Christmas Moments That Last Forever

A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 15, 2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Jesus was walking around heaven feeling nostalgic and decided to look for Joseph to catch up on old times. He saw an old man and went up to him and this conversation took place:

Jesus: “Excuse me, I’m looking for my father.”

Old Man: “What a coincidence. I’m looking for my son.”

Jesus: “Well, my father wasn’t really my biological father, but he loved me like a son anyway.”

Old Man: “What a coincidence! My son wasn’t my real son, either, but I loved him as my own.”

Jesus: “Well, my father was a carpenter.”

Old Man: “What a coincidence! I was a carpenter, too!”

Jesus: “Wow! Well, when I was a child, I left home for a long time, and when I finally came back, I experienced a mystical transformation and became something completely different from what I’d been before.”

Old Man: “Wow! The same thing happened to my son!”

Jesus: “Father!” . . .

Old Man: “Pinocchio!”1

After that I know most of us are thinking “What? Jesus wooden knows his own father?” The answer, of course, is: Jesus would knows.
Okay, sorry about that . . . I think most Protestants wouldn’t recognize Joseph by his story. He seems unknown, maybe even nondescript to us. But really his short presence in the Christmas story is a powerful one we’d do well to remember.

No matter how we understand the Gospel story today, one way or another we know that Joseph is Jesus’ father, at least by adoption. And adoption is actually what’s implied in the context of adoption traditions of Jesus’ time. “By naming the baby, Joseph acknowledges him as his son, in effect, Joseph adopts Jesus . . .”  2
And as we heard, Joseph is given God’s message from an angel that he, Joseph, is to name his son “Jesus.”  That’s the way we read and hear the story, but the name “Jesus” is actually a Greek translation of the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew name we know in English as Joshua. In Hebrew Jesus and Joshua come from one and the same name:  “Yeoshu’a.”
That’s all quite confusing I know, the bottom line is that Jesus’ name was Yeoshu’a, a name that means “Yahweh is Salvation” or simply put, “God Saves.” 3. Jesus’ name means “God Saves.”
The authors of the Bible and I have something in common besides being old, we use puns a lot.    And we have a Bible pun – actually delivered by an angel– in today’s Christmas story. It’s a pun that plays off of the meaning of Yeoshu’a,  Jesus’ name. The angel tells Joseph “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The word play is that Jesus means “God saves . ..” “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Get it?
Now you know I gotta love that a great one sentence Scriptural summary of who Jesus is includes a pun uttered by an angel speaking on behalf of God. I take that to mean in no uncertain terms that puns are heavenly and God likes them! This has inspired me for many a sermon (most especially next week’s).
But, of course, that one sentence is packed with much more meaning than a pun. Jesus, as the incarnation of God, does indeed save. For Christians Jesus is God saving us. And I purposefully did not couch that in the past tense. Jesus is God saving us.
We all usually head into the Christmas season expecting and hoping for a Hallmark Story glow to it. We tend to aim for a flawless holiday of warm fuzzy harmony with family and a rousing round of nothing but good cheer. 4  But truthfully the everyday messes of life do not usually suspend themselves for the holidays, and the holidays are rarely if ever flawless.

Indeed for some the stress and blues of life increase this time of year, often because we have disappointed expectations that the messiness will end and it doesn’t,  or we have it in our head that others have a holiday season without flaws and we are upset that ours don’t match up, or sometimes this time of year is just a mess for us. The messiness of life does not end this time of year. We still miss loved ones, and argue, and don’t do this or that the way we want. It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise.

This is not to say that Christmas time is not full of more love and more cheer than any other time of the year. Clearly it is! If you have heard me preach any of the other Advent sermons you know I love Advent precisely because we do crank up the love and cheer this time of year.

But that does not mean messiness as rule takes a vacation. The not so good and bad stuff still happens. Christmas is not about magically making messiness of life go away, but it is about how we respond to those messes and makes the best of this moment. It’s about loving acts saving us in the midst of those messes. God – who is love– saves.

How?

Well religion is at its heart about relationship. It is about how we relate to the Sacredness of all that is . . . and most especially how we relate to the Sacredness in one another.

For Progressive Christians  following Jesus creates an understanding that  there are three golden threads to a tapestry of righteous existence: The First thread is an understanding that there is a creative universal force. The second thread is grasping that we are in a relationship with the universal force– God. The third golden thread is understanding that we are beckoned to relate to others as we want to be related to.  The tapestry of Christian righteous living is created through our  experiences of Jesus – in the past and in the present– acting as a loom that weaves the three golden threads into our lives, the lives of others, into creation and into the future.

The result is a tapestry square which adds to the God’s quilted blanket of salvation for humanity, saving it – and us–  from our lesser way of being. When it all gets boiled down Jesus teachings are fundamentally about being a part of love, that is being one who aims to relate to people with love, bringing love to the world as we want it brought to us– especially in the mucky and mirky places of our lives.

