Is it irreverent to envision the conversation? Surely, a conversation was had. This is a big deal.
It’s a big deal in our day, and it was probably an even bigger deal back in Jesus’ day. In those days marriage was like a civil contract. And once you were engaged you acknowledged legal consequences. Parents usually arranged the marriages; and they would marry their kids off young, so young there was a minimum age-- thirteen for the boys, and twelve for the girls.1 Mary was just a child herself...
Joseph was engaged to Mary, they’d already had the engagement party, which means they had already signed the marriage license. Even thought they were yet living together—Mary lived in her father’s house until marriage—still, everyone knew they were Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter.2 Joseph would visit her as often as he could.3 And I suppose it was during one of these visits that it finally came out. Mary had been acting kind of strange recently: she was happy about the coming wedding, but also a little reserved and conflicted; not a good sign for a groom.
Sitting down now, Joseph turns to Mary, “Honey, umm, is everything okay?”
“I don’t know, you’ve just been a little distant for the past few months. I’ve been concerned about you. Umm, don’t take this the wrong way, but, you seem to be a little more plump.
Are you still going to that Jazzercise class?”
“Joseph, how dare you!”
“I mean I love you no matter what…but you know, we’re getting married pretty soon; probably want to be in good shape for that wedding night!”He gets up and does a few jumping jacks.
She puts down the remote control. “Joseph, sweetie, I think you should sit down.”
“what is it?”
“Um, this is going to sound really crazy, about two months ago, I had this really weird experience….and, well, I’m pregnant.”
“You’re what, why, how could this be? Who was he??? I’ll see that he’s stoned for sure!!”
“That’s just it Joseph, it was no man?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“It was the Holy Spirit?”
“What are you talking about? The Holy Spirit?”
You get the idea? I mean that must have been one of the most bizarre encounters in the history of unexpected pregnancies. Like I said, I don’t want to sound irreverent, but I think sometimes we forget that Joseph and Mary were human beings and this had to have been the talk of the town: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit?”
Have any of you ever heard of el Trauco? Trasie and I heard about el Trauco while living in Chile: He is a small ugly man, who can hypnotize girls, leading them into the forest ...from which they return pregnant.4 When a single woman is pregnant, and no-one steps forward as the father, people assume el trauco is responsible.5 Well, I don’t know if the Holy Spirit was a first century Palestinian version of el Trauco, but either way Joseph wasn’t buying it.
“Matthew is the only gospel that deals with the question of Joseph at all; Luke’s gospel barely mentions him. He appears in chapter one, disappears by chapter two, and never utters a direct sentence;” yes, I made the conversation up. “Mathew spends 17 verses detailing Joseph’s family tree; beginning with Abraham and working his way toward that next genealogical star, David, and doesn’t stop until he gets to Joseph and [this] rather awkward connection to Jesus, the Messiah.” 6 Evidently, Joseph took his engagement contract very seriously. Matthew calls him Just or righteous: a law abiding citizen, yet concerned about the moral and mental well being of his fiancé. A problem had arisen and with every passing week, it was getting a little bigger. Joseph felt obligated by the law to divorce Mary for her premature pregnancy, which according meant that she and the guy who done it would be stoned, or in the very least she could be disowned by her family.7 While we don’t know if he really was in love with Mary, as we understand love today, it seemed that Joseph wanted the least harm done as possible.
Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary “quietly” implies that he didn’t want her to be harmed.8
But before the divorce final, he sleeps on it.
Dangerous thing to do if you are a dreaming Joseph: An angel appears, a winged talking angel with a story to match Mary’s: “What are you afraid of Jose, that child in Mary, was conceived from the Holy Spirit; name him Jesus!” There he has it, problem solved, more or less. There’s still a lot of explaining to do. But, what a lucky guy!
Maybe you’ve had your dilemmas resolved, because an angel appeared and told you what to do.
This angel even told Joseph what to name the kid. He doesn’t even have to think anymore.
“The birth of the Messiah took place in this way.”
So where are we as 21st century people with this birth story? Does the birth story inspire our hearts and imaginations? Or is it just some mumbo-jumbo made up legend, probably harder for us to believe that it was for Joseph to believe Mary’s story?
Ironically, while the events of this tall-tale doesn’t compute with our modern minds, most of us love to celebrate Christmas—at least that is what our consumerist culture would have you believe. We decorate trees and houses with colorful bright lights, we run ourselves ragged and broke buying presents; Jingling bells are ringing everywhere. And we anticipate the coming of Santa Claus, I mean Jesus. Who’s coming are we celebrating on the 25th? But of course, I know better than to question these traditions, I don’t want Trasie or anyone else calling me a bah-hum-bug, or a grintch or whatever. We even love the “Christian” aspect of Christmas: church pews seem to be more crowded, kids act out pageants, real-life nativity scenes. And know Christmas Carols by heart, or in the very least are very good at humming. Something deep in our soul is touched by this season.
