But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
A groups of 4 to 8 year-old children were asked the question, “What does love mean?” One 7 year-old boy said that, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
During the season of Advent here at Central United the theme we have been exploring in sermons is “love’s pure light;” this theme comes from a line in that much loved Christmas carol Silent Night—“Son of God, love’s pure light.” It expresses the gospel claim that Christmas is love coming into the world. The birth of Mary’s son is love come to us; true love; God’s love. To see Jesus is to see love’s pure light; love in all its purity; unadulterated love; love untainted by selfishness or self-centredness; the self-forgetful self-giving that knows no bounds. The gospel claim is that “love is the One in the room with us at Christmas Eve worship if you stop thinking about opening presents (and other Christmas activity) and listen.”
Neil MacGregor is a British art historian and the former director of the British Museum. Beginning this past October he presented a BBC radio series titled Living With The Gods. Macgregor says that Britain is trying to become the first society in the world without religious belief at its core. He is taking about the decline of Christianity in Britain—but listen to what he said about Christmas.
“The purpose of religion is to engender a sense of community, MacGregor said, and the one communal ritual to survive in modern Britain is Christmas. It does what religious festivals do: it is the one moment of the year everyone thinks about their obligations across the community, and you think about your place in time, and the future. Christmas still does work extraordinarily well as a great religious festival in that sense, even though for most people the story behind it has evaporated.”
While I might take issue with his claim about the purpose of religion I do think he makes an astute observation about Christmas; that for many people, though they observe Christmas in some way, the story behind it has evaporated. MacGregor was talking about Britain but I think his observation could be said of many Canadians—for them the story behind Christmas has evaporated. It has been relegated to the category of fairy tale or fantasy.
I wonder if Christmas has been evaporating for any of you. Perhaps the reason is what we might call light pollution—with all those lesser lights turned on the light of the stars seem to evaporate in the sky. I would like to say a word to promote shutting those lesser lights off and keep this story front and centre so that love’s pure light might shine in our Christmas.
1. Do you know that Joseph nearly jettisoned the Christmas story; yes, the same Joseph who comes to adopt Jesus as his own son; Mary’s Joseph. He was determined that this whole mess evaporate out of his life. Everything he was dreaming for in life with Mary was now to be put aside because he thought Mary had betrayed their marriage commitment. You can imagine that he is devastated and heart broken. He determines to divorce Mary quietly—no trial, that was too public and messy for all concerned—he would write the requisite certificate of divorce in front of a competent witness and be done with it.
The angel shows up at just the right moment between Joseph’s resolution to divorce Mary and the implementation of his plan. Joseph’s decision has been based on inadequate information and God wants to redirect him. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Like Joseph we think we know the facts of life sufficiently to make the judgement that Mary has been unfaithful to the marriage vow. In divorcing Mary, Joseph was just trying to do the right thing for all concerned releasing Mary to get on with her life in the direction that the circumstances, as far as he could see them, were pointing. But God says “no,” to his analysis. There is something else going on here in Mary’s life and I want you to be part of it; “… you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
And God says “no” to all our suspicions about this story. There is more going on here than you and I can determine; it isn’t what we think. He is to be named Jesus—a name that means “God saves.” Joseph is to take Jesus as his own and so are we—he will save us from our sins. He is love’s pure light.
Also, as I think of Joseph, he must have felt that his life was crashing down around him. The engagement that have been so carefully orchestrated between the families for he and Mary; the home he was building for the family he imagined would live there seemed empty and unimportant now; the business he was building to secure his family’s future was now like just going through the motions; the humiliation and rejection of it all difficult to bear. How could God have been so unfair when he had trusted God so implicitly?
Perhaps we too have encountered events that blindside and frustrate our future; contradictions to the message of God’s love and so this Jesus story has begun to evaporate out our minds. As with Joseph so too for us, God can work the good he intends for us even in the midst of those things. “Joseph,” said God, “trust in what I am doing and take Mary as your wife, the son she will bear is for you.” In all these difficult things we face in life God calls to us as well to receive his Son—in him God is weaving that tapestry of love’s triumph in the Son. He is love’s pure light.
2 It may be true that for many people the story behind Christmas has evaporated; what hasn’t evaporated is our need. “… you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The same room where love can be heard midst the opening of Christmas presents can all too soon be filled with other sounds of anger and strife. Why can’t we keep it together at least for a couple of days? A reading of any news outlet today reveals the fact that humanity is far from even the most moderate of ideal; it also reveals that we are aware we were made for better things.
Love’s pure light comes among us and discloses the disease—he will save his people from their sins; and the diagnosis of the dire human situation before God comes with cure. Jesus is this cure. This is want the love of God looks like—the problem of sin is revealed to us as he comes himself as the remedy.
In Matthew’s gospel this announcement by the angel to Joseph looks forward to the night before Jesus gave up his life for us. It was at the last supper when Jesus took a cup of wine and gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28)
I am aware that many think that we humans are basically good and just need a wee reminder now and then to get back on course—isn’t this what our culture has made of Christmas—a festival to think about our obligations across the community? And as good as that is to do, we still keep coming back needing this annual reminder—why can’t we keep it together for at least a couple of years? When I stand before the cross of Christ and think, this is the price of sin, I am brought face to face with the knowledge that the perverseness of my heart is far worse that I imagine.
But here is love. God comes himself in the son unwilling to leave us in our no-way-out situation with sin. This is where God directs Joseph and us, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ Don’t let the story behind Christmas evaporate.