The Christmas Gift You Don’t Have to Buy
Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Isaiah 43:16-21, Matthew 1:18-25
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Last Sunday our interim pastor, Angie Mabry, preached from the story of Mary’s pregnancy from the Gospel of Luke. Today we hear that same part of the story from the Gospel of Matthew. Last Sunday, the two main characters were Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Today the main character is Joseph.
Throughout all this life, Jesus carried an odor about him, a stench, if you will, that he was the bastard child of Mary, likely the son of some Roman solider who had forced himself on her young body. When people wanted to insult him, they did not talk about him as “Joseph’s son.” They would refer to him as “Mary’s boy.” His family tree lists mostly male ancestors, with the exception of four women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Each of these women was associated with having sex with men to whom they were not married. I take this unique feature of his genealogy as a broad suggestion that his mother Mary might be like them, too.
But Jesus was not the only one who carried that odor of illegitimacy. His mother Mary carried that shame, though she never, ever got to say anything about it. She was made to keep her feelings to herself. But Joseph who was betrothed to Mary did not have to keep his feelings to himself. He carried the public shame of the cuckolded guy. And we know how those feelings affected him by what he set out to do.
To save his honor, he would divorce Mary. He would not make a big fuss about it, but cut her out of his life he would. Send her out into the world as a marked, soiled woman, so young, so vulnerable, so unskilled, so alone because her family would not want her dishonor to be smeared on them, and solely responsible for the baby growing in her womb. How many women today can identify with her plight! Mary would be a destitute, single parent, while Joseph had the freedom to move on. He would not be a father to a child that was not his.
It is a situation that is instantly recognizable to us by the smell of its grief, messiness, and peril. Jesus comes into the world drenched in that smell, even though he does not deserve it. We understand this. What is so hard to understand is that God chose to come into the world smelling like that. We smother out he stench of Christmas by the smells of wassail and cinnamon and pinion wood. We want to spray air-freshener all over this story of how Jesus’ life begins.
It does not get any better even after “an angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream [and] says, ‘God did this and you’re part of the scheme.’” He is ordered to “man up” and acknowledge Jesus as his son. He is not to fear to take Mary as his wife. Joseph has to go out and make a living for Mary and Jesus, holding his head up even as others snicker behind his back.
How many of you would like a different version of the story of how God takes flesh among us? A young girl gets pregnant, and she is made to stay silent, even though coming out might help her. Her clueless fiancé decides to throw her out, but unexplainably changes his mind and sticks by her. He braces up to everyone turning their backs on him when he walks into a public gathering. This is not how we would want to begin the story of our marriage and of our first child, though some of us have versions of this story in our beginnings.
So we have a hard time understanding why the first thing God does to begin his story on earth is to put in high stress a young, pregnant woman and her clueless fiancé. We have a hard time because we were not listening when the prophet Isaiah put us on notice to expect something strange: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” No, God, we do not perceive it. We have a hard time catching on what you are about to do. A baby comes into the world and is immediately entrapped in disapproval, suspicion, and sarcasm that he never can shake off. We know how that feels, and that’s not something we would wish on anybody. Why would God decide to come into the world like that?
Listen very hard, folks, with your heart as open as you can make it to the Why and the Way of Christmas. Question: Why is Jesus born into disapproval, suspicion and sarcasm? Matthew supplies the Why: because Jesus will save us from our sins. Question: How will Jesus save us? The Apostle Paul supplies the Way of how he will save us from our sins: “For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” But even this Why and Way of Christmas needs more explanation.
God took human flesh in Jesus by being born into a condition familiar to every one of us: societal prejudice, personal suspicion, and public sarcasm. All his life Jesus lives under that condition on top of every sin that a human can do. He dies under that condition, and he is raised from the dead bearing the wounds and the scars of what disapproval, suspicion, sarcasm plus every sin known to man will do to you.
He never separates himself from our sin even in the glory of his resurrection. Even resplendent in his glory as King, Jesus appears before God, wounded and scarred, bonded with us as we are, so that as God welcomes Jesus home, God welcomes us, bonded to him, home into the Father’s house. So that as God acknowledges Jesus, “You are my Son in whom I am well pleased,” God acknowledges us, bonded to him, as children, and we will hear, “I am well pleased with you.” So that as God upholds and vindicates Jesus, God vindicates us bonded to him: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” God does Christmas this strange and uncomfortable way so that God can get us back bonded to somebody like us. See how much God loves us and wants us back! It is because we mean so much to God that God stoops to be like us.
For God knows that when God gets us back in his hands, God will make us new people, people who can look over the mess of our lives and say, “We can make a home out of this!” If you don’t believe it, just look at a scared pregnant girl and a clueless and shamed guy who bonded together to face their situation with the courage to say, “We can do this!”
Mary grows a child without the help of a man.
Joseph gets upset because he doesn’t understand.
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says, “God did this and you’re part of his scheme.”
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says, “Forgive me, I thought you’d been with some other man.”
She says, “What if I had been, but I wasn’t anyway.
And, guess what, I felt the baby kick today.”
Do you hear in this conversation how Joseph and Mary reach out to each other? They share the challenges and the anticipation, they share the messiness as well as the mystery of what lies ahead. They look at each other and say, “We’ve never been in a situation like this before but we’re willing to give it a shot.” When you get to that place in your faith, it’s like putting your hand on a live wire. You are jolted into a new energy, a new determination, a new joy of living. Despite your circumstances we can make it!
Mary and Joseph know well enough the ostracism they will suffer, but they also glory in the support of adoring shepherds and the kindness of Egyptian border guards. Mary and Joseph know well enough the scrimping and scraping they will have to do in order to make ends meet, but they also are grateful for the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the wise men. Under the call of God, they give themselves to each other, they anneal their strengths into one solid bond, so that they can bear each other’s fears. They find that they can make it. The energy, stamina, spunk and determination in their marriage shows that when God gets God’s hands on us in the crazy messiness of our life, we can thrive against all odds.
And there are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the poets that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums.
And the message is clear if you have ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear.
It’s a Christmas gift that you don’t have to buy
There’s a future shining in a baby’s eye.
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe.
So the question, the most urgent question is, are you bonded to Jesus? Have you stopped what you are doing, grown quiet, listened, just as Mary and Joseph had to, and then given yourselves to the mystery of the Word becoming flesh? Have you confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior? Have you been baptized into him? Have you joined his body, the Church? A Christmas gift awaits you, you don’t have to buy, a future is shining for you in a baby’s eye.