the Christmas carol we don’t sing

Matthew 1:18-25

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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

None of our Christmas carols comes from Matthew.  Not one.  If you turn to the back of your hymnal and look at the index that categorizes hymns by their scripture references, there aren’t any for Matthew’s story of how Jesus was born.  I guess you could count We Three Kings, but really, it’s an Epiphany hymn – for the day we celebrate the wise men who visited Jesus and brought gifts – it’s not a Christmas hymn that tells of the birth of Jesus.  All our Christmas carols come from Luke.

And it makes sense, really.  Luke’s version is a lot nicer.  Everyone sings in Luke’s version.  If you were with us last year during Advent you might remember how we looked at all of the songs in Luke.  And there are angels all over the place and shepherds gazing at the sky.  And then there’s the manger scene all lit up with a cozy glow in our imaginations.

If Luke’s version could make a very nice disney movie, Matthew’s is the sinister Grimm fairytale underneath.  Which is not to suggest that these stories are merely make believe.  These stories of Jesus’ birth, like the creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, contain the fullness of the gospel.  As they tell how it all began, they manage to also tell us the entirety of the story of Jesus–what he’s like, what God’s like, what our world’s like, and the scandal what’s going to happen when the fullness of almighty God comes to dwell in the particularity of one human.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We were talking about how Matthew’s story is grim, so grim that none of our Christmas carols have put it to song.  It begins with our story today which is not exactly a happy beginning as we’ll see in a minute.  And then immediately the scene shifts to King Herod and three strange visitors from the East.  There’s talk of a new king being born who is a threat to King Herod.  There’s plotting and deception, and before it’s all said and done, King Herod has ordered the killing of all boys under the age of 2, and Jesus and his parents have fled to Egypt.  No wonder this isn’t what we sing about.  It’s a story of backroom politics, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and refugees.

And today’s story, where it all begins, is not really much happier.  Or at least, it doesn’t start out any happier.  Listen again to the first verse:

“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.”

Hear those words, and imagine you are Joseph.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child…  Unlike in Luke, Matthew’s story is told from Joseph’s perspective.

We don’t know a lot about Joseph, not much more than what we find here, really.  And we definitely don’t know how he and Mary became engaged.  It could have been an arranged marriage.  And they were both eager to find out if their parents had made them a good match.  Maybe Joseph was an older man, and he had spotted Mary from afar, or knew her family, and thought that this young woman would make a good wife for him.

The romantic in me likes to imagine that they were passionately in love, that Joseph fell head over heels for this smart, beautiful, funny woman.  I imagine Joseph can barely believe his good luck when Mary agrees to marry him, and he’s already dreaming of the home they will build together.

The truth is, we don’t know if that’s how it happened.  Maybe you like to imagine it a different way.  Whatever the circumstances, though, Joseph was on the verge of a new thing in his life.  And I think it’s safe to imagine that he was nervous and excited and hopeful.

And then.  Then the unimaginable happens.

She’s gotten pregnant.  And it’s not his.

This is not how things were supposed to go.  This is not the life he signed up for.

This is how the author of Matthew starts the story.  He tells the reader that the child is from the Holy Spirit, but then we’re placed in Joseph’s shoes, who doesn’t know that yet, and who has to figure out what do now that the marriage he was counting on seems to have crumbled, now the dream life he was building has turned to dust.

Joseph decides he has to leave her.  The normal penalty for having another man’s child would be death, but Joseph’s a good guy and as sad or angry or hurt as he might be, he clearly still has a soft spot in his heart for her, and he decides to handle things discreetely.  He sets about making do in a miserable situation.

This is how God comes to us.  Like this.  Can you believe it?

How often we skim over these two verses, jumping right to the wondrous joy of the incarnation, the miraculous dream and the prophetic words that follow right after this.  We rarely give this preamble, and the pain it contains, its due.  Listen again:

“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.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

We want to sing Christmas carols and decorate the tree.  Our eyes are drawn to twinkling lights, and shiny presents, little tots with their eyes all aglow.  We want a perfect Christmas, or at least, a merry little one.

So we sing carols from Luke, and we focus on the gifts the wise men bring, and we forget that this is how it started.  A young man, on the cusp of a new time in his life, finds himself in a miserable situation.

