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.”Matthew 1:22-23
Advent Calendars have become quite popular, haven’t they? You can find them everywhere these days. And you can find one to meet every interest. According to New York Magazine, “Thanks to the overwhelming (and only growing) popularity of luxurious beauty Advent calendars, you can now find an Advent calendar filled with just about anything you can think of. From wine and whiskey to dog treats and itsy-bitsy toys, there are myriad options out there to make the holidaze far more fun.”
Now, as you might imagine, I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, it is nice to see so many people becoming more familiar with this season of preparation that we call “Advent.” On the other hand, it seems like this might be just another way for retailers to sell us stuff, without much concern for what this season is all about. As if Christmas was not already commercial enough, now Advent is becoming commercialized, too. It is good to remember today, on this last Sunday of Advent, that Advent is not Christmas, just as Lent is not Easter. Both Advent and Lent are seasons designed to prepare us for the celebrations they precede. They are not supposed to be part of the celebration.
But, with all that said, this last Sunday of Advent is a time when we get an early Christmas present in our worship and in our scripture readings. Because today our readings finally get around to the celebration at the heart of Christmas: the birth of our Savior.
“Now,” today’s gospel reading (Matthew 1:18-25) begins, “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Yes, the Christmas story. Finally. Not the one we will hear on Christmas Eve, though. Today’s is not the one that Linus famously recounts in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This is not the one with the journey to Bethlehem and the manger and the shepherds.
Today we get the Christmas story recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, not Luke’s. Luke’s story is told from Mary’s perspective. Matthew’s is told from Joseph’s perspective. Both stories are about the same miraculous birth, but they emphasize different things. Just as if any Mom were to tell the story of their child’s birth, she would emphasize different things from the Dad. So what are some things that Joseph’s side of the story teaches us about the miracle of Christmas? His story teaches us at least three things: The surprise of Christmas, the gift of Christmas, and the mission of Christmas.
The Surprise of Christmas
First, Joseph’s account reminds us that the birth of Jesus was completely unexpected. Not just for Mary. But for Joseph, and really for everyone. That first Christmas was a surprise in all sorts of ways. Advent calendars can make it seem like Christmas comes in a very orderly and predictable way. But the first Christmas was anything but. Not orderly, and definitely not expected.
When Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit, Joseph was completely blindsided. I suspect that nothing could have shocked him more. Joseph might have been counting down the days to his wedding; he might have had the big day circled in his calendar. But then there came this curve ball from out of the blue, that completely upended his plans, and ultimately upended his entire life.
Horrified by what Mary had done, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. He did this because he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace. He cared for Mary still, but he couldn’t have her as his wife. How could he, now that she was found to be pregnant? Think of how devastated Joseph must have been by this turn of events! All of his hopes and dreams; all the plans he had for his life, had suddenly disappeared. And the girl that he thought he knew and loved turned out to be somebody that he didn’t know at all.
Joseph’s life had taken a very unexpected turn, in the blink of an eye, and he really wasn’t sure how to proceed. I suspect that most of us can relate to Joseph, at least in this way. Most of us have had something happen in our lives that took us off our planned route, and left us without a map or a clue about how to proceed. Life has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?
What Joseph would later find out is that God had a plan for him the whole time. It wasn’t Joseph’s original plan, but it was much better. When life takes us on a detour, it is very comforting to remember that God has a plan, that God is still in control. And when we believe that, and trust that, there is almost no detour too great to cause us to lose our way.
Christmas means, among many other things, that God is full of surprises. And that is a good thing. Because it means that our world does not have to be orderly or predictable for God to enter it.
God did not wait until everyone was ready for his son to be born. There is a lovely poem by Madeleine L’Engle that opens with the line, “He did not wait till the world was ready,” and it’s true. God did not wait until the world was ready, or until Joseph was ready, or until Mary was ready. And that is a good thing. (You can find L’Engle’s poem here.)
