Monday, December 23, 2019


We have so often heard a hashed together Christmas story
    combining different narratives into one 
    that it’s hard to hear Matthew’s story straight 
             – the way he wrote it.
We mix and match elements from Matthew and Luke, 
    add an ox and an ass, then a drummer boy.
Eventually, we’ll probably have Rudolph arriving 
    in a sleigh carrying Frosty the Snowman seeking healing 
                      for his melting disorder.
We have to forget a lot if we are to hear Matthew’s 
         story, plain and simple.
Matthew never heard the hymn we just sang. 
His story doesn’t have an Annunciation to Mary 
            by the Angel Gabriel.

The other versions have a lot to offer.
But, today, I invite you to hear the story
    the way Matthew told it.

In 1st Century Judah, virginity at marriage was a big deal
    – so big that the wedding was preceded by a medical exam
             to verify the virginity of the bride.
Mary colossally flunked her exam  by turning up pregnant.
From Matthew, we have no idea what Mary thought of the news
    announced not by a loving angel but a judgmental rabbi.
We don’t know what Mary said to Joseph.
Did she try to explain, to defend herself, 
    to deny the obvious conclusion?
We don’t know. 

We have only Joseph’s response  – to put her away quietly.
He could have had her stoned to death.
But he didn’t do that. Maybe, he loved her. 
       Maybe he was just kind.
For whatever reason, Joseph was merciful.
But merciful still meant divorce.

Engagement was as solemn a commitment 
      as marriage back then.
Breaking an engagement wasn’t just 
    cancelling the florist and the photographer.
It was a simple but devastating legal proceeding.
Our Gospel story virtually begins in family court.

Then came the dream.
Notice the angel’s words.
He said to Joseph, Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.
Joseph wasn’t angry or judgmental.
So the angel didn’t speak of jealousy or forgiveness.
He spoke instead of fear.

Joseph, it seems, was afraid – afraid of what?
Afraid that Mary would betray him again, over and over?
Afraid of what people would say about her, even about him?
As there were words for her, there were words for him. 
Afraid to be father of a child of fornication.
Joseph was afraid of this relationship
    which didn’t fit the rules, didn’t live up to expectations.

Can we relate to Joseph’s position?
Are any of our personal relationships scary in some way?
All relationships have risks attached
    unless we keep them loose and shallow.
Commitment to someone is risky 
     – we don’t know what they’ll do or who they’ll become.
Sharing deeper levels of ourselves is risky
    – we don’t know how people will respond.
Belonging to a faith community is risky.
A church might do most anything.
A church is likely to embarrass us 
    in front of our liberal friends one week,
    and our conservative friends the next.
Church people are likely to let us down, give us undeserved flak,
    and engage us in petty squabbles.

Relationships are risky
    especially if there’s a history of trouble.
If we extend our hand across lines of race, class,
    religion, or politics, we don’t know how the other side
             will take it.
We don’t know what labels they’ll put on us.
We don’t know how they’ll interpret out gesture.

Around the world, fear is the driving force
    behind so much of the blustering of nation against nation.
Living together on this planet,
    will require some trust.
And trust is risky business.

The angel went on to tell Joseph why he need not be afraid.
He said, The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Now we’ve read Luke and the Creeds.
 We’ve read today’s lesson 
    where  Matthew reworks Isaiah’s  prophesy,
    that wasn’t about a virgin birth,
    and turns it into a prophesy of a virgin birth.
Believe me, nothing in the prophets could have alerted Joseph
    to anything like the Christmas story as we know it.

We have the benefit of 2,000 years of theologians 
       explaining Incarnation.
We’ve been to pageants and listened to Handel. 
But Joseph didn’t have any of that.
So, when the angel said, the child . . . is from the Holy Spirit,
    Joseph had to be thinking Could you unpack that a little?
             Just what exactly does that mean?

But the angel didn’t unpack anything.
No explanation either biological or theological.
He just said, The hand of God is in this. 
    God is doing something here.
And he went on to say how it would play out.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
    for he will save his people from their sins.

The when, where, and how didn’t matter.
Theological and biological explanations didn’t matter.
All the angel gave Joseph was the promise of God,
    the promise we’ve been hearing about all Advent,
    the promise of salvation, wholeness, and peace.

I wonder if there is something of God’s promise
    in our relationships with each other.
I wonder if salvation, wholeness, and peace
    may not be lurking in there -- and if risk isn’t 
the price we pay, if vulnerability isn’t the ticket 
to the peaceable kingdom.
Matthew tells us Joseph did as the angel commanded . . . 
    He took (Mary) as his wife.

It turns out Joseph had good reason to be afraid.
Shortly, after the birth, the Holy Family had to flee by night 
    and become refugees in Egypt
    where they lived for several years in hiding.
When the menacing king had died, Joseph’s home town
    Bethlehem was still too dangerous.
So Joseph spent the rest of his life in exile
    in the very different land of Galilee.

When the angel said, Fear not,
    he wasn’t guaranteeing that life would go smoothly.
He didn’t mean Mary was a safe choice.
He meant she was the path to the promise,
    the risk worth taking, the danger worth facing.

If we commit to lasting relationships with people,
    if we stick with each other, there’s no guarantee 
    we won’t get hurt.
If we join a faith community, there’s no guarantee
    we won’t be embarrassed and frustrated.
If we extend our hands across the social divides,
    there’s no guarantee we won’t be misunderstood 
    and mistrusted.
If we make peace in the world, there is no guarantee 
    that other nations and groups will not betray us.

But despite all that, we have the Scripture 
    and the movement of the Spirit
             in our hearts and in the Church.
Despite all the risks, the Lord still says to us as he said to Joseph,
    Do not be afraid. 
    These risky relationships are the way 
     to the peaceable kingdom.

So I wonder, might some of our challenging relationships 
be the voice of God asking,
    Will you make room in your world for my Word made flesh?
    Will you make a place for my Son?