Eric Shafer: Really With Us

I don't know many people, even unbelievers, who do not like the Christmas story - angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in a stable, surrounded by animals who appear to understand that something important is happening. It is a wonderful story and a great nativity scene.

My wife, Kris, and I lived for nearly a decade in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City as it is known, and the US historic home of the Moravian Church and, let me tell you, our Moravian brothers and sisters really know how to celebrate Christmas with their own beautiful music history and their famous Christmas "putzes," elaborate nativity scenes, some of which, like the one at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, some of which cover an entire room and are major tourist attractions for Bethlehem. I still nearly tear up thinking of the Moravian hymn, "Morning Star, O Cheering Sight," led by a young child at Advent worship.

So, when I made the commitment many months ago to share a sermon on Day 1 on the Christmas text, I actually got a bit excited - I, too, love the Christmas story and for once I could preach on the Christmas story before Christmas Eve. Now, I know it is just days before Christmas, but you and I know that Christmas decorations began to appear in stores many months ago - I think I saw artificial trees at Costco back in August - so, I jumped at the chance to preach about Christmas while society at large was still thinking about Christmas in these days before Christmas!

We pastors love to believe, to hope, that Christmas Eve and Day are the beginning of our Christmas celebration - remember "The 12 Days of Christmas" - but we know that for most people, Christmas Eve and Day are the end of the Christmas season and the next day, the Second Day of Christmas according to that old song, the day after Christmas is not anything close to a religious holiday, but is only the beginning of the season of post-Christmas sales! New Year's Eve is next week and those Valentine's Day decoration will soon be up in stores! So much for 12 days, even a second day, for celebrating Christmas for most of us.

Much of what we know as the Christmas story comes from the Gospel of Luke, the second chapter, "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered." We know these words and we know all that is coming after them including the angels' song, "Glory to God in the highest and peace to God's people on earth."

That is how St. Luke records Jesus' birth and many of us will hear these words again on Christmas Eve and Day in our own congregations. The Gospels of Mark and John do not include a story of Jesus' birth. And then, there is the Gospel of Matthew and Matthew's story of Jesus' birth which is our Gospel text for this Fourth Sunday in Advent.

After spending the entire first chapter connecting Abraham to Jesus, Matthew writes his Christmas story, Matthew's story of Jesus' birth. "The birth of Jesus took place in this way."

So, it begins. But this Christmas story is told not about singing angels or adoring shepherds. This Christmas story is told from the viewpoint of Joseph, and as scholar David Lose points out so well, this Christmas story, Matthew's telling of Christ's birth, is not a story of wonder, but is a story of heartache.

Whether by hearing it read in hushed tones by candlelight, or because of beloved hymns which cast a rosy glow around it, it is easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people. In our imagination, Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal. And the animals in the stable even looked like they knew something very important was happening, and, of course, in our imagination the stable did not stink!

Dr. Lose invites us to look a little closer at this story. First, there is the matter of engagement. In the first century world of Joseph and Mary, this is not a romantic declaration of intent. Rather, it would have been a legal contract, binding in every respect. To be engaged - or espoused, or betrothed or pledged, all of which are used in other translations - to be engaged was essentially to be married without having consummated that marriage or living together. Which means that when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that Mary has been unfaithful to him. It is likely that Joseph experienced the pain, anguish and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt in such a devastating situation.

In Joseph's day, there were really only two possible reactions to what must have seemed an unquestionable fact to Joseph - Mary's infidelity. Joseph could either publicly declare his injury, which would have resulted in Mary being stoned to death, or Joseph could divorce Mary, "dismiss her quietly" the text tells us. Either way, this is not a happy story.

And, if Joseph is suffering, it is hard to imagine Mary coming through unscathed. Since Matthew tells us of Jesus' birth from Joseph's viewpoint, we get little insight into Mary. However, it is likely that Mary knew the pain her pregnancy was causing Joseph, and it is also likely that Mary would have known what might, what was most likely to happen to her.

Matthew gives us very few details. However, Matthew does tell us that it takes a visit from an angel to calm Joseph down and help Joseph see God's intentions in all of this. Thus, as Dr. Lose also suggests, it is not much of a stretch for us to assume that the months leading up to Jesus' birth were not one blissful baby shower after another, but were fraught with anxiety and concern and emotion for both Joseph and Mary.

And that is a purpose of Matthew telling this story. We have all been there. We have all experienced upheavals in our lives similar to those Mary and Joseph experienced. As I wrote this sermon several months ago, I wanted to write next that I hoped there was no one listening to this sermon who had experienced the fear for his or her life the way Mary must have. Then I looked at the news with another story of heartache for the immigrant and homeless and so many others - the week I wrote this sermon the Los Angeles Times predicted that 1,000 homeless people in Los Angeles would die on the streets of LA in 2019! And then I thought of too many people I know, too many even in my own congregation, who have experienced fear for their own lives.

I know there are many people listening to this sermon today on the radio, as well as reading it or listening to it later online, that there are many people who are struggling just to hold it together this holiday season. Families torn by discord, couples who feel disconnected, children wondering what future they may have, elders wondering what future they do have. Some seek employment, or relationship or just a simple sense of acceptance and worth. And then, we spend time together as "family" at Christmas, perhaps more days than we really would like to spend if we are honest, we spend time together as a family at Christmas and these tensions easily come to the surface and cause us more pain.

I know that this time of year is a time of heartache for so many. And that is why today's Gospel lesson is important. God brings his son Jesus, our Savior, to earth through far-from-perfect people. Mary and Joseph were as ordinary as you and me. And clearly, they had all the issues, and probably more because of their first century lives under brutal Roman rule, they had all the issues that you and I have. They were real people with real challenges. God did not choose a fairy-tale princess to bear our savior, God chose an unwed peasant girl, a girl who, perhaps, was just 14 years old, a girl who was soon to become an illegal alien in Egypt. And, God did not choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, God chose an ordinary man, a carpenter by trade, a man perhaps many years older than his wife to be, a man with his own questions and doubts about all that was happening around and to him, a man who wanted to do the right thing but still needed an angel to point him in the right direction.

And, what does this mean for us? It means that wonderful churchy word - Emmanuel, which means God is with us - that's what it means. Or, in this case, God is really with us!

God comes to us as we are, not as we should be or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or someday will be. God comes to us as we are, today, this moment. And that, I believe is the promise at the heart of today's Gospel lesson: God came to Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ. God used, accepted and hallowed them, And, in a similar way, God also comes to us, in and through Jesus Christ. God comes to us to use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us, make us holy, by God's presence with us.

Yes, God is really with us, you and me. God is with us really and truly, just as we are. This is our Emmanuel - God loves us and accepts us and even hallows us just as we are.

Emmanuel, God is really with us.

Now, come Lord Jesus!