December 22, 2013
Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Theme: O, the mystery of God’s dwelling in the child that is born!
There is something I find fascinating in this very old, very well-worn story of Jesus’ birth. It’s something that’s always been there, but I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed it before. It’s something I would say, that is typically overlooked. But it is fascinating none-the-less.
However, I want to keep your attention, so I’m not going to tell you just yet what it is that I find fascinating about the story of Jesus’ birth! I will say that I think my fascination has its roots back about six years ago.
It was then that Patrick and I started thinking more seriously about having children. We were aware that conceiving a child is not just a given, as there were many couples we knew at our church in VA who struggled with infertility. But still, there seems to be something in all of us that keeps us from thinking that we’ll be the ones to face whatever difficulty, and so it always comes as a shock when we’re met with a crisis in our lives, whatever it may be.
And so began for us many years of living with the crisis of infertility–the emotional, physical and spiritual exhaustion, the longing, and the misunderstanding that surrounds it. The reality of our journey to becoming parents has consisted of more heartache than joy, more doubt than faith, and more despair than hope.
Now, I’m guessing that’s not the message you came expecting to hear this morning–this is Christmas morning after all, a time for joy and celebration, for our Savior has come to us!
But if you heard me right, I didn’t say there has been no joy, faith or hope. And if we take an honest look at the scripture–at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth–we will find yes, joy, faith, and hope but we will also find heartache, doubt and despair.
We may not want to think about it, but we know about Herod’s orders to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were 2 years old and under, in an attempt to be sure Jesus is killed so that no other king will take Herod’s place. We read in Matthew chapter 2, “A voice was heard in Rama, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” That is heartache and despair.
In chapter 1, the passage we’re looking at this morning, Matthew gives us a glimpse into Joseph’s experience of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Mary & Joseph would have been legally married at this point. In Jewish marriage practice at that time, there were two steps: the first was the formal exchange of consent before witnesses, which constituted a legally approved marriage, and the second step consisted of the bride moving into the groom’s family home, which often happened a year later than the first step. Any severing of the relationship after the first step required a certificate of divorce. Mary & Joseph are in between these two steps, they’ve been legally married but Mary is still living in her family home.
So here we have Joseph, finding out that his newly wedded wife is pregnant, and he knows that the baby is not his. Though Matthew doesn’t tell us, we can assume that Joseph was feeling a wide range of emotion here–perhaps anger, doubt, sadness, and fear. Mary had been unfaithful to him, and had slept with another man. Joseph, justifiably, doubted Mary’s faithfulness to him. And because he cared about her, and wanted to do what was right, he decided to divorce her quietly, to not make a public scene of it, which would bring disgrace to Mary.
Joseph is thinking in logical, conventional terms. I mean logically, if his wife is pregnant and he hasn’t slept with her, she’s committed adultery. And the conventional way of dealing with that situation is to divorce Mary. But what Matthew wants us to see, is that God is working not in usual and expected ways here, but in surprising and extraordinary ways.
So Joseph has decided to divorce Mary, but the scripture tells us that just when he had resolved to do this, an angel comes to him in a dream and gives him a message from the Lord: “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.”
Now there’s a couple extraordinary things going on here. First is the fact that this child is not conceived in the usual way. It’s not that the Holy Spirit is carrying out the husband’s usual role in fathering Jesus. Rather, the Holy Spirit is the source of all life and is capable of creating life apart from the usual means of conception.
The other extraordinary thing is that this child is coming to save his people from their sins. He’s not coming to deliver his people from the Romans. Jesus’ coming is not going to be what the Jews are expecting. This child is coming to save people from a kind of bondage that is far more critical and threatening than political oppression. We can appear free in every way, yet still be bound by sin’s hold on us.
