complete with manger, shepherds, and a choir of angels.
Matthew's account is simpler, more to the point –
– just a simple story of two vulnerable people
and a relationship that almost ends before it begins.
Matthew lacks the details and romance of Luke,
but his account tells us something about how he sees Jesus
and what the birth of this baby means to the world.
At the start of the story, Mary and Joseph are betrothed –
which means more than just engaged.
In Hebrew culture at that time, there were two different steps to becoming married.
The first step was the contract that bound the couple legally.
Mary and Joseph had already completed that step,
which means they they were legally married,
and ending the relationship would require a divorce.
The second step in the marriage usually followed some months after the legal contract.
It was the time of the marriage feast,
and when the husband took his bride into his home.
When Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant before she comes into his home,
he is sure she has committed adultery.
Adultery is certain cause for divorce – and possibly for stoning the offender.
So Matthew says Joseph is righteous – showing kindness and mercy - because he seeks to protect Mary as best he can by divorcing her quietly.
But there is not much future for Mary as a divorced, pregnant young woman.
And this is where God intervenes in an unexpected way.
Joseph dreams of an angel, who tells him to stay with Mary,
and raise her baby as his own.
Essentially, the angel says to him:
“This is not what you had planned. You may be confused and hurting ,
but it is going to be okay. God is doing something new and wonderful –
and you are a part of it.
The angel tells Joseph that the child Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit
I love that Matthew uses those words: from the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of life and renewal;
the Lord, the giver of life, the bringer of unexpected blessing.
What God is doing in Jesus, through the lives of Joseph and Mary and the power of the Holy Spirit,
is a radically new beginning.
It is interesting that in Matthew’s gospel it is Joseph, not Mary, who is visited by an angel, and who makes the amazing choice to trust and follow God’s plan.
Luke’s Mary gets the stirring response “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”
and the poetic song of praise.
Joseph says nothing –
he simply awakens, gets up, and goes out to do what God has asked.
Still, his choice to go against societal expectations,
to look past his own hurt and confusion, is just as amazing.
Mary and Joseph both choose to trust.
They embark on a completely unexpected adventure-
richer and more challenging than they could possibly expect or imagine.
It is easy to think of Mary and Joseph as somehow super-human.
But I don’t think that’s the picture Matthew wants us to have.
Matthew’s Mary and Joseph are profoundly human figures,
who find themselves in a difficult and messy situation.
Seminary professor David Lose writes,
“We’re not used to this. We’re accustomed to thinking about the beauty and wonder of the birth of Jesus, and that’s appropriate. But let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.
Why might that be helpful? Because Mary and Joseph aren’t merely characters from a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people. And the more we can imagine them as people like us -- with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance -- the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them -- that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.”
Or, as another writer put is, God comes through ordinary mixed up people
in order to save ordinary mixed up people.
People just like us.
And that is how Matthew describes the birth of Christ.
Jesus comes as one of us, born not into Hallmark card family,
but into a family that experiences struggle and love,
heartache and celebration – just like ours.
The angel tells Joseph to name the baby Jesus – which means, Yahweh saves.
This baby brings God’s salvation into the world in a new way.
This baby is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
God saves us by coming to be with us – coming to be one of us.
Today is a hard day at St Michael and All Angels.
Our preparations for Christmas, our celebrations and special devotions,
are interrupted today by a particular grief.
We have been blessed by Sue’s ministry and her very special presence among us
these past two years.
We are not ready to say goodbye,
yet we are grateful to Sue for all she has meant to us.
We send her on today with our love, our blessings and our certain knowledge
that her great gifts for ministry and passion for God’s people will bless another congregation.
We continue on our transition time – grown even more complex and challenging.
We at St Michael’s are in an extended Advent time,
waiting to see how God will show up among us
in new and unexpected ways.
Some of us will continue in vial tasks which serve and bless the community;
others will take on new roles to fill new opportunities.
We will go forward together in trust,
not knowing where our journey will take us,
but knowing our God is Emmanuel – with us now,
and ready to be with us in new and exciting ways.
Aaron Klink, a Fellow in the Duke University Program in Theology and Medicine, wrote:
“Amid all our less-than-perfect Christmases, the Christmas trees that are not quite as perfect as we want them to be, the lives that are not quite as perfect as we want them to be, God does something new.”
O Come, Emmanuel, and help us to be your Advent people in this time.
O come, Emmanuel, and help us to be ready to see you in new ways.
O come, Emmanuel, and help us to be ready to awaken, to get up and to follow you.