St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Advent 4 Sermon 2010
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Jim Campbell

Are you all ready for Christmas?

Earlier this week in the Huffington post I found this news item: In New York City, if you are coming to see the Big Tree in RockefellerCenter

by way of the Lincoln Tunnel, you'll be greeted by two starkly opposing views of the Christmas Season.  An atheist group placed a billboard featuring the Star of Bethlehem, Three Kings and the Holy Family at the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel saying, "You know it's a myth."  A Catholic group responded with a billboard of its own saying "You know it's real," with a picture of Jesus and Mary.

Do you know when the Christmas story was first recognized by the Church?  I’m using Church here with a capital C—starting with the early Christian Church?  From what we’ve all been taught in church and school it’s easy to believe that the early Christians celebrated that day from soon after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, when they began to be a community of believers.  Instead, it actually took a few hundred years for this holiday to become a Church calendar event. 

According to the online source Wikipedia, “Christmas is a holiday observed generally on December 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity.  Although it started as a Christian holiday, Christmas is also widely celebrated by many non-Christians, and many of its popular customs even have pre-Christian or secular themes and origins.  Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift-giving, music, an exchange of greeting cards, church celebrations, a special meal, and the display of various decorations; including Christmas trees, lights, garlands, mistletoe, nativity scenes, and holly. (Our organist John Tennefoss has even proposed writing a new Christmas song called “Happy Hallmark”.)

Several similar mythical figures, known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus, among other names, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season.  One version of the prototype for Santa Claus is found in the Norse myth of Odin riding across the winter sky on an eight-legged horse and leaving gifts for the children who left some hay out for his horse. The December 25 date may have first been selected by the Church in Rome in the early 4th century.  At that time, a church calendar was created and several holidays were placed on important solar-related dates.

For many centuries, Christian writers accepted that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born.  By the early 18th century, though, scholars began proposing alternative explanations.  Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma and was celebrated on December 25.  In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and was therefore a "paganization" that debased the true church.  According to Judeo-Christian tradition, creation as described in the Genesis creation narrative occurred on the date of the spring equinox, i.e. March 25, on the Roman calendar. This date is now celebrated as the Annunciation.  In 1889, Louis Duchesne suggested that the date of Christmas was calculated as nine months after Annunciation, the traditional date of the conception of Jesus. “

So, have you been preparing for Christmas?  No, I do not mean all that secular stuff talked about by Wikipedia--buying the presents for loved ones, getting the house all decorated, or buying and baking special foods for the Christmas dinner.  Or watching the myriad of Christmas sales TV ads.  Or the Christmas season TV movies that remind us of the Christmas season, but mostly show us the secular event of Christmas, or at best tell us about the importance of being family and sharing presents with those more needy, and living better lives.  How many types of Scrooge movies can there be?

By preparation, I mean reading daily those pamphlets for Advent provided by Lorraine for us.  I mean decorating the church for Christmas (which we’ll complete later today!), and getting out the Nativity set and placing the characters around the building in anticipation of the birth of Jesus (Bonnie did that right away at the start of Advent here at the church).  I mean, participating in each of our Advent worship services, hearing each lectionary reading and each sermon, and thinking about what the life and ministry of Jesus has meant for this world the past 2000 years, as we anticipate the celebration of the birth of Jesus again. (One of our people at Bible study this week asked about the need to have Advent; if we truly believe and follow Jesus Christ then we don’t need a designated season to focus on this.  Lorraine’s response was to remind us that we can get “in a rut” with our faith, and Advent gives us an opportunity just before Christmas to focus on what Jesus Christ really means to us.)

In today’s Gospel reading, we heard the leading up story to the Christmas event itself. The story of the annunciation, the conception of Jesus, was read today from the Gospel of Matthew: 
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this; for after his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, intended to put her away secretly. 20 But when he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, don't be afraid to take to yourself Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 She shall bring forth a son. You shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins."

This reading from Matthew has an emphasis on Joseph, the father of Jesus.  There is another longer and more familiar version of this story, focused on Mary, in the Gospel of Luke.  Just for your information, this Annunciation story is also described in the Qur'an, in Sura 3 (Al-i-Imran - The Family of Imran), also with a focus on the Virgin Mary.  In both of these stories Joseph is not mentioned at all.

I found in reading a couple of commentaries, what I think gives perspective about the world’s perceived importance of Joseph to this story.  One talks about a young four year old girl drawing a picture of the Christmas nativity scene.  She finishes her picture, and then tells her mother about each character in the scene.  Her mother notices a figure is missing.  “Where’s Joseph?”  The girl responds, “Who needs Joseph anyway?”