Now we get to the fascinating part. As if all of that isn’t fascinating already! The angel tells Joseph to name the child Mary will give birth to. In Jewish culture, either parent could name a child. In the book of Luke, Luke tells us the story of the angel appearing to Mary and she is the one who will name Jesus. But for Matthew, it’s important that Joseph carries out this responsibility. Naming the child will signify that Joseph accepts the child as his own, and this will then secure Jesus’ claim to the line of David. Here’s why Matthew starts off with the whole genealogy, which many of us may skim over because it’s not particularly interesting. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus came from the line of David, as this fulfills all the prophesies that were made about the Messiah.
So what’s so fascinating about all of this? Well, the one thing I never gave much thought to before was the fact that Jesus was adopted by Joseph. Joseph was not Jesus’ father by blood. But Joseph did as the angel told him–he took Mary to his home, assuming responsibility for both Mary & Jesus, and he exercised his right as a father to name the child, which acknowledged Jesus as his legal heir.
What’s even more fascinating to me is that the way Jesus is connected to the line of David, is through Joseph, which again means his connection is not by blood. The genealogy in Matthew consists of all the ancestors of Joseph. So and so, the father of so and so…but when you get to Joseph it says “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born…”
Of course the reason this is fascinating to me is because of our journey of adopting a child. God has worked in us in some very unexpected ways as we continue to follow his leading in our adoption journey. Though our journey of adopting a child has been long and difficult at times, we have experienced joy, faith, and hope through it. Adopting a child is an amazing experience. One that opens you to new things, gives you a whole new perspective on what family is, and a new understanding of what it means to be a child of God. Adoption opens your eyes wider to the world, to all the children everywhere who need a home and a family.
As we’ve been in the process of adoption, we’ve become aware of the dominant messages in our culture and in the church, and that is that having biological children is the expected way of expanding your family. Adoption is seen by many as second best. Many people, whether they say so or not, view being connected to a family through adoption as “lesser than” being connected biologically to a family.
The longer we’ve been in the adoption process, the more I have to wonder what difference we as Christians could make if we would understand family the way God does–that all children are ours to care for and love; that what makes a family is not whether or not you’re from the same blood line but that you share your lives together, love each other unconditionally and stick together no matter what; that what’s important in having children is not that they look like you or that they came from your body, but that they have a place to belong and to be nurtured. Perhaps if we as Christians could understand the expanding of our families to be about modeling the kingdom of God, there would be many more children experiencing the joy of a loving family.
Jesus came here to earth as an extraordinary child, with an extraordinary mission. And each one of us, as beloved children of God are called to carry out Christ’s mission…to give ourselves to others in selfless love, to shine Christ’s light into the places of darkness, to offer hope where there is despair, and to nurture joy where there is deep hurt.
After the sermon, there will be an opportunity for you to come and be anointed with oil. Being anointed is a sign of opening ourselves to the Spirit’s work in our lives and Jesus’ healing in our minds, bodies and souls. It’s also an occasion for celebration, for it is with joy that we accept God’s call on each of our lives to share the good news of Jesus with everyone around us.
And since today we are remembering and celebrating the extraordinary child who came to bring us and the whole world salvation, it is fitting that we remember the millions of children throughout the world who live in despair, in doubt, and in fear. The birth of Jesus isn’t about an adorable little baby who never cries 🙂 entering our world on a quiet night. It’s about the great and mighty God taking on human flesh, breaking into our world, healing the broken, weeping with those who mourn, exposing evil, bringing justice to the oppressed, turning despair into joy.
There are countless children suffering in our world, and each one of these children is extraordinary in the eyes of Jesus.
You will be hearing statistics about the various realities that children throughout the world face, and after each of the statistics, there will be a prayer lifting up these children to Immanuel, God with us.
Let’s listen with ears and hearts wide open to the reality that millions of children face, and then let’s silently join in the prayers for these children.
The health of children worldwide
In 2009, about 8.1 million children born alive died before their fifth birthday. Most of these children lived in developing countries and died from a disease or a combination of diseases that could have easily been prevented or treated.
God of the abundant life,
Our hearts ache for the children who die for the want of something as simple as a mosquito net or a clean cup of water.
We ponder the lost potential of the babies who die before they have even reached their fifth birthday,
Young children who never have a chance at learning or loving or making a difference in this world.
We who do have access to the abundant life– we are the ones who could change the course of their destiny.
Forgive us our indifference, convict our unwillingness to engage the systems that hold the health of children hostage, and grant us the vision to discern your will for the health and wholeness of these little ones. Amen.
Children who are neglected and abused
Almost 900,000 children each year are abused and neglected in the United States.
Forty percent of these children receive no services at all after an initial investigation.
Behind closed doors, children suffer silently. Their bodies are small and their keepers are strong. When they tell their stories, their voices are seldom heard. In denial, we hide our faces from the despair of their daily lives.
Savior, grant us clarity and compassion. Allow us to listen without judgment. Make us fearless and willing to speak up. Provide us with the resources to make a difference. Shine your light into dark, hidden corners and heal the hearts of the broken. We pray this in your Son’s name. Amen.
Children who are trafficked for the sex trade
Anywhere from 1.2 to 2 million children — mainly girls but a significant number of boys — are believed to be a part of the commercial sex trade.
Children who are forced into the sex trade are the most vulnerable to contracting and then spreading the HIV/AIDS virus.
The sexual exploitation of children as young as six years has been documented.
Creator God, by Your Spirit you created us male and female.
Our sexual identity is your good gift.
But some would distort that good gift for profit, exploiting even the most vulnerable among us, our children.
To make of your gift a commodity to be bought and sold is a profound distortion of what it means to be human. To transform the body of a child into an object of gratification is a sinful betrayal of those little ones who depend upon adults for safety and security.
So many, many children bear wounds that may never be healed.
Forgive us when our voices are silent; when we turn our backs and shut our eyes to block out the ugliness.
Open our eyes and our hearts and turn us toward an evil that must be faced. Give us the strength to touch the wounds of the world’s children.
In your Son’s name we can do no less. Amen.
Children who live without families
The estimated number of orphans is currently reported to include 17.8 million children worldwide who have lost both parents and 153 million children worldwide who have lost either one or both parents.
This does not include the estimated 2 to 8 million children living in institutions nor the vast number of children who are living on the streets, exploited for labor, victims of trafficking, or participating in armed groups.
In the U.S. around 400,00 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. Each year, over 27,000 youth “age out” of foster care without the emotional and financial support necessary to succeed.
God, our ever-loving parent,
You tell us that You are near to the downtrodden and destitute. Your heart aches for children that face the world alone. You champion the cause of those who have no one else to take their side. And You call us to do the same.
So we pray that You would rouse us to share your heart. We ask that You would stir Your people to passion and vision and action on behalf of children that have no family.
We lift up to You the millions of children in the world who have lost their parents to disease, to war, to addiction, to poverty, to abandonment. As You promise to do, place the lonely in families. Be their defender, their provider, their hope and peace. Help us to do the same.
We pray also for the children in our foster system in America. So often, they are bounced from home to home, knowing little love, consistency or true nurture. Please be their love, their consistency, their nurture. Help us to do the same.
We confess that we have often lived with little regard for these precious lives. Please forgive us. Lead us to take up their cause, not in guilt or obligation, but as a joyful response to Your great love for us.
The children of our hearts
God our Father and our Mother,
We pray for the children of our hearts- those whose images we carry in our wallets.
We know their coming in and their going out; their feelings and imperfections,
What makes them laugh and what engenders tears.
Make room in our hearts, we pray, for all the children of the world whose images are etched on the very heart of God.
You know, O God, what they need. Grant us your heart for all these children, all these whom you love.
Stir us to action and enable us to see the world as you see it; to see all of your children as our own.
May we honor the extraordinary child that was born in Bethlehem so many years ago and continues to be born in us each day, by carrying on his mission, spreading light, joy, peace and hope to all the precious children of the world. Amen.