Do you all see a Christmas tree up here to the right of our old altar? No, you really don’t! There is no tree there! We’re still in Advent—so we really have no Christmas tree there yet! And that decorating of the tree we’ll do after the service, is to an imaginary tree. And the change in the altar and ambo colors to white from blue we’ll do is not really there either—until Christmas Eve, when Advent really ends! (Of course, we just do all this for our convenience earlier than the end of Advent!)
If we were real fundamentalists about this, we would not even put a tree there, or do anything in the church that recognizes the more secular aspects of Christmas. Just like some people think it is awful to have the church open to greet kids for Halloween. Or have an Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday. My view is that we do plenty to connect with our community, and we celebrate both the Christian and secular parts of these seasons and events. Christmas, Easter, Halloween/All Saints, and Thanksgiving all have both, and we recognize both within our Christian perspective and our following of the teachings and call to serve others by Jesus.
I have read that some congregations effectively regard today as “Christmas Sunday”. While liturgical purists don’t like this development, there is sort of something to it. The worshipping community that gathers on the Fourth Sunday of Advent is likely made up primarily of the local congregation, whereas on Christmas Eve, the worshipping community includes visitors, while some regulars are themselves visiting elsewhere.
We’ve been at this Advent season for almost 4 weeks now. During Advent one year someone in our Bible study group 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.
What did you think of those readings today? Our first one from Isaiah and the Gospel are tied together--Isaiah seemingly predicts the future coming of a Messiah with a story a lot like what is described in the Gospel of Matthew reading about the birth of Jesus. The tie we note between the Isaiah reading and the Gospel today is because Matthew is writing about 50 years after the death of Jesus to Jews he hopes to convert to become Christians, and he wants to show that Jesus is firmly part of the history of Israel. He ties in the genealogy of Jesus back to the royal lineage of David through Joseph. He also writes in several other places ties back to the Old Testament to say that Jesus was the fulfillment of those Hebrew prophets’ writings.
Our reading from Matthew has a unique 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. And, 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.
What about this Joseph? Joseph the carpenter, or stoneworker, or artisan, is an 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.
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.
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 presented to 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”. 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.
As we finish Advent then, what is Christmas about really? It is an invitation to do what Joseph did, to 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. God offers a sign of hope: God with us—Immanuel—the name of this child who is coming. This child is hope within a desperate time. In the midst of desperation, the child is named as the one with authority to establish justice with righteousness and the one called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”—we’ll read all that on Christmas Eve! The prophecy of this child is a prophecy that instills hope in order for people to persevere through desperation and maintain their pursuit of justice.
At this time of year when we celebrate this hope through the baby Jesus, let us also recognize that this longest night and darkest time means difficult days for many of our community (and maybe even us!). This time can feel really “blue”, filled with desperation and pain and living with loss—relationships, jobs, health, shelter, and the like. During this season let’s remind ourselves of these folks too, and do what is possible to help and be with them as we are able. AMEN!