The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Recently, I looked back at the past three Christmas sermons that I’ve preached and I realized that every single one of them was on the Gospel of Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know the one with the decree from Emperor Augustus that everyone needs to return home so they can be counted for the census. The one with there not being any room at the inn and Mary giving birth in a cattle stall. The one with the angels and shepherds. You know the story. You’ve heard it. But what I didn’t entirely realize until this year is that Luke’s version of the story is the selected gospel for every single Christmas. Now, some of you may know that the gospel of Mark and John don’t really have Christmas stories. They don’t tell of Jesus’ birth. But the Gospel of Matthew does. You know with angel whispering to Joseph. And the three magi who traveled afar.
Which got me thinking. Why isn’t the gospel of Matthew ever chosen for Christmas Eve? It is easily one of the most well attended church services of the year. Are they trying to hide something from us? Why don’t they want the vast population to hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story?
At first, I thought it was because Matthew uses the phrase “marital relations.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Perhaps the lectionary committee thought that was a little too PG-13 for such a family oriented holiday. But then, I thought, “Nah, that can’t be it.”
But then, I wondered if it is because the gospel of Matthew’s Christmas story is all about Joseph. And who wants to come and hear a story about the guy who literally had no part to play in Jesus’ birth? I mean, Mary only shows up by name and Jesus doesn’t make an appearance until the last verse. And those are the only ones most of us care about, right? It’s not like anyone fights over who gets to be Joseph in the Christmas pageant. Why? Because none of us know what to do with him. I mean, who is he in the story? Father or Stepdad? Husband or chaste roommate? Who is he? He pretty much disappears from the scene after Jesus’ birth anyways – so what are we to do with this guy?
But then I thought, “Nah, that can’t be it.”
And then it hits me. Maybe we don’t read the gospel of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve because it is all a dream.
Did you notice that? The heart of the whole story happens in a dream. So Mary and Joseph are engaged, which back then was a little closer to marriage than it is for us. But Mary is found to be pregnant. And the child isn’t Joseph’s. Which is such heart breaking news on so many levels. Not the least of which said that Mary could be stoned for such a thing. But Joseph actually does this incredibly gracious thing – he decides to dismiss her quietly. He did not want to expose her to public humiliation and dis-grace, so he decidedly to let her go quietly. Despite our modern ears where it sounds like just another single mother to fend for herself, Joseph’s actions here are quite a gracious and kind thing.
But then, after he decided this, the text says, “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream!” The angels goes on to tell Joseph not to be afraid and how really it is God’s child that Mary is carrying and how they need to name him Jesus because he will save the whole world and that this was the fulfillment of prophecy about a child who is coming who will be “God with us.
But then it says Joseph woke up! You see, it was all just a dream. Maybe that’s why we don’t read this gospel on Christmas – the lectionary committee doesn’t want anyone knowing it is just because we all know dreams aren’t real.
Hey speaking of dreams. A friend of mine, Pastor John Weisenburger, had this crazy dream. He was walking around his house and he could hear this baby crying. So he goes looking around and he finds this baby lying there. So he picks it up. But then almost like it was a heavy bowling ball, he drops it. So he picks it up again. And he’s carrying it around, but then he drops it again. So, he picks it up again. But then he drops it again and this time when goes to pick it up, the baby and the floor are all covered in this sticky, slimy goo. And it is just everywhere.
And then John wakes up from the dream. And he hears his phone buzz with a text message. When he reads the text message, he learns that one of his congregation members just gave birth to a baby.
But it was just a dream….right?
Maybe Joseph’s encounter with the angel was just a dream. But maybe that’s okay. Because maybe our dreams are actually one of the ways that God communicates to us. Maybe our dreams are sometimes the way God wakes us up to say, “Hey! Something important is happening here!”
And then Joseph wakes up. As at it turns out, the whole story now rests on whether Joseph will believe the dream or not. “If Joseph believes the angel, everything is on. The story can continue. Mary will have a home and a family and her child will be born the son of David. But if Joseph does not believe, then everything grinds to a halt. If he wakes up from his dream, shakes his head, and goes on to the courthouse to file the divorce papers, then Mary is an outcast forever – either killed by her family for disgracing them and herself or disowned by them and left to scratch out her living however she can, feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she can beg or steal.”
According to Matthew, Joseph isn’t just the stage tech, setting the scene for someone else to star in. No, Joseph is the one to keep your eye on, because Joseph and whether he believes this dream or not is just as crucial to the story as Mary’s womb.
In the end, “The heart of (Joseph’s side of the) story is about a just man who wakes up one day to find his life wrecked: his wife pregnant, his trust betrayed, his name ruined, his future revoked. It is a about a righteous man who surveys a mess he has had absolutely nothing to do with and decides to believe that God is present in it.”
And then the question we are left with is – do we believe the dream? You see,“(Joseph) in the story is the one in the story who is most like us, presented day by day by day with circumstances beyond our control, with lives we would never have chosen for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all when an angel whispers in our ears: ‘Do not fear. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it.”
Maybe that is enough hope for a night like tonight. Just simply the idea that God would be born. That the God we put our trust in, has entered into this world – the same way we all do – by being born. Pushed into existence through the labor of love given by another human being. That of all places God could be, God would chose nowhere else to be but here with us – in this terribly beautiful, and yet terribly broken world.
Sometimes, it, Christmas, can all seem like a dream. Like just a nostalgic moment in time that is fleeting. But maybe that’s okay. Because maybe our dreams are actually one of the ways that God communicates to us.
In a dream, the angel said to Joseph:
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, “Believing the Impossible.”)