Less than a week ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus. We sang hymns that tell of news bringing joy to the world. We sang about mangers and angels and shepherds and Mary. Christmas comes with a great crescendo and then it is back to life as we know it. In a few days children return to school. After taking a couple days of vacation, it is back to work. Christmas with the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by adoring parents, shepherds and docile animals is easily sentimentalized. We gladly take the comforting news of ‘God with us’ but we quickly ignore the challenge and judgment that ‘God with us’ entails. Matthew jolts us to reality with Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to seek refuge in Egypt. Matthew also described what happens when rulers feel threatened. In this case, the poor suffer and the innocent are killed. Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. The following Sunday is about the world with its Herods.
Magi had come to Herod to find the one born ‘King of the Jews.’ Herod and his grasp on power felt threatened. He wanted the Magi to return and give the location so he too could worship – Herod lied. The Magi didn’t return to give Herod what he wanted to learn. Thrown into a rage Herod ordered the massacre of Bethlehem’s children. Only Matthew records the history of this brutality but it was well within Herod’s normal behavior. Bethlehem was a small bump in the road town outside of Jerusalem. Such news wouldn’t have caused a stir in the region but it would have caused parents to fear a little more for their children’s well being.
The Christmas message is truly good news. Each Christmas we are reminded that in Jesus, the God of mercy and love has come to live with us. The Christmas message is also that in Jesus, God has entered this world with those forced to flee for refuge…under the lies and fear…in solidarity with the powerless often paying the price of the world’s brutality.
So celebrate the good news that is Christmas of ‘God with us.’ Also celebrate that God has come for those under the brutality of the world’s Herods. The world’s salvation has truly come, born to us.
Christmas is only a few days away but we are still in the season of Advent. The time continues for us to consider the coming of God to be with us. Including, the responsibilities and consequences that are a result of God’s arrival. What usually happens when we consider Immanuel (God with us), we assume that God is coming on our terms. God is coming to bless my business. God is coming to make the country powerful. God is coming to thrash my enemy. Yes, the coming of God does bring to us blessing. Yet as we prepare to receive the Christ child, we do so not on our terms but on God’s terms. This is the only way the blessing can be received.
These verses from Matthew might seem a few days early. They are Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth. Two points are made by Matthew. One is about Jesus’ identity. The other is the reaction of Joseph to the news of Mary’s pregnancy.
Joseph lived in a culture where the worst thing you could do was to bring shame upon the family. Mary was betrothed to him. In those days marriage was a two step process. The first step was betrothal. The second step was the husband at a later date taking his wife to his home to be his wife. During the betrothal step the woman was considered the man’s wife. So the news of Mary’s pregnancy was sure to bring shame upon Joseph and the future marriage. Joseph chose to dismiss her (break off the betrothal) in the least shameful way possible. Later in a dream, an angel told Joseph to keep Mary as his wife. Mary’s pregnancy was Immanuel (God with us) and Joseph was to name the baby Jesus because he would save us from our sins. Joseph did as the angel advised and welcomed Immanuel – God’s flesh and blood presence into the world. He did this regardless of the cultural consequences.
Joseph lived in a time where kings and rulers were not opposed to blurring the line between humanity and divinity. Matthew wanted to clear up any confusion here. The claim of divinity was not through a position of human power. The presence of divinity was not the result of human declaration. Immanuel is God’s action to be with us.
So here we are a couple days from Christmas. The challenge for us is to prepare ourselves to receive ‘God with us.’ How will we do this? According to our expectations or upon our declaration? Or in Jesus, who was not ashamed of our flesh and blood…not ashamed of the cross…in order to bring us forgiveness and a resurrected life? How will we receive him?
Mary has received a lot of news about this child of hers. She burst into a song of praise to the Lord when Elizabeth called her blessed for having believed the message of the angels regarding her giving birth to the Christ child. She pondered and treasured in her heart the news which the shepherds passed on from the angels. On the eighth day she and Joseph presented the baby Jesus in the Temple where Simeon and Anna spoke of blessing but also that a sword will pierce her own soul as well. Twelve years later Jesus turns up missing on their annual trek to observe the Passover. He was found debating theology with the teachers of the Temple. Mary again treasured this in her heart even though Jesus announced that the Temple was his Father’s house.
Mary has received a lot of news about this child of hers but how much do you think she understood? Yes, she sang the praises and treasured the hoped for blessings that are coming in Jesus’ birth. However was she really understanding what the sword in her soul would be? A mother’s pain of seeing her child killed on a cross.
This time of year we have heard much about the Christ child born in a manger. We are invited to embrace him and take him into our world. We do it with praise on our lips because here is the Son of God come down to us. Here is love that has and continues to be poured over us. As we embrace him, are we also prepared for a sword in our soul as well? Jesus’ birth was not to bless what we have made for ourselves but to bless us with the reign of God. The two are not one in the same.
So we join with Mary as we respond to the blessing that is born to us in Jesus. We can treasure this news in our hearts. We can sing the news with praise on our lips. How will this blessing unfold and take place? John the Baptist will now set the stage.
“What are you wishing for?” is the kind of question we get often this time of year. It often comes from those looking to fill in the hole behind our name on their gift list. So what is on your wish list for the year but lets get serious. The wishes that go beyond what can be wrapped and placed under the tree. The serious wishes often fall outside of our capacity to make happen. The serious wishes might include health for a friend spending too much time in the hospital this last year. A country less divided…a lot less hatred in words and actions…a calmer Wall Street could also be on our list wishes. So, “What are you wishing for?”
Elizabeth and Mary had their own personal wishes. Elizabeth and her husband were at the age where wishing for a child had changed to wishing for the child that could have been. Yet, she was pregnant. A new life was going to be born when reality had no hope. The kind of wish for the advent, the coming of God.
Mary was also pregnant under circumstances considered scandalous. However, she broke into song that announced the wishes of what was an insignificant young woman living under the dictates of others far more powerful. The wishes made possible because of the child she was carrying. The coming of God to bring new life to those with no hope. The coming of God to make new a world where the wishes of the lowly get filled.
The proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts…
The powerful are removed from their thrones…
The lowly are lifted up…
The hungry are filled with good things…
The rich are sent away empty…
The wishes of Elizabeth and Mary were made possible by the advent of God, namely the Christ child soon to be born.
What do you wish for? Seriously, “what do you wish for?” with the coming of Christ?