Love Came Down

Passage: Matthew 1:18-25
Date: December 18, 2016
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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"Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid” – those may be the four worst words to say to someone who is experiencing fear. If there is terrible turbulence on the airplane and I am sure we are all about to die, please do not tell me not to be afraid. I might die; it is appropriate that I am afraid.

And yet throughout Advent and Christmas we hear these words again and again: do not be afraid. Maybe it’s different when the words are spoken by an angel.

The angel speaks in today’s lesson – but we’re hearing from Matthew instead of Luke, and there’s just the one unnamed angel who shows up just once and just to Joseph and in a dream, not in person. So perhaps, in this telling of the birth of Jesus, it is not the angel who is scary; it is not the visage of a heavenly messenger who causes sweaty palms and a staccato heart beat. Maybe there is a different fear.

Matthew gives us Joseph’s point of view of this story. Here is a Jewish man, of undetermined age and unknown profession, living in Bethlehem, which is a far-flung colony of the Roman empire. It is a region that struggles with being a colony, with being a religious minority trying to hold onto its own amid the superpower Rome. The people are taxed heavily. They are poor. So perhaps Joseph is afraid simply because he is pretty powerless in his culture.

Then again there is the entire situation which brings us here today to the fourth Sunday of Advent. Joseph is betrothed, meaning (more or less) that he has a wife but they are not yet living together and they have not yet consummated anything. They are pledged to each other, but the great nuptial feast and the moving in and the wedding night have not yet happened.

Joseph is described as being righteous, which means he follows the laws of Judaism, which means he has followed all the rules and regulations around betrothal. Of course getting married, then or now, can be a terrifying thing even if you love someone dearly. You start sharing your life and your home and your goods with someone else, and you commit to sticking it out in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want. That can be scary.

But perhaps the fear really set in for Joseph when he found out that Mary was pregnant. We don’t know how he found out – maybe the village gossip told him; maybe Mary’s father did the honorable thing and told him. Maybe Mary herself came to him, in a frantic whisper, or in tearful shame, or maybe with faithful resolve: I am with child.

There would be plenty to fear now. Joseph could be seen for the rest of his days as a man whose wife cheated on him; he would be seen as weak, worthless. He could follow the law and undo the betrothal but that could lead to her being turned out by her parents, left to fend for herself and her child, or worse, stoned to death for the crime of being unwed and pregnant. Or he could defy convention, take her as his wife and raise the child as his own, ridiculed or ostracized for not following the law. In those days, communal life was everything: to be shunned because of something like an unwed pregnancy could make for a miserable existence.

And then the angel comes to Joseph in a dream and says, “Do not be afraid; do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife….”

Evidently it worked, that message of the angel. Joseph did not do the honorable or righteous thing by the social conventions of his day, but he did do the right thing by God, and by Mary, and by this baby. And so we celebrate Christmas this day.

Christmas can be fraught with so many emotions, fear being but one of them. Some really do know joy in this season; others feel swallowed up grief. Some are happy, some are anxious about many things – making the plane in time, finding the perfect present, making ends meet, staying sober when booze is everywhere. Some are miserable – lonely, feeling unloved.

And some are afraid, not because it’s Christmas but in spite of it being Christmas. Some are afraid of random acts of violence. Some are afraid that hard-won civil liberties will be taken away as if on a whim. Some are afraid that that one bad break will come, a rent increase or a medical crisis, and there will be no safety net as they fall.

It’s hard to be afraid this time of year, hard to be sad or lonely or anxious, when those words of the angel find their way into the cracks of our souls: do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

Is that what Christmas is about, then? Courage in the face of all that is scary or terrifying? Was Joseph courageous? Or was he faithful? Is Christmas then about faith, about believing however much or little of this fantastic story, believing the whole shebang or just the part about Jesus being God being human?

Does this story from Matthew, and the one from Luke, tell us that Christmas is about family, however small, however threatened? Is it about adoptive families and foster families? Matthew’s gospel begins with a long genealogy, of how we got from Abraham to Jesus, with good people and very flawed people, unfaithful kings and prostitutes, via Joseph who was actually not a blood relation of Jesus. Is it about family or lineage or where we come from or where we didn’t come from?

Is Christmas about light in the darkness? We love all the Isaiah texts this time of year: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….The star shone bright over the place where Jesus lay…. Is it about a world cast in shadow and fog and the light of God piercing through that to show us the way to hope?

Is Christmas about theology? Some of you are praying this very moment that it is not. But brilliant minds have devoted themselves to this idea of God taking on human flesh. I’m rather taken with it myself – the willingness of the Divine to limit divinity and be vulnerable with bones that can break and blood that can spill. Why would God do that? It is a mystery that theology tries to solve but ultimately cannot.    

What then is Christmas about?

You can have Christmas without courage, of course. You can have Christmas without faith – go through the motions of singing wonderful carols and giving gifts and even coming to church without believing one whit of any of it. You can have Christmas without family – some people prefer it that way, and others don’t have a choice about it.

You can have Christmas without the beautiful readings about light shining in the darkness, and even without the Advent candles we’ve been lighting or the candles we will light on Christmas Eve. You can even have Christmas without theology. Most people do.

But what you absolutely cannot have Christmas without, what you absolutely must have for Christmas is one thing: love. Because that is the point of Christmas: love.

That’s why God did it: love. Because God so loved the world He gave his only Son…. God didn’t do it because God is generous, or brave, or because God has complete confidence in humanity. God did it because of love, out of love, for love.

And remember, love is not a feeling, but choosing to act in a certain way, and if the Christmas story is full of anything, it’s full of people choosing to act in ways that make absolutely no sense except for love.

Not every woman loves the child she carries in her body, but most do. Mary did. I think that part of what enabled Mary to say yes to her impossible situation was a love she had for this life inside her, a life that was affirmed by the angel and then by Joseph and by all the people who did not turn her out, did not shun her, did not take her to the edge of town and stone her to death.

Many men in Joseph’s situation would have done the honorable thing and quietly undone the betrothal. Not Joseph. Marriage in that day was really a social and legal contract more than anything else, but I think in his heart of hearts Joseph was a loving man, that he chose to love his betrothed Mary and the child she carried.

The story doesn’t work without love. The story would not have happened if God did not love us so much that God wanted a better life for the people on earth. God sacrificed all the power and strength of divinity in order to show us how to love by becoming like us.

A few generations after Jesus’ life, around the time the gospels were written, a man we call John said this: perfect love casts out fear. I wonder if every time an angel appeared as Jesus was getting ready to be born, every time an angel said “do not be afraid” those words were said in perfect love that may have cast out the fear.    

You and I will not love perfectly in our lives. We will love well, some of the time, but not perfectly, which is not to say we shouldn’t always choose love. It’s a much better choice than fear.

There are many things and many people we can be afraid of, I will admit. But there are many more people we can love. The Christmas story teaches us that.

I’d like to end with words from Madeleine L’Engle, a favorite author since childhood. Here is her poem, “The Risk of Birth.” (1973)

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.