The other one is about a person setting up a manger scene in her house.  She realizes she cannot find the Joseph figure anywhere; after looking everywhere she decided to use one of the shepherds as Joseph.  This was the setup in place throughout the holiday season, and no one ever noticed.

So, what about this Joseph?  Joseph the Carpenter, or stoneworker, or artisan, is the important figure in Christian belief as the husband of the Virgin Mary and the stepfather of Jesus Christ. According to Christian tradition, he was not the biological father of Jesus, but acted as his foster-father and as head of the family.  Jesus was referred to as the son of Joseph during his public life, though in Mark he is referred to as Mary's son.  Matthew and Luke each have a genealogy that traces Joseph's lineage back to King David.  Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels which include what’s called the ”Infancy Narratives”, the stories of Jesus' birth and infancy.  In Matthew, Joseph lives in Bethlehem, the city of David, where Jesus is born, and then moves to Nazareth with his family.  In Luke, Joseph lives in Nazareth, but travels to Bethlehem in compliance with the requirements of a Roman census. He then lives in Bethlehem for an unspecified period (perhaps two years) until King Herod's order and massacre of all male babies forces him to take refuge in Egypt with his family; on the death of Herod he brings his family back to Israel, and settles in Nazareth.

Very little other information on Joseph is given in the Gospels, in which he never speaks. He is mentioned in the Gospels as present on the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12, but no mention occurs for later than that one time.  Christian tradition, though vague on the time and place of his death, represents Mary as a widow during the adult ministry of her son.  I’ve read enough to see there is even confusion about whether Joseph was an older widower who had had other children at the time he was engaged to Mary, and that Mary had no children after Jesus, or that Joseph was younger and had other children with Mary after Jesus.  The Roman Catholics’ beliefs about the status and importance of the Virgin Mary probably results in the first view, while Protestant beliefs lean more toward the second view.

Matthew is writing to Jews he hopes to convert to become Christians, and wants to show that Jesus is firmly part of the history of Israel, so he ties in the genealogy of Jesus back to the royal lineage of David through Joseph.  He also writes in several places ties back to the Old Testament to say that Jesus was the fulfillment of those OT prophets’ writings, such as in the reading from Isaiah today.

Joseph is important to this story of the annunciation and subsequent birth and life of Jesus for this reason—Joseph had this role of being the father of Jesus foisted on him by God.  He had every reason to say “No”.  As a "righteous" Jew, and therefore as one who was fully obedient to the law, Joseph was obligated to dissolve his betrothal in view of Mary's apparent unfaithfulness.  While contemplating a quiet divorce he was approached by the angel of the Lord in a dream, addressed as a "Son of David", and directed to make Mary's child his own by “adoption”.  Only as a result of this obedience is Jesus linked to the history of Israel.  Joseph believed in his role and call from God so strongly that he became part of that miracle and a key player in God’s eternal plan for us all. Joseph instead said “Yes!”, and led and protected his family through the journey to a birth in Bethlehem, and to a life of teaching his son Jesus how to work and live and prepare for his ministry. 

Some Christians struggle about different aspects of the Christian faith, including this virgin birth story. They say that the virgin birth was unimportant to the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John and the Apostle Paul, because those writers did not use the concept of the virgin birth in writing about their understanding of Jesus, but they still believed that Jesus was the Son of God.  People have also tried to prove the resurrection of Jesus, too, and nobody has ever done this successfully. And, people have tried to prove that there is resurrection, life after death for us too, and no one has proven that either.  All of these fundamental beliefs rest on faith--and not proof! Our reading of the Bible says that Mary became pregnant by the power of God, through the Holy Spirit.  It is indeed a leap of faith to believe this; it was a strange entry for Jesus into the world, but no stranger than the way Jesus exited this world.

Our Bishop Greg told diocesan leaders at the recent Diocesan Boards Retreat this saying, “Hope without a Plan equals Denial.”  This probably applies about whatever we hope to do at St. Mark’s.  Just hoping for good things to happen with our future without planning and then acting to do anything is wishful thinking and denial.  In His interaction with Joseph and Mary, God provided them ‘The Plan’, to bring Jesus into the world to save His people.  This gave them Hope, but it was still up to them to act, to say Yes!, and follow through to make God’s Plan happen. 

What is Christmas about really?  It is an invitation to do what Joseph did, to let go of constraints and reasonableness, and respond in generosity and the strongest and deepest love of our hearts to God, and also to one another, to those God has given us to love and care for.  Sometimes God’s work is just about assuming responsibility--going to work every day, doing your job; taking care of an aging, lonely parent, alone and afraid; or patiently helping a troubled youngster.  God’s important work is about being responsible and responsive, as Joseph once was. 

So, as we have said in the past, “Hail Mary, blessed are you”, let us also say, “Hail Joseph, blessed are you, as well.”  AMEN 


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