CHRISTMAS COMES ~ Third Sunday of Advent
This year let the day arrive when Christmas comes for everyone alive.
“Ready or Not, Here it Comes” Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
In last Sunday’s sermon I talked about the lists many of us have of things we need to accomplish over the next several weeks if Christmas is going to come. Of course I know that, ready or not, Christmas is going to come – December 25th will be here in 8 days, despite whatever still remains on our “to do” lists.
Lists can be a good way to help us prepare for those things which are expected in life, including the coming of an annual celebration like Christmas. And yet, the coming of Christ into our lives and into our world does not always happen in expected ways. Our lives are filled with things that are unexpected, aren’t they? And even in the midst of things we expect, Christ can come among us in ways that take us by surprise. For when God comes among us, stirring up the hope of God’s dreams for the world, our lives can be turned upside down, thwarting even our best laid plans.
That was certainly the case for Mary and Joseph. Next Sunday we will hear the story of the annunciation to Mary as found in Luke’s Gospel. But today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew invites us to focus on Joseph’s experience.
We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, and in my experience carpenters are planners. They have the proper tools and keep them in good working order. They learn necessary skills and then practice them and master them, so that they can do a job and do it well. They are careful and thorough. They measure twice and cut once. And I can imagine that being a planner was something that spilled over into Joseph’s personal life. He was betrothed to a woman named Mary. Betrothal was like an engagement, only more legally binding. Joseph had plans and expectations for how things would proceed. And I suspect he had his own list of things he needed to do to prepare for the day when he and Mary would live together under one roof as husband and wife and begin their family. But his plans and expectations were turned upside down when he learned that Mary was pregnant.
Mary was, in many ways, at the mercy of forces beyond her control; not only at the mercy of God who had gotten her in to this mess, but at the mercy of men. This was long before the days when women could talk about reproductive “choice.” In the patriarchal society of that day, woman had no legal rights. They were considered property, handed from their father to their husband, and if their husband died, to their son or to a brother or the next nearest male relative. And at this point Mary’s life was very much at the mercy of Joseph. So how would Joseph meet this unexpected turn of events? How would he respond? What choices would he make?
Knowing that he was not the father of the child, it would have been logical for Joseph to assume that Mary had committed adultery. And whether or not Mary had been a willing participant, the result for her would have been the same. According to Jewish law, this would have given Joseph the right to bring Mary before the religious leaders of the community. At best, Mary would have been publicly disgraced. At worst, she could have been stoned to death. Joseph could have chosen this course of action. But he didn’t. And what Joseph did do tells us a lot about his character. Matthew tells us that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph did not take his anger and pain and humiliation out on Mary in a public act of revenge. We’ve seen that all too often in broken relationships, in divorce and custody battles, but Joseph did not react that way. Joseph’s righteousness was tempered with mercy, and his response was measured.
I can imagine Joseph pacing like Harvey did last Sunday in the Children’s Christmas Program, or lying awake long into the night, tossing and turning, agonizing over this decision. I can imagine him weighing the options and thinking about all the possible consequences. He was understandably hurt, and the plans he had for his life and for his life with Mary had been disrupted, but that didn’t mean he had to destroy Mary’s life. Finally, having decided upon a course of action that he could live with, one that would affirm his own dignity while not causing Mary undo pain and suffering, Joseph was able to fall asleep. And in that sleep he had a dream. And in that dream, an angel of the Lord appeared to him telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and confirming the very things that Mary had told him. The angel gave Joseph a name for the child, a name which meant savior, and told him the important role this child would play in the life of his people.
Now Joseph could have woken from the dream, dismissed it as “just a dream,” and continued to follow the plan he had decided upon the night before. But here we see another aspect of Joseph’s character, his willingness to listen to the angel of the Lord, and to imagine that God might be offering him another way forward, a way that included taking Mary as his wife and raising the child as his own son.
From that point on Mary and Joseph faced the future together, a future which included many more unexpected twists and turns. Together they journeyed to Bethlehem for the census, they searched for a room in the crowded city, they gave birth to a child in a stable, they received visits from shepherds with strange tales of angel hosts and wise men bearing what seemed to be rather impractical gifts, and then they had to flee to Egypt as refugees to escape Herod’s murderous wrath.
Each year, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ among us at Christmas, we tell this story. I find myself admiring the way Joseph was able to meet these unexpected events with such grace, pushing past his initial and understandable feelings of anger and pain and humiliation, seeing the larger possibilities beyond his immediate circumstances, and accepting God’s call to be a part of what God was doing in the world through the coming of Jesus. And I believe that in this Joseph can be a good example to us in our lives, as well.
Ready or not, Christmas day will come in a week. And ready or not, God’s love that was most fully revealed in Christ on that first Christmas Day will continue to come among us in all kinds of unexpected ways as we go about our lives. So the question is not whether God will come among us, but whether we will make ourselves ready to receive and experience God’s presence, whether we will recognize that presence of God in our midst, and whether we will share with others that amazing gift of God’s loving and saving presence revealed in Christ.
Ready or not, Christmas comes.
Gracious and loving God, whether or not we are ready you are continually coming into our lives and into our world. Inspire within us hope enough to wait and watch and prepare for your coming. Open our eyes and our hearts that we may know you when you come. Fill us with the peace of your abiding presence, and love us into loving ourselves and loving others, near and far. And help us, God, to lift our voices in praise of Jesus, Emmanuel, your loving and life-giving presence among us. May the love that Christ revealed be a light that shines in our hearts and that shines forth in the darkness of a world in need of that love. Amen.