In Luke, Mary at least gets to say yes or no to the angel.  But this version is much more like real life, isn’t it?  Like Joseph, we don’t get to choose when things will get complicated.  We don’t get to say, okay, I’m ready for the hard stuff now.  Bring it on!

Life just happens.  We’re humming along, living our dreams, and then out of the blue, the phone rings, or the test results come back, or someone says, we have to talk.

This happens to all of us, doesn’t it?  It’s part of being a creature.  Life doesn’t work out the way we wish it would.

And this, Matthew says, this is where the Lord almighty enters our world.  When our plans fall apart and our hopes are dashed, that is when the Christmas story starts.

I think this is really good news.  It means we don’t have to have it all figured out, and have it all together before Christ comes to us.  We don’t have to be shiny, happy Christians, at peace with whatever happens, before God will visit us.  No.  God comes in the midst of whatever it is you’ve got going on right now–good, bad, horrible–God can work with it all.  And God will work with it.  Because it is precisely into those places of hurt and brokenness that Jesus longs to be born.

See what I mean about this little story containing the fullness of the good news about Jesus?  From the very beginning the author of Matthew wants us to know that God doesn’t come into perfect situations, but into the pain and mess and heartache of everyday life.  God comes to us in the midst of that and lives with us in it.

Knowing this, knowing that God comes to us when things aren’t going how we’d like, doesn’t take away the hurt or the pain of those situations.  But it does change them.

Goodness knows that the birth of the Christ child didn’t mean everything got easier for Joseph.  From the moment he learned that Mary was going to have a child things got a lot more difficult for Joseph, but he, like us, muddled along trying to do what was right and kind and decent.  And it was into this struggle that God stepped in, coming to Joseph first in a dream and ultimately in this unlikely child.  In a situation that Joseph would have never chosen, God was present and at work.

Knowing, believing, trusting that God came to us first in the midst of a broken and hurting family, can give us the courage to hope, maybe even dare to expect, that God will come to us even now.

That’s what we’re called to as Christians.  That’s the promise of our faith.  We try, just a little bit, to trust that just as God came to us first in a broken and hurting world, God will come into our very lives even now.  To be a Christian, is to try, with at least part of our hearts, to expect that when it is horrible, and hard, and dark, God is on the move.

It’s quite a claim.  It would be too ridiculous to even say, if I hadn’t heard it said over and over again by many of you.

I have heard your testimony time and again.

“I never wanted this to happen, but now that it has, I can’t believe the grace it’s brought me.”

“I never wanted my child to get sick, but he has, and while that is awful, I have also been overwhelmed by the ways I’ve met God.”

“This was not the person I planned to fall in love with.  In fact, they’re the wrong person for so many reasons.  But God is bringing such joy into my life in ways I never would have imagined.”

“I was terrified when I lost my job.  And I’m still scared about how we’re going to make ends meet.  But the blessings that my family has found during this time, well, I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

“I’ve always been scared of getting cancer.  And I hate it, and it’s made my life miserable in a lot of ways.  But it’s also changed me, and through it, God has opened my eyes to a beauty and a love I can barely believe.”

I can imagine Joseph testifying, “My heart was broken when I learned that Mary was pregnant.  I thought my life was over.  But it was just the beginning.  There was more joy in store than I ever could have dreamed.  There was pain, too, of course, and lots of it.  But God entered into our lives in those painful days, and nothing has ever been the same.”

Matthew is not offering the cheap comfort of empty cliches offered by someone who stands outside our pain.  Matthew tells us of a God who comes to us, even, especially, when we are in pain.  In those times, Matthew says, a child is born to you, a child from the Holy Spirit, a child who is the Messiah, who will save you, who is Lord.  Look, this story whispers, look around, you will be shocked by the goodness waiting for you even now.

As you prepare yourself for Christmas this year, hear this: God is coming to us.  In ways we cannot begin to imagine.  Whether things are neat and orderly, or messy and chaotic in your life, God longs to enter in with grace and blessings beyond our wildest dreams.  If there’s anything we can count on, it’s this.  Jesus will be born in our lives, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will find him.  Look for it, expect it–in the joy, in the pain, around the happy table, and in the darkness–look!  Christ is coming to us.  A child is born to us.  God is on the move.


by Sarah Wiles
First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor
December 19, 2010, 8am
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