Sermon: Christmas Day

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Christmas Day 2022

Psalm 98
Matthew 1:18-25

Today, Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem. Yesterday we heard Luke’s version of the story, which is the one we know best, with Joseph and Mary having to travel from their home in Nazareth to the City of David, where they found ‘no place for them in the inn’. Luke’s story has angels and shepherds and a happy ending: ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.’ (Luke 2:19-20) Matthew’s version of the story[1] is less joyful. Mary and Joseph might be in their own home, rather than on the road unable to find shelter at an inn, and there might be no messy shepherds disturbing their sleep, instead Matthew later tells us that magi from the East came bringing costly gifts, but it is still a dark and dangerous tale.

On the first Sunday of Advent this year we heard the stories of four women who are mentioned by name in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy. Only four women among the forty-three men named, and those women are all scandalous. The fifth woman mentioned by name in the genealogy is Mary. Matthew ends his list of ancestors with, ‘Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah’. Mary’s story, too, is outrageous. When ‘Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit’. At the time engagement was the equivalent of marriage; infidelity while engaged was adultery. As far as Joseph was concerned his betrothed was an adulteress, like his ancestress Bathsheba. Joseph was a righteous man, a man who obeyed the law. The law did not allow the husbands of unfaithful wives to simply forgive them. The penalty that the legal code in Deuteronomy prescribed for women who were found not to be virgins at marriage was stoning. (Deuteronomy 22:21) Actual stoning was unlikely to be happening in first-century Israel, but at the very least Joseph would have been expected to divorce Mary, and a divorced woman had little value. If Mary were lucky she might have been taken in by her family and supported, otherwise her alternative would have been to support herself by doing the same sort of work that Jesus’ ancestress Rahab did, that his ancestress Tamar pretended to do, and that his ancestress Ruth might have had to do had she not attracted the honourable eye of Boaz.[2] The story of Mary’s pregnancy is intimately linked to the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.

As a righteous man Joseph is prepared to do what the law demands, but to do it quietly rather than publicly disgracing Mary. But then God intervenes. God’s angel addresses Joseph in a dream, encouraging him not to be afraid to go through with the marriage and take Mary to be his wife. The angel goes on to prophesy the birth of a son, the name he is to be given, and the role he is to play. The story finishes simply. Joseph follows the instructions. He goes through with the second stage of the marriage. He takes Mary home. He refrains from intercourse until the son is born. He gives the baby the name Jesus and by giving him his name Joseph acknowledges the baby to be his son, making him legally part of the house and family of David.

What seemed to be disgraceful, a situation completely unacceptable to the society in which it happened, turns out to be God intervening in the world. Mary is said to be ‘with child from the Holy Spirit’. Her pregnancy comes from the Spirit of God who brings about new things. In the incarnation God becomes part of the world in a new way, as ‘Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’ Had Joseph acted as a righteous man, as the law demanded of him, everything would have gone wrong. But Joseph listened to God, even though God spoke to him only in a dream, did something contrary to the rules of his society, and a potential scandal became God alive and at work in the world.

The two Nativity stories that the Bible gives us, the stories according to Matthew and Luke, are very different. Luke’s story is of the Messiah being homeless, born among the poor and the outcast, greeted by social outsiders. Luke’s telling of the Nativity ends with those outsiders, shepherds, glorifying and praising God. Matthew’s story is of social conventions being overturned, of mercy outweighing righteousness, and of the Messiah becoming a refugee. In the coming weeks we will hear about the incredibly foolish wise men who alert Herod to the birth of his rival, leading to the massacre of all the baby boys in Bethlehem and Joseph fleeing with the child and his mother to safety in a foreign land.

Despite the differences, neither version of the Nativity is a story of the sort of family harmony and good cheer that we see in Christmas advertisements. Whether we think of a new mother giving birth far from home, or one who faces potential dismissal by her fiancé for adultery, Mary is a stronger character than the ‘mother mild’ of our carols. Joseph barely gets a mention in them but deserves remembrance as the man who claims a son not his own by naming him, rather than rejecting him as legalistic ‘righteousness’ would demand. Whether in a strange city unable to find room at the inn, or fleeing from violence and seeking refuge in Egypt, Mary and Joseph would have struggled to protect their newborn son and provide him with necessities, let alone the extras that our Christmases often demand. If our own Christmases are messy, and our own family situations complicated, if we look at the joyful Christmas gatherings our society celebrates in song and story with nostalgia or envy, we can console ourselves that the very first Christmas was messy and complicated, too.

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem, and the acceptance of Jesus as his son by Joseph. Christmas is created by God’s Spirit doing a new thing, and God entering the world in a new way. It also happens because of the openness of Mary and Joseph to all that scandalous newness. Are we able, like them, to say ‘yes’ to God when God does something new in our lives? If so, then we too will be able to do as today’s psalm demands and sing a new song to the Lord. Who knows where that might take us in this messy and complicated world? Wherever it does, because of the birth of Emmanuel we know that God will be with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Which we would normally have heard on the fourth Sunday of Advent rather than on Christmas Day itself, but North Balwyn Uniting Church had a Service of Readings and Carols on the fourth Sunday.

[2] The Bible refers to this work as prostitution, and I decided to mention it obliquely given the number of children who come to Christmas Services.

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