Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Date: Christmas Eve + 12/24/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
In recent years during Christmas time many churches have attempted to minister especially to those who are facing this otherwise joyous holiday after the death of a loved one or a divorce or some other life tragedy. The invention of “Blue Christmas” services seek to give people who have experienced such losses a sacred time and sacred space to meditate and to hear the Word of God in a more subdued or quiet celebration of Christmas. It is an attempt, for one thing, to play down any “forced” joyfulness so that Christmas might be less of an escape and more a solemn facing of the realities of life with the quiet, hidden joy that is, after all, the joy of faith and the peace that passes all understanding. Though I have considered designing such a service in years past it is, of course, no coincidence that this year I should be the more interested.
But I must ask, has Christmas not become merely an escape from reality for most people even when they’re not facing some tragedy? How else to explain much of the sentimental and even fictional treatment with which many treat this holiday? I even think that a lot of the anti-Christmas sentiment in society is mostly a rebellion against the merely sentimental or fiction and the absence of the real, honest and truthful proclamation of Christmas, the incarnation of the Son of God. Therefore it is good, right, and salutary that we should hear the Christmas story tonight not from St. Luke with his details of angels and shepherds and glorious heavenly songs and canticles, not from St. John with his heavy theological interpretation, but from St. Matthew. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Just the facts and only the facts tell us what is most vital and important.
There is no mention in Matthew’s record of the arduous journey imposed by the Roman government that made it necessary for Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem. There is no appearance of an angel to Mary, just to Joseph. There is no Magnificat, no rejection from an inn keeper, none of the details of manger or animals. And, you see, what is not most important are the details of the particular twists and turns of your life, the little frustrations, the recent obstructions, the recurring aggravations of daily life, or even those bigger tragedies of the unfolding story of our lives, “in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him.” Need we compare those frustrations, obstructions and aggravations with the Holy Family when Mary, “betrothed to Joseph, before they came together was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”? That a young woman is found to be “with child” is not that unique of a situation or story, especially in our day. It is, actually, rather common. What is not common, of course, is that this pregnancy should be “from the Holy Spirit.” St. Matthew tells us this, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, right off the bat, so that we do not even begin to think, much less contemplate, the possibility of some unfaithfulness on the part of the Blessed Virgin or her husband.
Joseph is called by Matthew “a just man,” meaning that what he was to consider and to decide in the face of this situation, would be pleasing and acceptable to God. “Being a just man,” Joseph was unwilling to put Mary to shame and resolved to divorce her quietly. This already seemed to violate or at least to stretch God’s very Law regarding marriage and divorce. Then, “as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Now “all this” could have been considered just a coincidence, a happenstance that just happened to call to mind something similar in the Bible. But Matthew tells us that all this stuff “took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” in Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Mary is “the virgin.” She has conceived. She is to bear a son, He is “Immanuel” for that is what He will be and do, namely, God come to be with us to save His people from their sins.
Just the facts. “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” There’s so much more to the story, but that’s all you need to know. The question now is, like Joseph, have you awakened from sleep? Not the sleep of mere ignorance but the sleep of unbelief, that condition of the fallen, sinful nature of not having any consideration or impulse for God in and of yourself. This is the sleep in which we are all born, the sleep of spiritual blindness, deadness and enmity with God. But God sent His Son to wake us from this sleep, as He said through His apostle, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14). He does that when He comes and overwhelms you with His presence in Holy Baptism. Yes, baptism is the God-ordained means by which He comes and recreates, gives a second, spiritual birth, so that now, by God’s power, you have spiritual vision, life and fellowship with God. In Christ, in holy baptism, by the Holy Spirit, a sinner is awakened from spiritual sleep, raised from the dead and given the light of eternal life.
This awakening is completely due to the Word of God and governed and empowered by the Word of God. “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” the angel said to Joseph. And with that Word and by that Word, “Joseph woke from sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” So does God say to us and the whole world on this night: Do not fear! Do not fear because in Christ there is nothing left to fear, not even death! “Do not be afraid,” I said to Alice a number of times in her illness, and with that Word and by that Word, she did as the Lord commanded.
There is another awakening from sleep we are to believe and hope and look forward to. It is the awakening from the grave and gate of death in the resurrection. As impossible as it is to come to faith by our own reason or strength, so is it impossible for one to come back to life from the grave except by the power and command of the mighty Word of God our Savior. Yet so shall it be, for “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:16-18).
A Blue Christmas? In some ways, sure. But when you have heard and know the power of the Word of God and the loving grace and tender mercy of God in sending the Savior, faith and hope appear “out of the blue,” as it were. And we are given the deeper joy and confidence to face even life’s largest challenges. For in Christ, because of His birth, His life, His death, His resurrection and ascension, and His promise of coming again, you know the truth of it all, the facts of life, of death and of new, eternal life in Christ. Comfort one another with these words.