Love’s Reward is Heaven Breaking in . . . Now
A sermon based on Matthew 1: 18-25: Luke 1:26-38
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 23, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We just heard Pastor Mearle read a bit of Luke’s Nativity story, the part tradition often refers to as “The Annunciation.” At the start of the service I read as our invocation a snippet of the Nativity story from Matthew. Last week I mentioned all the difficult things going on for humans in the whole of both Nativity stories, difficulties that symbolize troubles humans have faced throughout history. Injustices. Prejudice. Poverty. Racism. Oppression. Lack of health care. Relation issues. Divorce. Refugees. Unfair taxes. Violence. Of course, we have also been discussing the great light in the stories, and the peace, hope, joy and love shining in the darknesses.
In our Adult Forum class we have been studying the Nativity stories in depth. We have learned that Matthew and Luke have very different stories that don’t mesh in many way, but do have in common a few expressly stated assertions. Scholars think these touch-points captures an earlier tradition. The thinking is that since the authors of Matthew and Luke appear to have not known one another their matching parts must have come from a common pre-existing source. Here’s the few bits and pieces of the expressed assertions that match up in the Nativity stories:
Mary and Joseph were betrothed; while Mary was a virgin she conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit; an angel announced the divine nature of the conception; Mary gave birth to a son in the town of Bethlehem when Herod was King; God named that son Jesus; Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus was born to save people; and Joseph, Mary and Jesus lived in Nazareth.
Aside from those relatively few common assertions, Matthew and Luke diverge somewhat drastically in their accounts of the Nativity. We heard in both readings an angel breaking the news of the conception– but in Matthew Joseph is told, and in Luke Mary is told. In both tellings the human recipient of the news listens, but responds differently. Mary first questions the news, then willingly accepts it, quickly leaving town and singing of how the news is good for her and the world. Mary’s song, The Magnificat (which Pastor Anna preached on a few weeks ago) pretty much summarizes the gospel, emphasizing the individual’s ability to magnify God, as well as God’s creation-wide care and desire and actions toward the well being of humanity, especially lifting up the lowly and ending oppression. In Luke’s version of the Christmas stories Mary is the model Christian magnifying God and carrying Christ into the world to rescue of humanity . . .AND God is the ubiquitous presence of Love.
That’s Luke. Matthew tells a different annunciation story. In it, Joseph first hears that Mary is with child from other humans not God, and Matthew indicates that the un-Godly version of the human borne news initially taints Mary posing the very threat of a marital break- up. As betrothed back then, Mary and Joseph, were legally bound to their relationship and culturally already considered husband and wife. While the child that Mary is carrying is not biologically Joseph’s in both stories, only in Matthew is it hinted (to both Joseph and listeners) that Mary seems to have committed adultery. Consequently, when the news of Mary being with child first arrives from unidentified humans Joseph as a model religious person in righteous obedience to the Torah, the law, was required in the face of Mary’s pregnancy that he “purge the evil from [his] midst.” 1 Mary had to go. Although that was mandated, Joseph had choices in how to accomplish it. One choice under the law was to have her executed. Another was to humiliate her with public disclosure and divorce. Yet another choice was the one we hear Joseph make, to dismiss her quietly. We are told Joseph made this choice because he was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace.
Setting aside that we know as the story unfolds that Mary is blameless, if we, like Joseph, did not know that it would be a very anguishing time for a partner who has apparently been betrayed by adultery. And so, we can hear Joseph’s efforts to be trying his best under the confines of the law to tend to the well being of Mary who appears to be found with child by another man. We quickly learn that the story is otherwise, but in the moment before that the law provides only one righteous response and Joseph chooses it. He models righteousness within the confines of the law . . . and just as he does, God shows up.
And when God arrives in the form of an angel God eases the situation immensely. Joseph’s desire for Mary and Christ within her’s well being, God provides another Way. New choices unfold, options outside the law are imagined. God lets Joseph know the child was not conceived by Mary and another man, but that she conceived Christ alone with God. (Which if we think about it, is how everyone conceives Christ, in the “apprehends” sense of the word. That form of the conception of God is always between God and the individual . . . alone).
Joseph has faith in God’s words spoken through the angel. He trusts God and so he trusts Mary and makes a new choice to stay her husband and raise Jesus– as is his son. A consequence is that God allows Joseph to give the name God chose to the baby. That’s more important than we may think. See in that time and place when Joseph gave that name to Jesus he was legally declaring himself, and legally being understood by the culture, to be Jesus’ father. So in the story Jesus even as he is proclaimed the Son of God, is also literally the son of Joseph. This happened because Joseph chose to have faith in God and do as God instructed notwithstanding religious and culture directives to the contrary.
