Well, the Hallmark channel countdown to Christmas has begun. From now through the twelfth day of Christmas you can tune in to a Christmas movie twenty four hours per day seven days per week. I don’t know if that channel has two of my own favorites; “A Christmas Carol” were Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future – and “It’s A Wonderful Life” where the angel Clarence allows a depressed George Bailey to see what life in his town would have been like if George had never lived.
Both of these stories share a common theme with many of the Hallmark movies. The story begins with a character who has allowed work, money, and a get-ahead attitude to skew his view of life. Commercialism has poisoned their point of view. Then, through series of unscheduled events these people come to realize what is most important in life. Scrooge did. George bailey did. And so do most of those Hallmark movies where the New York CEO goes to a cozy New England town to buy out some local merchant and becomes so involved with the good and honest people of the village that he quits his job and makes maple syrup for the rest of his life. In the past few years it has been a female advertising executive who experiences the same sort of change. Tears are shed at the closing scene.
Now, as sappy as these movies can be, all of them share a characteristic of the story which is unfolding before us this season and which we heard again in Matthew’s gospel story of the birth of Jesus to a young woman who was engaged to a man who was not Jesus’ biological father. In our contemporary Christmas movies there is always a moment of redemption in which the main character sees the light and becomes transformed into something better. In most all these stories the moment of redemption is brought about by another person. In “A Christmas Carol” it was the bumbling angel Clarence. For Scrooge it was ghosts who played the role we often see angels play. But there is redemption. And there is a redeemer.
Maybe in our Christmas story it is Joseph who is redeemed. Here is a person slogging through life pumping out tables and chairs who gets a summons (as did all the people) to make a hard journey to Bethlehem to be counted in the census and pay a tax. That’s time away with no pay. To top it off, he discovers that the one to whom he is engaged is pregnant and he knows he’s not the father. This has to bring him some anguish and a sense of betrayal which brings with it a bit of anger. Joseph has two choices concerning this woman who has been unfaithful to him. He could legally declare injury in which case May would likely be stoned. Or, he could divorce her quietly. (Matthew says ‘dismiss’ her.) This is what Joseph chooses to do …
… until he is redeemed. By an angel. In a dream. Joseph is told, “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.” Suddenly Joseph’s life becomes more than tables and taxes. Now he becomes connected to the greatest event in history. Not only does Joesph receive meaning from the child to be born, but he gives meaning to the child. Matthew tells us that one of Joseph’s ancestors was Israel’s first and greatest king, David. This also fulfills Old Testament prophecy that a young woman would bear a son and name him Emmanuel, which means God with us.
But remember that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. If they had Ancestry.com back then and if Jesus were to send in a sample of his saliva, the report would come back showing no relation at all to King David. The DNA was not there. Joseph adopted Jesus into the royal household.
Maybe, in our Christmas story it was Mary who was redeemed. To the early church it was important for Mary to have been a virgin. And so it got written that way in scripture and the creeds. Contemporary scholarship tells us that the word may be better translated young woman or someone who has not born children yet. Since we are a congregation which likes to think and try on different ideas, let me put this before you. If Mary were indeed pregnant by another man and if God chose this pregnancy to bring forth the Messiah, would not that be more in line with God coming to the least and the lost… those who are vulnerable through a fault of their own or through no fault of their own? In those days women were often impregnated by rape and then stoned for infidelity If the child in Mary’s womb were from one man’s seed and Mary’s egg, could God not still choose that embryo to be the Messiah? Could not the angel’s words still be true, that “the child in her is from the Holy Spirit?” If that were the case, then Mary also would be one who was redeemed. Her story would also be one of redemption.
So, in our Christmas story it may be Joseph who was redeemed. It may be Mary. But it most certainly is us. In this movie we call existence, an entire humanity had lost its way … had come to value things over people … had come to accept violence as an appropriate way to end conflict … had surrendered to pride, hatred, spite, and prejudice. And then God came to the earth, in the flesh, to be born among us, teach among us, feed us, heal us, and die for us. And suddenly, we were shown a new way. And, just as Joseph adopted Jesus into the royal family so, too, has God adopted each and every one of us into God’s family … God’s kingdom … at baptism.
Sometimes we think that the whole purpose for Jesus was to save us for everlasting life. Redemption = salvation = life after death. But, throughout scripture, salvation seldom had anything to do with an afterlife. Salvation comes from the same root as “salve” and means to heal, to make whole. Jesus came to heal us and to make us whole. Jesus came to save us from doing things that are harmful to ourselves and others. He came to redeem.
This year in particular we need to be saved … to be redeemed. We hear in the Christmas story some eerie echoes. Herod was a ruler who was obsessed with power and who made outrageous attempts to maintain that power and to control others. Herod was insecure and threatened by another who he sees competing with his own authority. The holy family became refugees as they fled to Egypt. Herod broke all the rules and sense of decency. No one expected him to go so far as to murder all children two and under around Jerusalem in an attempt to subdue his rival. And no one objected. His tyranny had become normalized. Strength was all that mattered. Power was paramount.
Whatever else the Christmas story is, it is a story about opposites. When God came to earth he came to the weak and powerless, not the powerful. It is common people over billionaires. The herald angels came to shepherds, not movers and shakers. It’s a stable – not the Willard Hotel. In our Christmas story refugees are more important than rulers. True strength comes in the rejection of worldly power. Weakness IS strength.
In our Christmas story we are the redeemed. A world that was attracted to boorishness and arrogance has been shown decency, modesty, and righteousness. We have become changed. We have become redeemed. This Christmas story is now our story. We need now to go and tell it on the mountain!
Text: Matthew 1:18-25