When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him;
Are you dreaming of something special to awake to on Christmas morning?
According to Matthew’s gospel, when Joseph went to sleep his dream of being a husband was in tatters; he woke the parent of the Son of God. To say that this is a head-snapping change of direction is a vast understatement. This is a Christmas surprise that no one goes to sleep hoping to awake to on Christmas morn.
“So, what has that got to do with me”, you may wonder? After all Joseph’s experience is rather unique—a “one of a kind”, to say the least. Further there are some features of this story that, well, let’s say they test the limits of credulity. Whatever all that means for Joseph is ok for him; I am not sure it means the same for me.
“Making the world a better place”, “put a little love in your heart,” “giving back”; these are things that have more to do with what Christmas means—at least the Christmas I know. Most of the better-known Christmas—or should I say “holiday”—movies have happy endings, things work out well. Scrooge wakes up a changed man, the Grinch's heart grows larger and more loving, the whole town comes together to save George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, and the next-door neighbor re-establishes contact with his estranged son at the end of Home Alone. Christmas is a time to focus on the other people around you.
We think we know what will make for the better world and, therefore, what Christmas should mean. But God’s agenda is not ours because—as this story reveals—what God knows we need and is not what we think we need. Joseph thought he needed a quiet divorce; to extricate himself from relationship with Mary. God believes that Joseph needs this son and that you and I need this son as well. Why? Because “he will save his people from their sins.” Come on, do we have to talk about sin on Christmas Eve? What about gifts and good will? Well, yes, we do need to speak of sin because God raises the subject. Clearly what we think we need—what we are dreaming for—is not what God thinks we need and he interrupts our dreaming to tell us so.
As with Joseph, so with us: God brings us what he knows we need whether we thought we needed it or not. It isn’t that what we think we need is unimportant to God nor that God is unconcerned about the problems we seek to solve or the difficulties we strive to overcome. The purpose of the coming of this child shows us that there is something of graver concern; a more profound difficulty to be resolved. “He will save his people from their sins.”
It is here where Joseph’s story and yours and mine converge. It is on this point that we see what it has to do with us. Joseph is being asked to commit himself to the significance of Jesus in the purposes of God. And as God asks Joseph so he is asking each of us—will you commit yourself to the significance of Jesus in the purposes of God?
It is for this reason that we hold Christmas Eve worship—because of the significance of Jesus. This night, all over the world churches are filled with people who will profess the central words of this faith; “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The Son is God himself. This is why we come to Christmas Eve worship. We come to trace the itinerary of sacrifice which He undertook for our salvation; to read the lines of love God has written with his own flesh and blood.
We come to remind ourselves that our salvation is not a matter of clever ideas or attitude adjustment or just giving peace a chance. Our salvation from sin and evil is a work of God’s love. If you want to know what Matthew understood the angel to mean by “he will save his people from their sins” you only need to trace this theme in his gospel. The meaning becomes clear at the last supper with his disciples when Jesus lifted the cup of wine 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)
Decorating is not my gift; but I really enjoy getting out the Nativity scene and watching grandchildren placing the various characters on the fireplace mantel. It is hard to put in words the delight I experience when the first of Advent comes and the Nativity adorns our sanctuary chancel. It tells a great story.
It was on Christmas Eve of the year 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene. He recreated the scene of Christ’s birth in a special service and Mass he held inside of a cave, inviting both his fellow friars and the townspeople to join in the celebration.
St. Francis set up an empty manger inside a cave, and even included a live ox and donkey beside the manger. The first nativity scene was a live nativity. Why did he include an ox and a donkey? Yes, they were typical stable mates of the first century but it was a reference in the preaching of the Prophet Isaiah that inspires Francis.
Isaiah wrote: “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3) This picture of a St Francis Nativity is from a church in San Francesco Italy; you can see the ox and donkey looking on. It is as if Francis wanted to say—the ox and donkey know their master when they see him—do we?
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. Joseph commits himself to the significance of Jesus in the purposes of God. Will we? Will we commit ourselves to the significance of Jesus; will we too receive this son as our Saviour? When Joseph awoke from sleep—you will note that Joseph is all in at this point. He may not understand everything about this son—but God’s assurance is enough. He takes Mary as his wife and names the boy Jesus. To name the child was, in that day, to perform the role of father and is so doing Joseph will make the child his own.
For many here tonight you have long known the joy of committing yourself to the significance of Jesus made known in these gospel stories. For some this idea may be new or perhaps you can’t quite do what Joseph does. Questions remain. Faith begins by trusting as much of yourself as you know of yourself to as much of God as you know of him. My prayer is that each will come to experience the joy of Joseph’s commitment. When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.