But are we touched by how the birth of the Messiah took place? “conceived by the Holy Ghost”?
Are we inspired by the possibility that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary?
As easy as it can be for us to just skip over the tale Mary spins rather than reconcile it with our modern minds, we force ourselves to come back to it year after year: “Round, yon Virgin, Mother and Child.”
But why should it surprise us that the birth of Jesus took place in this way? His life was surrounded by scandal and mystery. This hard to believe tale of birth is just the beginning of the story. It is the beginning of trying to make sense of the life that changed the world forever.
As a kid he was in the synagogue trying to show the older adult rabbis a thing or two. Before he began his formal ministry he was hanging out with that rabble-rouser, honey covered locust eating, John the Baptist. And according to which story you read, he makes his first public appearance after his baptism turning water into wine, casting out demons, getting thrown out of his local synagogue for claiming to be anointed by the holy spirit—did they remember Joseph and Mary’s story—anointed to set captives free, give sight to the blind, preaching good news to the poor. His teachings were revolutionary: love your enemies, forgive those who do you harm, blessed are the peace makers, blessed are the poor.
And isn’t this what’s important about this legendary account of the birth of a baby Jesus. Maybe instead of getting tripped up by some of the harder to grapple with details of the story:
conception by the Holy Spirit, Angels appearing in dreams—we will never understand these things; maybe instead we can consider what this birth story means?
Why did the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke feel it was necessary to tell this part of Jesus’ life? Whatever else they may mean, the birth stories of Jesus emphasize that “God is with us.” Emmanuel. God-with-us through the birth of Jesus into the real world of flesh-and-blood human beings. In other words, it happened! It happened at a particular time, in a particular place, in connection with a particular mother: “In the days of Herod the king”, in Bethlehem, of Mary.
“The Christmas story—[the birth of the Messiah]—is anything but a sentimental, harmless, once-a-year occasion for a “Christmas spirit” that lasts only a few days before we return to the “facts” of the “real world.” Christmas is the story of a radical invasion of God into the kind of real world where we live all year long—a world where there is political unrest and injustice,
poverty and hatred, jealousy and pain, fear, and the longing that things could be different.
“Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” might suggest that the Spirit is the father of Jesus. Kind of weird. But maybe it is better to understand conceived by the Holy Spirit to mean that Jesus had no father at all. That instead of a biological explanation of Jesus being human and God, maybe there is no explanation; that the Word became flesh purely by the will and word of God. God spoke, and Mary heard and responded: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). So we’re not talking about the physical process of procreation, but of God’s original creation of all things “out of nothing.” God simply spoke—breathed life—and it was done.9
If we are honest, as much as we may love or loath this time of year for whatever reason: these stories of the birth of the Messiah and the way that this birth took place, are difficult to get our heads around. But, at the heart of their intention is the suggestion, the emphatic proposition, that birth Happened! That God some how came to be with us in a human being.10 Came to us as a baby.
If I started the sermon off irreverently, chances are I will end it that way when I mention the Will Farrell movie, Talladega nights. At a scene around the dinner table, Will Farrell’s character is to say a blessing with his family before a meal. The prayer begins: Dear baby Jesus; He continues to addresses baby Jesus in the prayer…
Until, someone interrupts him, “Why do you keep praying to baby Jesus?” setting off a great big argument.
Farrel’s character simply suggests that he likes baby Jesus, so that is why he prays to baby Jesus.
“The birth of the Messiah took place in this way.”
How comfortable are we with baby Jesus? More importantly, what does it all mean?
To be honest, I don’t think about Jesus as a baby very often, maybe just during this time of year, it is too mysterious, it is too dangerous, it is too far fetched.
Baby Jesus, scandal surrounds his birth.
Baby Jesus, his name means God Saves.
Baby Jesus, born, breast-fed, brought up by parents, Mary and Joseph.
Baby Jesus, Emmanuel-God with us, now and always.
Baby Jesus, we celebrate the birth so very soon.
1 Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, The Litugical Press: 1991, p. 34-40.
2 Kimberly Clayton Richter, “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2004, p.4.
3 Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, The Litugical Press: 1991, p. 34-40.
6 Kimberly Clayton Richter, “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2004, p.4.
7 Martin B. Copenhaver, “Jesus’ Other Parent,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2007, pp. 34-36.
8 Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, The Litugical Press: 1991, p. 34-40.
9 Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, WJKP: 1994, 235-237
10 Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, WJKP: 1994, 235-237