Joseph does not purge Mary and Jesus from his midst, he embraces them as wife and son, as family. In the context of his time and place that is extraordinary. Joseph is heroic by letting love be his compass. We heard from Pastor Anna on the first day of Advent how righteous Mary was and the incredible nature of her song The Magnificat and the heroic choices Mary made. Joseph does not sing a song in Matthew’s Nativity story but in that story Joseph, like Mary, makes incredible choices, first in the face of human borne news and the options he thought were available, and then thankfully, in the face of Angel of Lord borne news, he chooses the new options God provides outside the law. And later in the story after the Magi visit and leave we are told Joseph continues making good choices by following the angel’s advice to seek refuge in Egypt in order to save Jesus from the violence of Rome under Herod. So we can understand that, like Mary, Joseph is a model Christian and a hero.
I have called Mary and Joseph “model Christians” and heroes. The heroic part is the courage they show in the story to stand with God and help carry and give birth to, and protect, Christ. The modeling that both Mary and Joseph do is, provide unconditional love to Christ, in very difficult circumstances. The scariness of an unlawful pregnancy and appearance of a tainted betrothal, the legal and religious dictates, do not stop the mother or the father from loving Jesus. There is no condition for their love for the Christ child. The modeling works on both a parental and metaphoric level. Mothers and fathers, men and women, are at their primordial best loving an infant, desiring and tending to the well being of a baby.
Metaphorically the stories show that Christians, at their best are loving Christ, and tending to the well being of Christ in everyone. Jesus himself gives examples in Matthew 25, when he tells us that we are accountable for how we tend to Christ – God incarnate– in the sick, the poor, the stranger and the imprisoned. In Matthew 25 we find out from Jesus that we as a nation are even judged by how we do those obligations. Notably there are no conditions to them. We do not get to excuse ourselves from tending to Christ in someone who is hungry or sick or imprison or a stranger. We must do so, even if: they have a different faith, a different nationality; a different skin color; or a different sexual orientation. We must do so even if we think that the need is due to some fault of the one in need.
The obligation to care is mandatory and it has no bounds. The unconditional nature of love that Mary and Joseph give the Christ Child – we are to give to Christ in everyone. THAT IS THE GOSPEL TRUTH!
The whole of the Nativity stories has this love-soaked theme of caring for Christ. Heaven and earth evidence care and desire for the well being of Jesus– the Angel of God, the Glory of God, his mother, his father, lowly shepherds, Magi from afar – they all care unconditionally for Jesus. Heavenly, earthly, rich, poor, Gentile, Jew, male and female, ALL righteous beings desire Christ’s well being.
The Nativity stories are God’s love-fest aimed at Christ . . . The Christ child, as well as the Christ in others in the story . . . and everyone who ever lives. As the angel in Luke tells the Shepherds it is about, “Peace on earth good will to all.” No matter what anyone tells us, no matter how this religious person or that may spin the New Testament Gospels, they all record God’s cosmic wide love-fest aimed at Christ in Jesus and everyone else. In the Gospels we find that Jesus’ Way is all about love.
And here’s the theme we have heard all Advent long, when we turn and focus on that love-fest sing it in our songs, when we play it out in our actions to others the whole world literally turns more heavenly. Love’s reward is heaven breaking in . . . now! This time of year we tend to Christ in the sick, the poor, the stranger and the imprisoned. And as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 those who do that “inherit the kingdom prepared for [us] from the foundation of the world” that kingdom is heaven on earth. We can see how this teaching is factually true at Christmas time. The love in the air lifts our spirits into much loftier place than we are the rest of the year. Heaven breaks on in. We inherit the reign of God prepared for us. And we can see that the converse is also true too, Matthew 25 tells us when we do not tend to Christ in the sick, the poor, the stranger and the imprisoned, we are accursed. The rest of the year when we back off the love-fest of Christmas, it sure can feel that way. The cosmic judgment of how we perform the obligations Jesus set out in Matthew 25 has real life affects: more heaven during the Holidays love-fest; less heaven the rest of the year when culturally love gets put away on a back shelf.
The Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke have only a few expressed assertions that match. But both of them shine the great Light of peace, hope, joy and love that comes with tending to Christ. They have that Light because God is in the story and not just in ethereal angels and the heavenly host, but in the starring heroes and supporting roles’ actions filled with love. Mary and Joseph love for sure as our readings today evidence, but also the shepherds and Magi and innkeeper in the rest of the verses. Even the enemy nation of Egypt shows love letting the Holy family in as refugees, tending to their well being until they could safely go home. All who act with love in the Nativity stories cause the light of God in the story to be experienced and heaven to break in. The experience is so powerful that just reading the story causes love –God– to vibrate out of the story and our lives. They call us and guide us to act with love too. And at this time of year we do and it makes all the difference. When we tend to Christ in others it matters not just to them, but to us and to all of creation– because it is heaven breaking in . . .NOW!
May we all conceive and carry Christ heroically. As model followers of Jesus, as Christians, let us be a part of the love-fest God calls us to all year long, all life long. May WE tend to the well being of Christ in everyone unconditionally.
AMEN. . . AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!
1. Brown, Raymond, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 127
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED