+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we are, this Sunday morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Already. While it seems like Thanksgiving was just yesterday, Christmas really is just three days away. When we were children, this might have been a time of giddy anticipation. Even if our families weren’t well off materially, there was still the expectation of something extra, something in the way of baked goods or presents or parties that made Christmastime special for us. We see the same joyful expectation in the faces of our young friends and family.
For those of us of riper years, the holiday is a bit more complicated. We’re haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past, frazzled by the preparations of Christmas present, and worried about the Christmases yet to come. Thanks to the influences of Norman Rockwell, Hallmark, consumer capitalism, and Martha Stewart, we have high expectations of our Christmas holiday. The décor should be perfect, the food uniformly delicious—no burnt cookies in this picture. The presents should be plentiful and the atmosphere harmonious.
Of all our expectations for holiday perfection, the one about family harmony is the one most fraught with worry. Past Christmases may have lacked something in this area. Too many of us can remember a Christmas dinner that some relative or another left in the middle because they were unable to deal with something that someone said or did at the dinner table. Maybe we were even the person who left, or the one who provoked the departure. It’s hard to remember how the trouble got started. The details don’t matter; it’s the sense of uneasiness that’s engraved in our memory. It probably doesn’t help that we are in literally the darkest days of the year, just before the days start to lengthen again.
Going into this Christmas, less than pleasant memories are close at hand, and we’re uneasy. We’re hoping that great-aunt Mary doesn’t comment on our daughter’s newest piercings or the tattoos that cover our son’s entire left forearm. We’re praying that granddad doesn’t ask our sister’s son when he’s going to bring a girlfriend home to meet the family, because our nephew has recently confided that he’s gay but isn’t ready to be out to the whole family. We’re holding our collective breaths that Uncle Al doesn’t drop by while our cousin’s here with her new boyfriend, because the boyfriend happens to be Muslim, and Al can’t be depended on to keep his prejudice to himself. We might be worried about the influence of alcohol on all of the above.
As if we don’t have enough on our minds, there are concerns beyond this Christmas. Looking ahead to next year, we fear that by next Christmas Grandma won’t be with us any longer. Her congestive heart failure is nearing the end stage. More immediately, we know that there will be layoffs at work early in the new year. We made it through the last round, but the rumors have been flying that our department will be the next to be hit. The bills will still roll in even if the paychecks dry up. We’re not sure how the festivities and the presents will be paid for.
Odds are that one or more of the aforementioned worries are your worries too. We’re wishing we could have the perfect Christmas, with plenty of food and presents, and all of the family present and able to put aside their issues and worries at least for a day. Isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be? Wasn’t that was what Christmas was like in the good old days?
It depends on whose good old days we’re talking about. If we go back to the very oldest days, the very beginning of Christmas, the very first Christmas, we don’t find much comfort at all. We think our families have troubles! Think about what’s going on in the Gospel reading for today. Really think about what’s going on here. It’s a mess of epic proportions.
Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married. In their cultural context, an engagement meant more than a ring on prospective bride’s finger and a hefty deposit on a reception hall. The commitment was sealed; all that was lacking was for the couple to share a home. Imagine, then, that Mary is found to be pregnant, and that Joseph is not the father. That’s pretty scandalous right there. Actually it’s more than scandalous. Such a pregnancy would have been evidence of Mary’s unfaithfulness, and would have been a capital offense in first century Palestine. Unfaithful women in that time and place could be stoned to death. That Mary is supposed to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit doesn’t make things any better. Mary’s parents must have been beside themselves. Joseph would have been well within his rights to call off the engagement in a public manner that would expose Mary to disgrace at best and possibly even to death by stoning.
If you read the geneology in the very first verses of Matthew, you’ll find that Joseph marrying an already pregnant Mary wouldn’t be the first marital irregularity in this family. In the sixth verse of chapter one, Matthew states that “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.” Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba? Bathsheba was Uriah’s wife, but David was so infatuated with her that he conceived a child with her and then sent Uriah off to be killed in battle so that Uriah would never discover that the child wasn’t his. Matthew makes no secret that Joseph’s—and by adoption, Jesus’s—family history has a dark chapter indeed.
Now let’s return to Joseph and the dilemma he faces. Joseph was a compassionate man, and he was loath to hurt Mary. He decided not to deal with her harshly but planned instead to “dismiss her quietly,” as Matthew tells us. Before he could act on his intention, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” In case we’re not as convinced as Joseph was, Matthew further tells us “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
In these few verses, Matthew gives us two names for our consideration, and they are important names indeed. First, the angel tells Joseph that he and Mary are to name the child Jesus. Now Jesus—or Yeshua in Hebrew—was a very common name at that time. The child doesn’t get a name that stands out, but an ordinary name that makes him at least by name like everyone else. In our time, Jesus might well have been named John Doe. Second, the prophecy from Isaiah that Matthew quotes says that the son born to the virgin is to be named Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.” The baby Jesus is to be at the same time totally ordinary, yet at the same time is to be God with us.
So what then does our reading from Matthew’s gospel say to us today, the twenty-second of December in the year of our Lord 2013? What does Matthew have to say to us as we compare the perfect Christmas we imagine and long for with the Christmas we actually look forward to with both anticipation and considerable concern?
Matthew’s gospel has abundant good news for us today. God is coming into the world to present for us literally and in human flesh. God is coming into the world to be present for us not in idealized circumstances but in a situation that is as broken as any we can imagine. As Christians we know well about Jesus’ saving us through his death and resurrection. But God’s saving us through Jesus didn’t begin with the crucifixion. God’s saving action began right with Jesus’ entry into the world, indeed even before then.
God didn’t choose to come into the world in the form of the baby born to a powerful family, or a wealthy family, or into a family that was even proper in the world’s eyes. God didn’t choose to come into the world as anyone who was marked as an extraordinary person with an extraordinary name; Jesus was a common name indeed for a baby boy. God came into the world as a baby boy who was less than ordinary, questionable as his parentage appeared to be. God chose to come into the world to be with us in our brokenness, not avoiding it. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” not with us in perfect lives, but with us in the lives we actually have. O come O come Emmanuel. Amen.