Message for Matthew 1:18-15

The Christmas stories in the gospels are lovely. Unless you actually read them. Then things get…complicated.

Joseph and Mary have a problem. Mary is promised to Joseph in marriage. Usually, such a betrothal lasted a year. This length of time was to make sure there was no funny business. Unfortunately, it appears to Joseph that there’s been some funny business. And it’s clear to Joseph that he wasn’t involved in the fun or the business.

So, Joseph and Mary have a problem. For Mary, this problem is a disaster. The punishment for such funny business is an honor killing. That killing is carried out by the village. That’s the law.

For Joseph, this problem is a dilemma. Joseph doesn’t risk death by stoning. His personal honor is at stake. His status in the village will suffer once the word gets out. Joseph will be a laughingstock among his peers. Joseph will endure a mixture of pity and scorn.

But…at least he’ll get up and go to work the next morning.

Perhaps you’re already squirming. Perhaps this sermon should be called “Hennigs Ruins Christmas.” Friends, I don’t write it. I just report it. Our gospel reading has one hundred sixty-one words. This reading devotes a whopping fourteen words to Jesus’ actual birth.

It’s no accident that we always read Luke’s version on Christmas Eve. We like angels and shepherds. We like sheep and mangers. We like heavenly songs and celebrations. And we like Mary much better than we like Joseph.

Let’s be honest. Mary shows up in about a third of our Christmas carols. Joseph is mentioned in about one out of twenty carols –if he’s lucky. Mary is caring and kind, fearless and faithful. Joseph, on the other hand, is…reasonable.

Look at Matthew one, verse nineteen. “Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph, you see, is a reasonable man. He decides he won’t publicly denounce Mary. That will save every – Joseph included – a lot of embarrassment and drama.

Mistakes were made. These things happen. Let’s just cut our losses and move on. No hard feelings.

That’s a respectable response. And Joseph is a reasonable man. But this isn’t a reasonable story.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote an Advent poem called “After Annunciation.” It goes like this:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

It’s not officially Advent until I share that poem somewhere. So, I feel better now, thank you. But today, I think I want to add a verse or two for Joseph.

This is the irrational season

When dreaming will not be denied.

Though Joseph was plum full of reason

A Bethlehem baby still cried.

Joseph was a reasonable man. He thinks that’s the solution. Instead, that’s the problem.

I think Mary’s story points to what Christmas gives to us. In Mary’s story, the angels bring good news of great joy for all the people. In David’s city is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Mary’s story gives us that good news.

I think Joseph’s story points to what Christmas asks of us. Will Joseph trust that his dreams are messages from God? Will Joseph believe this baby comes from the Holy Spirit? Will Joseph trust that this child will save his people from their sins? Will Joseph believe that this birth fulfills the promise of “God with us”?

That’s a lot to ask of a reasonable man.

And God’s messenger tells Joseph to be brave. “Joseph, son of David,” the messenger says, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” Up to this point, God’s messenger was only preaching. How the preaching turns into meddling. Believing must become acting. Those actions could have life and death consequences for both Joseph and Mary.

Joseph’s story points to what Christmas asks of us. God’s messenger says to you and me, “Don’t be afraid!” Matthew’s gospel repeats this pattern. Watch for it in the next twelve months. Here are a few examples.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus calls us to seek first the righteousness of God’s kingdom. After that everything will fall into place. Jesus calls us to forgive seventy-seven times. Jesus calls us to see him in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Jesus calls us to make disciples, baptizing and teaching as we go.

That’s a lot to ask of reasonable people. No wonder we like Mary’s story better.

But Joseph’s story is also about a gift. It’s about The Gift – with a capital “T” and a capital “G.” Joseph’s story is about The Gift that makes all other gifts worth the both. In Matthew twenty-eight, verse twenty, Jesus sends the disciples out with the great missionary commission. With that commission comes a promise. “And remember,” Jesus declares, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Did you hear that? Suddenly we’re back in Matthew, chapter one. They shall call him “Emmanuel,” Matthew says, “which means ‘God with us.’

Wait a minute! That doesn’t make sense. I thought his name was Jesus! Friends, let’s not be quite so reasonable for a moment. Jesus is God –the One who saves us is the One who is with us. If you’re looking for the “true meaning of Christmas,” there it is. The One who saves us is the One who is with us.

I want to add a third verse to Madeleine L’Engle’s poem. It’s a verse for you and me.

This is the irrational season

When shopping and gifts abound

If we remembered the reason for the season

We’d have plenty of love to go round.

The One who saves us is the One who is with us.

Joseph wakes up remarkably unreasonable. But there’s more going on here. Matthew one, verse twenty-five says that Joseph “rose” from sleep. Yes, that’s the same word the gospel uses in Matthew twenty-eight, verse six, to describe Jesus’ resurrection. Joseph’s story calls us to look from Christmas to Easter. Resurrection produces unreasonable disciples.

For example, today we do something quite unreasonable. I hand you a chunk of bread. I invite you to trust that this is the body of Christ, given for you. An assistant gives you a cup of wine. The assistant invites you to trust that this is the blood of Christ, shed for you. Then I invite you to rise up as God’s unreasonable people – people who trust that the God for us is God with us, and in us.

That’s how we can do the unreasonable things disciples do. That’s how we love enemies, forgive one another, and see Jesus in our neighbors in need. Reasonable wonder about these things. So, the world needs unreasonable people like us.

This is the irrational season

Hidden ‘neath ribbons and bows

Let this place be one of love’s beacons,

A place where God’s love truly shows.


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