a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent on Matthew 1:18-25
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on December 19, 2010
The Christmas season is filled with wonderful traditions in our lives, and the life of our congregation is no exception. We’re right in the middle of the biggest span of Christmas events, as you probably know. Many of you joined in hanging the greens here in the sanctuary a week or so ago or in celebrating at our congregational Christmas Party this past Friday night, and we still have our annual caroling excursion tonight and the festive celebration of the coming of our Lord on Christmas Eve.
Each year, we approach this very familiar holiday in much the same way, with things changing mainly by necessity and only rarely by choice. In my family, we celebrated Christmas in much the same way every year up until seven or eight years ago. On Christmas Eve, we always gathered at my mom’s parents’ home, went to the early church service, came home to a festive and sumptuous dinner, then adjourned to the living room to sing carols, hear the Christmas story from Luke, and open most of the gifts before going to bed. Then on Christmas morning, we would get up and see what Santa had brought us in our stockings, topping off our celebrations at lunchtime with yet another overwhelming holiday meal that prepared us well for a long winter’s nap on Christmas afternoon!
But then, about seven or eight years ago, things changed in our Christmas celebrations. My grandfather died, and my grandmother moved from their home, first to a condominium and then to an assisted living facility. I moved to New York City and took up a job that carries responsibilities until late on Christmas Eve – and sometimes on Christmas Day, too, leading me to spend my first Christmas night as a pastor by myself in a hotel near the Cincinnati airport after missing my connection there! At the same time, others in the family started to develop their own practices and habits based on their own changing and shifting lives.
After a year or two of trying to hold onto all the old traditions, we quickly learned that we needed to see Christmas from a different perspective, to stop trying to fit the square peg of our Christmas traditions into the round hole of our lives that was emerging before us and to open ourselves to something new for Christmas, built less on the practices and traditions we had established for ourselves over the years and more on the concepts and principles that had shaped our practices in this way over the years. It’s not perfect, but slowly and surely, with each passing year, we are starting to see and celebrate Christmas from a different perspective.
This morning, our reading from Matthew offers us a different perspective on the Christmas story. Beginning with this Advent, we’ll spend much of this next liturgical year making our way through Matthew’s gospel as we do every third year, but Matthew’s take on the Christmas story that we heard this morning is quite different from what we are used to hearing. While the gospel of Luke goes on at length about angels visiting Mary and Mary offering an incredible song of of praise to God in response, Matthew makes Mary the secondary character in the story. Here, Joseph takes center stage, receiving his own visit from the angel of the Lord, facing his own challenge to receive a strange and uncertain word and respond with grace and hope.
Mary and Joseph had gotten engaged, but before they could get married, Mary became pregnant. Joseph, just trying to do the right thing for Mary, felt like he should just let her go, but then the angel appeared to him in a dream, instructing him to go ahead and take her as his wife, for she had not been sleeping around on him but was rather pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child to be named Jesus because he would save the people from their sins. Matthew interrupts the story to note that all this happened to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard this morning, but he finally reports that Joseph did as the angel had told him: Joseph took Mary to be his wife and named the son born to her Jesus.
At the core so much of this story is the same as what we’re used to hearing from Luke – a young unmarried woman is found to be pregnant, her husband-to-be decides not to cast her off, and an angel appears to explain how all this works and encourage everyone not to be too alarmed by what is happening. Even so, Matthew’s telling offers us just enough of a different perspective on things that it reminds us how much we need a change sometimes. Putting Joseph rather than Mary at the center of things invites us to consider that there were a lot of people who had something to say about what was happening here – not just Mary and Joseph but surely also their parents, their relatives, their neighbors, even the spiritual guides of their community. Hearing a different angel voice speaking to Joseph reminds us that we can all hear different things from our one God. And Joseph and Mary’s strange and seemingly inappropriate pregnancy suggests that God can and does work outside the boundaries we establish in our world.
This story reminds us that especially in these days we need a different perspective on Christmas. Too often the story of Christmas we tell is so familiar that we forget its radical message and purpose and so miss the real meaning of Christmas for us and our world. My favorite clergy comedy, The Vicar of Dibley, put this tendency so well. As the female vicar prepared to celebrate her second Christmas in a small town, her quite ditzy assistant notes that she didn’t remember the first sermon Christmas sermon the vicar had preached the year before.
“Not that it’s your fault – you probably just chose a boring subject,” she said.
The vicar responded, “The birth of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the greatest story ever told?”
“Well, yeah, the first time you hear it, but after that, it’s a bit predictable, isn’t it? Man and woman get to inn, inn full, woman has baby in manger, angels sing on high, blah blah blah.”
“You have forgotten to mention that that baby is in fact the son of God.”
“Oh yeah, I know, I mean, that’s a nice twist.”
“Yeah, but they aren’t exactly a lot of laughs!” (“The Christmas Lunch Incident”)
I don’t think we necessarily need a lot of laughs to get a new perspective on the Christmas story, but we do need something to help us see this incredible event in a new way. This is about more than shepherds and angels, more than an unwed mother and an uncertain father, more than a baby in a manger – the Christmas story is about how God breaks into our world and does something new when and where we least expect it, shifting our perspective at every turn and inviting us not just to go through the motions of a well-worn season but to see how Christmas changes everything – how God shows power and salvation through a little child, how God works through a strange, unexpected, unmarried couple to shape and mold one who bears salvation into the world, even how God invites us today to stop forcing our square pegs into round holes and so be a part of the incredible new thing that is coming even now. Christmas reminds us that God has changed the way God relates to us in these days, shifting from enforcing laws to proclaiming good news, moving from a set of rules to a wide-ranging relationship, enabling a new vision built not upon grudges but on grace.
That’s why I believe Advent is so important, my friends. If this Christmas is worthy of our celebration, then it is worthy of our preparation, to make space for something incredible and new to take hold in the world. If we believe what we say happens on this coming Christmas Day, then things ought to be different on the other side of it – and this side too! – so that God in Jesus Christ is more than just another baby and another birthday for us. If Christmas really is the day when God breaks into the darkness of our world and of our lives, then it deserves not to be the culmination of all worldly holidays, uplifted in the public sphere and celebrated even by those who misunderstand and disbelieve its central claims, but rather should be a time to celebrate and live our call to see things from a new perspective, for this is the time when God began to see things so clearly through our own human eyes and began to bring new light into all the world.
As these Advent days draw to a close and we welcome the Christ child, may God bring us all a new perspective on these Christmas days and the days to come so that we might be strengthened to walk in this new light even on the darkest of days until God’s brightness comes again to illumine us all forever. Lord, come quickly! Amen.