The Oldest Christmas Love Story – December 19
A sermon based on Matthew 1: 18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 19, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott
There are only two Christmas Nativity stories in the Bible. We tend to hear them both, or parts of them both, this time of year. So far this Advent we’ve considered parts of Luke’s Nativity story. We heard Mary’s Magnificat – her response to the proclamation that she is blessed with the Holy Child. We also heard Luke’s telling of the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds that Jesus was arriving. Today we are shifting over to Matthew to his story of the proclamation given by an angel to Joseph.
It’s hard to believe we are already at the Fourth Sunday of Advent where the candle and theme are love. If you’ve been here much at all, you know love is pretty much the theme every week all year long. Today though it is a little different. Our lesson is one of the few stories we have that feature Jesus’ dad Joseph, and it may be the only story featuring Joseph most are familiar with. Sadly, it is also the Bible Nativity narrative that may be ridiculed the most with Joseph taking heat one way or another for believing Mary’s pregnant state was just God’s doing. There’s a wink-wink attitude about it that disrespects Joseph, Mary, Jesus and God and the beautiful point of the story which is love. The ridicule exists because if we insist, as some do, that a primary concern is the story must be understood literally, then that concern clashes for many with modern reason.
As modern people most of us weigh stories by the support they get from empirical facts. If a story’s meaning is supposed to be a literal historic accounting we automatically run it through a filter to see if it defies our understandings and experiences in life. Stories purporting to be about human births without human fathers can get stuck in that filter. They are thought by many to defy reason. We are, however, free from that filter if the story is considered metaphor. The filter then shifts to can I find meaning in one of more of its symbolic meanings.
Both the historic and metaphoric lens look for meaning with different filters. Those looking through historic lens at Bible verses tend to get stuck at the filtering. Fundamentalist’s get rid of the filter for themselves by claiming words in the Bible must to be taken literally and understood as inerrant supreme facts, which outweigh science and reason.
Liberal critics of the Bible tend to claim empirical facts reasoned through science and experience outweigh accepting literal meanings of the words in the Bible Nativity narratives. Ironically many unreasonably accept literalism as the only way to view Bible stories and refuse to consider them parabolic. This leads to irrational scoffing at the Nativity stories often resulting in Joseph as the butt of jokes.
That liberal critics mock it is doubly ironic since most seem to love this time of year which is based on holidays anchored in the stories being scoffed at. Even beloved secular Christmas stories, like Santa, rise out of the Christmas holiday love centers and – by the way– those stories defy logic if we take their wording literally.
If we think about it, most classic Christmas stories are fantastical, because love is fantastic and love is so personally and universally indescribable that it has long been best explained by humans in metaphor and symbols in stories meant to be rich with meaning, not science or history. Their truth lies not in their literal factual historicity or scientific proofs, but in the understandings that the words and story convey. Getting tangled up in questioning the realness of the events depicted misses the realness of the truth they convey. That’s how it is with the Bible’s Christmas Stories. In other words, getting bogged down in arguing or laughing off literal readings of them completely misses the point. The point being truth about love– and by love I mean both God (who is love) and our own desire and care for the well-being of others (another part of the theological dictionary definition of love).
Please do not hear me wrong, it is okay to understand the Bible’s Nativity stories as either historic or metaphoric. But the point of the stories ought not to be how we come at them. Whether we come to today’s lesson believing it literally happened or that it is a parable with metaphors, we should end up asking the same primary question: Where is love in Matthew’s Nativity story? Where is it in the short lesson we heard Mearle read so well today? For Christians it begins with the Divine love-centered provision of God’s very own Son, Jesus, who’s understood by us to be the Christ (the Messiah), God incarnate, love incarnate on earth. Love gives us love in the story!
The first two sentences of our lesson suggest Luke’s story starts off with Divine and earthly Love:
“the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
While the story goes on to lift up Joseph, it starts off with a reference to his and Mary’s engagement which suggests to us romantics that love is a part of the equation. Then right away there’s a reference to Mary and the Holy Spirit which we can hear as an honoring nod at the start to the female nature and catalysts of the event. Jesus’ mother is clearly a female, but the Spirit of God in the Bible is also a feminine aspect of the Divine. Ruach, the Hebrew word in Genesis for the Spirit of God who births creation is a feminine word, and we can understand the Spirit as a feminine aspect of God throughout the Bible. Mary is blessed with a child from that feminine aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.
The Nativity narrative in Matthew begins filled with love, the love of an earthly mother and heavenly mother. And we can even understand this as a subtle reference to the later re-birth of Jesus in Matthew at the resurrection where two women (both named Mary) are the first to lovingly midwife the information that he came out of the womb of the tomb resurrected to a new way of living as Jesus Christ eternally. We can hear a full circle of love that started with Matthew’s Christmas story. Love and Jesus arrive through loving female images, and Jesus and his love and loving way survives through female images as well.
But unlike Luke who tells us an angel visited Mary with the news of her pregnancy, Matthew has an angel visit Joseph with that news. While a number of modern scholars find that patriarchal and patronizing. We can nonetheless choose to hear it as a liberation lesson. In the telling Joseph rejects the unloving ways the patriarchy commands. Joseph models for men and everyone else how to be on a loving way by rightly and righteously opposing patriarchal rules that oppress women. Those unjust rules in his day called on men to participate in severely punishing a pregnant-by-another-source betrothed woman. Instead, Joseph acts under God’s rules with love toward Mary, accepting the pregnancy and the child as fully his– even while he and we know the son is not of his making.
Even before an angel lets Joseph know Mary did not cheat on him, Joseph was willing to defy the patriarchy. He was flat out “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [and] planned to dismiss her quietly.” The science of the situation seemed to make it clear Mary had another man. The patriarchal law of the situation made it clear Mary should be severely punished. Despite the science and despite the law, love and justice in the situation made it clear to a righteous man that Mary deserved to be treated kindly. Her well-being needed to matter no matter what! Above science and the law, Joseph desired and cared for Mary’s well-being. That may not be the stuff of Hallmark cards, but it is love through-and-through, and frankly quite a touching love story before the angel even shows up.
When the angel appears and provides the good news of Jesus’ Son-of God origin Joseph pours out even more love. His love and faith in God leads him to desire and care for the well-being of Mary and her child to be. He cares so much he agrees to marry Mary and help tend to her and Jesus’ well-being the rest of his life. He even names and adopts Jesus as his own.
So, whether we think the story actually happened or is parabolic it’s a love story. An unusual one, but a love story all the same–and one of the best in my book, and the oldest Christmas love story on record. In our lesson God shows Divine loves through an angel whose message prompts Joseph to love, and, of course, God so loved the world we were given the Son of God, Jesus. In response Joseph models how to follow the greatest commandment. by loving both God and others. Joseph models that for all of us. AMEN
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