats”. This one begat that one, that one begat the next one, that next one begat another one. On and on it goes through the generations. They did a lot of begetting over the years!
So with 39 or so soundings of the word gennao ringing in your ears when you hear that the Holy Spirit is involved somehow in the begetting your interest would be piqued. Gennao means begat, but it equally means “to engender, to cause to arise, to excite.” Maybe that’s how we should think of it, that the Holy Spirit engendered or caused Jesus to arise?
Now add this. Verse 18 in English says “The birth of Jesus took place in this way…” But what’s really interesting is the Greek word there is actually genesis. “The genesis of Jesus happened like this.” Genesis and gennao share the same root. Us uptight Westerners all fixate on Mary’s supposed virginity (which is another word mess that I’m not going to get into today), but the original Greek speaking Jewish audience would only have heard genesis, genesis, genesis!
So, was Jesus’ conception theologically important? Yes, but I think the big theological insight we’re meant to get out of this isn’t about whether or not Jesus’ conception is somehow more miraculous than any other conception, it’s that Jesus represents a new Genesis – a new beginning – that theologically we’re starting something significantly new here, and the Holy Spirit is what’s engendering it and causing it to arise!
Now let’s get back to Joseph.
After learning the news of his fiancé’s untimely pregnancy, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Mt 1:19)
Quick explanation. They were betrothed, which in their time meant they were legally married but were not yet living together. The legal, contractual stuff was fixed but then there’s a waiting period before the big ceremony and celebration and the start of their shared housing. They couldn’t walk away from an engagement like we can today, they had to divorce.
It wasn’t all that hard for a man to divorce his wife. All he had to do was quietly have two witnesses go with him and say that adultery had occurred and the papers were signed and the couple was divorced. The part that isn’t clear to us is whether or not the full cultural Law of Moses was in effect at that time – but if it was Joseph was well within his rights to have Mary stoned to death. In fact, that would have been the righteous and law-abiding thing to do seeing that she scandalized him. It would have been expected of him.
Had Joseph gone through with the divorce he still would have been a good guy, according to the law. The only way Joseph could be a bad guy in this story is if he was actually the father (which he probably was) and he still chose to divorce her or have her stoned – which still would’ve been legal!
I think we’ve heard the story so many times that we forget how scandalous a pre-marital pregnancy was. Even in our lifetimes we know of families that were scandalized by this and young women were sent away and sometimes forced into adoption. Joseph could have made the whole problem go away and still been righteous in the eyes of the law.
But he didn’t!
Think about that. He could’ve washed his hands of it all and been patted on the back for it, but he didn’t! How many times do we follow the letter of the law and declare ourselves righteous? How many times do we do the minimum and break our arms patting ourselves on the back? But Joseph’s example demands more of us. What character and spiritual traits could we learn from Joseph? Plenty!
Joseph is the epitome of selflessness and love, going far beyond what was required to embodying what love looks like. It seems to me that this is really what Christmas is all about. This kind of love is at the heart of Joseph’s story, and Mary’s story in the gospel of Luke, and in God’s story of giving light to a darkened world. Christmas is rooted in holy love.
Now let’s compare that with our North American Christmas values. Some of it is bad, but some is pretty good. The bad is, of course, commercialism, black Friday, Santa’s naughty and nice blackmail list, and the ability to celebrate Christmas with zero Christian content.
The good stuff, on the other hand, focuses on family gatherings, the desire to please people, lights that cheer us, warm sentiments being exchanged, and the generous charitable support of those in need.
My frustration and fear is not that people are trying to take the Christ out of Christmas – it’s that a simple story of selfless love and the miracle of new life has been utterly co-opted by a frenzy of activity and self-interest. And what’s really bizarre is that even the secular Christmas celebrators are pushing back now and wanting to focus on the real meaning of Christmas – you know, “going home”.
When you think about it, the secular Christmas that it feels like the majority of people celebrate is really expressing a longing for a world that is idealized and perfect. You can hear it in the music.
Why is it so important for the singer to ‘be home for Christmas’? And why do they want snow, mistletoe, and presents and all that stuff?
Why are roasting chestnuts, turkey, and Santa the ingredients of Hallmark cards?
Why is a white Christmas better than any other colour?
It’s because they’re dreaming of a fairy tale picture perfect family gathering, or the ideal of how great things used to be (at least in their imaginations), or they’re longing for that sense of togetherness and caring and love that Christmas seems to evoke.
People love Christmas because (except for the crass commercialism part) it celebrates the best of what human relationships are supposed to be – which again brings me back to Joseph. Joseph ought to be the star of all of our Christmas celebrations. Even if you weren’t a Christian, or you wanted a more secular expression of Christmas, surely you’d find the ultimate expression of human love in the character of Joseph! If you can’t persuade someone to be more Jesus-y about Christmas perhaps you could persuade them to be more Joseph-y! Imagine how much warmer and richer our Christmases would be if we had as many Joseph songs as Santa songs! (Can you name even one?)
Before I finish I just want to take a step back and ground this whole conversation in Spirit.
What made this whole thing possible?
What single element utterly influenced this whole story and arguably set our entire Christian faith into motion?
Because if this single thing didn’t happen then Mary may have been disgraced and shunned and the child within her may never have come to be born – and if he had he certainly wouldn’t have had the same upbringing and parenting that shaped his character and prepared him for his life’s work.
So what was the single event that changed world history? Joseph had a nap!
When Joseph laid his head down that day he was resolved to divorce Mary quietly. It was a done deal. The matter was settled in his mind. Then he went to sleep. A deep sleep is one of the prime ways God seems to communicate with us. All through the bible are stories of people who had significant spiritual encounters in a dream.
It’s because you’re quiet, you’re not distracted by anything, there’s no external stimuli, it’s just you and your breathing. That’s how we pray. Just you and your breathing with no distractions. That’s when God shows up! Well, more accurately that’s when you are finally able to notice that God’s been there all along!
Joseph didn’t decide to go above and beyond with Mary because he was a good guy. He did it because he had a profound spiritual experience that changed the course of his life. He had a sacred encounter that so moved him that he was inspired to take the harder, more honourable, more loving path. Without that nap and that dream and that first hand personal spiritual experience, Joseph divorces Mary.
You don’t have to take on the world by yourself. You don’t have to have the internal fortitude to tilt against windmills and battle the forces of evil. You don’t have to single-handedly change the way North America does Christmas. All you gotta do is take a nap! Rest and breathe. Pray! And in the quiet the Spirit will come forth. And in that sacred moment you’ll get everything you need – not to change the world, just to change yourself.
Until we are changed the world never will be.
Until hope is born in us we cannot live in hope.
Until peace is born in us we cannot have peace.
Until joy is born in us we cannot live joyfully.
And until love is born in us we cannot love as we ought, like Joseph.
Allow your heart to be changed and transformed by the Spirit through prayer, and the world will change.
That’s all Joseph did. He allowed the Spirit to change him. The Spirit gave him love for Christmas. And that made all the difference in the world. And do you know what that love looked like? It wasn’t a new ministry initiative that sought to battle injustice. It wasn’t a speaking tour where Joseph explained to the world what the Spirit did for him – heck, Joseph is actually silent in the bible – doesn’t say a single word. Nope, all he does is love. Strong. Silent. Holy. Love. And that changed the world.
There’s a poet named Lisa Debney who imagines these words coming from Joseph if he were to speak. Listen to what love sounds like:
My arm around your back
Was all that I could offer as support,
As each unravelling chapter came.
My arm around your back was there
When you first heard the news
That heaven dwelt in you,
And words fled faster from me
My arm around your back
Was all that I could offer you
To reassure you that I would never desert.
My arm around your back
Was all that I could offer as support
On Bethlehem’s weary road,
As the journey wound round path and street
And doors closed swiftly in our faces.
My arm around your back was all I had
To protect you from despair.
As the child emerged in an open barn,
My arm around your back
Was all I had to help you through.
To be a leaning post,
It seemed, was all that I could do
To show I struggled with you
In the birth.
It doesn’t seem enough for one
Who’s destined to endure so much.
I should have words and eloquence or
Money, land and powers of protection
That would buffer you
Against the harshness of this world.
But all that I can offer is my arm around your back.
Its strength will never be enough to show
The strength of love that holds me to your side.
But ready still to comfort, to steady and to reassure,
My arm around your back, if needed, will be there.