But God helped Joseph and Mary to become ready. As we heard in this reading, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream to help him find his way. The angel addressed Joseph as “son of David,” reminding Joseph that God’s plan was always to bless the world through a descendent of David. And Joseph would be that descendent. But it is the last thing he expected.
The angel told Joseph that Mary would bear a son, and that he should be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” That is literally what Jesus’ name means. And it is why he was born. To save us from our sins. To heal our broken world. We all know this. But it’s worth remembering today that even the name of Jesus is a reminder of the miracle of Christmas.
The Gift of Christmas
But there is another name given to Jesus that is equally important. And that is the name, “Emmanuel.” Which literally means, “God is with us.” Christmas means that God is with us, through his son Jesus. Jesus has many names and titles, to be sure: Son of David, Son of Man, and Son of God. Lord. Savior. Christ. Messiah. And many more. But this is one of my favorites: Emmanuel, “God is with us.”
In this wild, unpredictable ride that we call “life,” there is one thing we can always count on, one constant: Our Creator chooses to be with us throughout it all. No matter what unpredictable events take place in our lives, God’s son, Jesus, promises to be there, guiding us and comforting us and challenging us, and helping us to take the next step in God’s plan for us.
In Joseph’s case, the way that God guided him was through an angel appearing to him in a dream. That may happen to you, but probably not. The good news is that God has many ways to appear to us, and to guide us on our life’s journey. It might be through a Bible verse that we come across at just the right time. It might be a well-timed phone call or visit from a friend. It might be a verse of a hymn that we had not noticed before. It might be in some completely unexpected and surprising way. But when we have the eyes of faith, and when we trust in God, he will always be there for us, leading us on the way.
We are reminded of this promise in a very powerful way at the very end of Matthew’s gospel. After Jesus has grown, and been baptized, and proclaimed the kingdom of heaven, and called his disciples, and been arrested and tortured and crucified, and raised from the dead, after all of this, Jesus gathered his disciples together one more time, to send them out to make disciples of all nations, and to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But before he sent them out, he reminded them of this same promise. The last words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel would echo the words spoken by the angel to Joseph before Jesus was even born. Words which are at the heart of the good news recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus, our Emmanuel, who is our promise that God is with us, spoke these final words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God is with us, always.
The Mission of Christmas
This is God’s promise to us. But it is also his mission for us. Because one of the ways that God chooses to be with us is through each other. This community that we call the church. This group of people, gathered in worship here today and all around the world. A group that has been united with Christ through Holy Baptism, given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and called the Body of Christ. We are “Christians” because we are called to bring Christ to the world.
Think of it: You might be the very person that God chooses to use to comfort and guide someone in need. When someone’s life is turned upside-down, you might be the angel of the Lord appointed to visit that person. An angel is really just a messenger of God’s, after all, and God can use us all to be his messengers. Through a phone call or a visit, an invitation to a meal, or another simple gesture, you might be the way that God appears to another. Through Jesus, God is with us always, but one of the ways that he chooses to be with us, is through the body of Christ, which is you and me and all who follow Jesus.
I don’t know if the world really needs more Advent calendars. But I am certain the world can use more Christians. More people who are joining Jesus in his mission to bring joy to all the world. More people who want the world to know that God is here with us, all of us, always. That is the point of Christmas. To bring God to us, and to all the world. And that is the mission of Christmas, too. To join with God in blessing this world.
That poem from Madeleine L’Engle, “He did not wait till the world was ready,” ends with this stanza:
“We cannot wait till the world is sane / to raise our songs with joyful voice, / for to share our grief, to touch our pain, / He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!” (You can find her poem here.)
And it’s true – even as he did not wait till the world was ready to come to our world, to save us, and to be with us, to share our grief, and to touch our pain, we cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice. So let us do so now, singing, at last, one of our beloved Christmas carols: “Joy to the World.” To the glory of God. Amen.