Like I said,  Joseph is not talked about much in Protestant churches other than being Jesus’ adoptive dad – most wouldn’t recognize him from his story. But here’s the thing, Joseph exemplifies how humans should respond to life’s messiness. He personifies how to relate to others with love. And it makes all the difference in his life, Mary’s life and Jesus’ life, and actually our lives and all of humanity.

Joseph relates to others as we would want to be related to. He lives out the Golden Rule in a very untidy situation. Joseph is facing one of humanity’s biggest upsets, the loss of a relationship, a partnership break-up looms. And he’s facing it in a culture where men were considered to own their partner, their betrothed. And violation of that ownership allowed the man to cause the woman he owned disgrace, shunning or even death.

At the start of the Christmas story, there exists the pain and anguish that comes when the loss of a beloved looms, and it seems extra painful because in the case of adultery the deep hurt it causes compounds the loss. Joseph understandably thinks he is facing all of this. His response could have been jealous violence outside the law as sadly many men are wont to wrongly choose. His response could have been violence within the law, and actually the righteous at that time under the literal compliance with Torah were legally supposed to prosecute and obtain the ordained punishments.

But Joseph opts for something altogether different.  We are told he is righteous. And if we stop and think about he does what Micah 6:8 tell us God requires of us. He seeks justice and loves kindness and walks humbly with his God.  The justice Joseph seeks is providing that which is due to Mary, not under the ordained punishments of the law but under the supreme commandment of the law: love of neighbor as yourself; do to others as you would want done to you. He loves kindness over literal reading of the Scripture and enforcement of strict punishment. He is humble and quiet about it.

And what’s so beautiful about the reading today is that the instant Joseph decided to seek real justice and love real kindness and really walk humbly with God –at that very moment we are told (and I quote) “when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .”

God soaks Joseph’s life. Joseph is righteous and he makes the decisions God requires in the toughest of times. The entire book of Job is about this, life is full of messiness, unpleasant and awful stuff happens. Our call is to be the best we can be in each given moment– most especially the dark ones. That is what Job, a righteous person in a mess, does and God appears to him. That’s what Joseph, a righteous person in a mess, does and God appears to him. See in those moments of making the right decisions, God is with us and working through us and it creates more experiences of God, and sometimes –even Divine revelations that can get us out of the muck.

Because Joseph makes the righteous choice he literally helps God bring Christ into the world.  The result is that his work for, and on behalf of Christ, saves. It saves Mary. It saves his marriage.  In the chapter that follows today’s reading in Matthew Joseph saves Christ by leading an exodus away from Herod’s plot to murder baby Jesus. And that means that Joseph’s acts served to save us too. Because without the baby Jesus’ survival we do not get Jesus’ ministry, teaching, healing, later death and resurrection.

We are told Joseph named the Christ child Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that “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.”

“ God is with us.” And God is with us experientially through Jesus because of Mary as we discussed last week, and because of Joseph as we are discussing today. Both of them did not encounter and live through a warm fuzzy Hallmark season getting them to the first Christmas.  It was messy, as messy as life gets. But that first Christmas came, because they found a way to turn toward God, toward love, in the messiness of life.

We can pretend otherwise, but the truth is life is full of messiness, unpleasant and awful stuff happens, our call is to be the best we can be in each given moment, most especially in the messes. That is what Mary, a righteous person in a mess, does. That’s what Joseph, a righteous person in a mess, does.

How does all this relate to “joy,” the theme of the Third Sunday in Advent? The word “joy” is defined as

a. Intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness. b. The expression or manifestation of such feeling. 2. A source or an object of pleasure or satisfaction. 5.

Before Jesus is born, before the first Christmas, it is the remarkable efforts of Jesus’ parents – Mary, God and Joseph– out of the mess of life, which bring us the hope of peace through the love of God incarnate in Christ. This gives us deep personal joy, as well as collective joy!

That love incarnate is real and this time of year it is something we can feel deep down, and that love is “Intense and especially ecstatic and exultant happiness.” This is joyful news!

And our response is “The expression [and] manifestation of such feeling.”

The Nativity is a “source [and] an object of pleasure [and] satisfaction.” It is joy-filled for us because of Mary and Joseph’s choices to be loving in the ugliness of life they encounter.

The choices to be love which they make in the moment of their crisis provide Christmas moments that last forever.

The good news is the whole Christmas story gives us great joy–  and promises more joy when we also answer the call from God to be the best we can be in each given moment.

Love matters much. It saves the world for its lesser way if being,  bringing more and more joy to the world!

AMEN.
ENDNOTES:
1. I found this joke (which I have modified slightly) at a website called “Funworld/fun4you” located at http://www.hehe.at/funworld/archive/fun4you.php?joke=402
2. FOW A, vol 1, p95
3. http://www.behindthename.com/name/joshua  ; http://www.catholic.org/clife/jesus/jesusname.php
4. I got this idea and the imagery from FOW p 92.
5. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/joy

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED