This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, NY.
The text is Matthew 1:18-25.
If you were to ask the average person in the street what they think of Christianity, you’re likely to get a response that contains some combination of the words morals and values. Those who have a favorable opinion of Christianity might say something like, “More people should go to church, so they can learn positive morals and values.” Others who are more hostile toward Christianity might say, “Who do those Christians think they are? They shouldn’t impose their morals and values on everyone else!”
While these statements might seem to be polar opposites of one another, they proceed from a common assumption about who God is and what God wants. They assume that God is primarily interested in creating a perfect moral universe where everyone acts as they should and everything works according to plan.
Christians, to be fair, have certainly done their part in perpetuating this idea of a “perfect moral universe”. Theologians have called it “legalism”. Historically speaking, the proceedings of the Salem Witch Trials remind us of legalistic Christianity at its worst. More than two dozen people were wrongfully accused of practicing witchcraft and were executed by their neighbors in Massachusetts during the 17th century.
The legalistic spirit of this era was portrayed by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne in his literary classic, The Scarlet Letter. In this story, the main character, Hester Prynne, mothers a child out of wedlock and is subsequently ostracized by her neighbors. They force her to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ at all times as a reminder of her transgression. Meanwhile, the child’s father (who happens to be the local minister) secretly and slowly tortures himself to death as self-inflicted punishment for his sins.
Examples of legalism in the Christian church are unfortunately not confined to volumes of history and literature. Even today, many Christians find themselves spiritually (and sometimes literally) homeless when they confess their inability to live up to the moral standards set by their church communities. The unspoken message that people in our society tend to hear from Christians is that there is no place in our churches for unwed mothers, divorced couples, addicts, or anyone else who doesn’t conform to this image of moral perfection.
When we hear these personal stories of people exiled from their homes and churches, when we read novels like The Scarlet Letter or reflect on historical accounts like the Salem Witch Trials, I think we have to ask ourselves: Is this really what God wants from us as Christians?
It’s tempting to answer “yes”, especially at Christmas. After all, isn’t Christmas the “most wonderful time of the year”? Doesn’t everyone want things to be “just perfect” at Christmas? But when we read the Christmas story as it appears in today’s gospel reading, we see a situation that is far from being “just perfect”.
Our scene opens with Mary, the mother of Jesus, finding out that she is pregnant out of wedlock. Biblical scholars estimate that Mary is probably about thirteen years old at this point in the story. So our story literally begins with an unwed teenage mother. In our society, this state of affairs would certainly make her the subject of raised eyebrows and town gossip. But in first century Galilee, the stakes were much higher. She was engaged to Joseph, who was quite certain the child wasn’t his. To be betrothed to one man in that society and having someone else’s baby was considered adultery. Mary could face the death penalty for that! The shame on her family’s honor would damage their standing in the community long after she was dead. So, when we read that Joseph was “unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace”, we have to understand that this meant more than public embarrassment. Her life was on the line.
Joseph, it seemed, was caught in the middle of an impossible situation. His fiancée had apparently betrayed him. He was a good and faithful Jew who obeyed the Torah, but in this case, strict adherence to the Bible meant putting Mary to death. Even in his sorrow and anger, he wasn’t willing to do that. What was he supposed to do? He decided that the best thing for everyone would be to call of their engagement quietly, in hopes that the real father would step forward and take responsibility. In that scenario, Mary and her baby would at least have a chance at leading decent lives. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the best he could do.
That night, during what I imagine must have been a fitful and restless sleep, Joseph had a dream. In this dream, an angel stood before him and called out, “Joseph, son of David!” This would have sounded odd to Joseph, because his father’s name was Jacob. Sure, his family was related to the legendary King David, but one would have to go back centuries to trace that lineage. Nevertheless, the angel calls him according to his royal heritage: “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.”
“Wait a second,” Joseph must have thought, “now you’re telling me that God is responsible for this? And all of this has something to do with royal blood in my distant family history?”
The angel in the dream continued, “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
“Now, hold it right there,” Joseph thought, “Name him? You want me to name him?! That means I’m claiming him as my own! I’m saying to the world, ‘Yup. It was me. I did it. I’m the father.’ I’d be ruined for life over something that’s not even true! Are you saying God wants me to lie?!” If he were alive today, this is where Joseph would probably say, “I’ve really got to switch to decaf after 6pm!”
Remember that this was “just a dream”. How many times have you and I dreamed about something that was going on in our lives and dismissed it as stress subconsciously working itself out? It would have been very easy for Joseph to do the same. Besides, what this “angel” was saying went against everything he believed about God, morality, and the Bible.
Yet, we Christians believe this is how God chose to enter into human history. The author of Matthew’s gospel cites a prophecy from the book of Isaiah as if to say, “This was God’s plan all along!” We often marvel at the humility of Christ, who was willing to become incarnate among working-class peasants in Galilee. However, have we ever stopped to think about how scandalous this situation must have been for the people involved? Jesus was not born into a morally perfect situation.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the first Christmas from paintings, films, and pageants (like the one our kids have prepared for us after church today). We are familiar with idyllic images of the baby Jesus, lying on a soft bed of hay in the stable, surrounded by warm and soft light while angels and shepherds look down with love. But let me ask you this: What does a stable smell like? It’s not pretty! It’s not even hygienic. It’s messy, just like life.
When the eternal mystery of God took on flesh and became incarnate in our world, it happened in the messiest possible way. God is not afraid of our mess. God does not wait for us to get our morals and values in order. God meets us right where we are. Ironically, it is God’s acceptance of our moral imperfection that mysteriously gives us the power to live transformed lives. The Apostle Paul said it like this in his letter to the Romans: “God’s kindness leads to repentance.”
The French novelist Victor Hugo wrote about this kind of transformation in his book, Les Misérables. In this story, an ex-convict named Jean Valjean stops for the night at a bishop’s residence. At dinner, he remarks that, after a hot meal and a warm bed, he’ll “be a new man in the morning.” During the night, Valjean gets up and robs the bishop of his best silver and takes off. He is caught and arrested the next day. The police take Valjean back to the bishop’s house for questioning. When they arrive, the bishop lies and tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean, who is then set free. Before sending him on his way (with even more silver), the bishop says to Valjean, “With this silver, I’ve purchased your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.” The rest of Hugo’s novel tells the story of how Valjean’s life was changed forever by that radical act of graciousness. The bishop met Jean Valjean in the midst of his messiness and moral imperfection. So it is between God and us.
This is good news. It changes the way we look into the mirror. When God comes into our lives on Christmas (or any other day), God takes us as we are, with all our messiness and moral imperfections. There is no longer any need for us to beat ourselves up for our sins or hide from the One who loved us before we were born.
This good news also changes the way we look at each other, especially when our neighbors are mired in scandal. Maybe they are facing a tough legal battle, like Mary. Maybe an entire family is facing public humiliation in the community, like Mary’s. Maybe an unwed or teen mother is facing a difficult choice, just like Mary. Do Christians in these situations cross their arms and shake their heads in silent judgment?
If we take the gospel seriously, we have to recognize that it was in the midst of a messy and morally questionable situation like this that God chose to enter into human history. So, if we are looking for God in our lives today, it only makes sense to start looking in the same kinds of messy and morally questionable situations.
If we can find the faith to do that, then I truly believe that we, like Jean Valjean, will discover our lives being transformed by God’s grace. With open minds and open hearts, we’ll take our place this Christmas in that smelly, messy stable alongside the shepherds with their sheep, the ass, and the angels, beholding the glory of God’s eternal mystery coming in to our lives once again.
O come, let us adore him!