It has been nearly a year and a half since I gave my last sermon. While I certainly appreciate the time I have taken off from pastoring to pursue further education, I am left at times with a preaching itch that I can’t exactly scratch. So, in lieu of that, here is a reflection I offer based upon what I would probably preach about if I were preaching today or tomorrow:
Matthew 1.18-25 (NRSV):
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son
; andhe named him Jesus.
One of my favorite movies is “The Prestige” from 2006. The movie is about two competing magicians in which Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, who originally were part of the same magic show. However, during one magic show, Robert’s wife Julia dies in a tragic drowning accident because Alfred tied her hands in a risky knot, at her request. Robert blames Alfred and
I won’t spoil how the movie goes (go see it if you can!), but there are a couple twists along the way as to how the trick works for Alfred and Robert. But what strikes me about this move is that it is one of those movies that has great replayability: you watch it the first time you are in suspense as to the big secret. Then, after completing it the first time, you watch it again and with your knowledge of how it all ends, you begin to catch up on all the hints and signs place along the way to
This is where we are as Christians, hearing the Christmas story. We know how the story ends, Christmas over the course of over three decades leads to the Cross, so we look back and hear the Gospel stories about Jesus birth and hear them as pregnant with deep meaning and significance. We hear in the words “God with us” not simply a statement of God’s faithfulness and presence, but a radical surprise that God came to us as human person, the Word made flesh. We know this because we know how the story ends, Jesus is raised from the dead and we hear in the words of Thomas “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28), so we can look back on the birth of Jesus and the words spoken over him as having deep significance and meaning; deeper significance than it would have had if you were encountering these events for the first time without knowing where it is all going. We see in the birth narratives, and then in the stories of Jesus ministry, significant themes and events that would have passed up by if it was the very first time to hear this story.
I want to invite you for a moment, however, to put some distance between yourself and your post-Easter knowledge. You don’t know Jesus is God Incarnate; you don’t know that Jesus will die and be raised from the dead. You are draped in a veil of ignorance about what the future holds, and so when you hear stories of angels coming to speak to human people, you can imagine something important is happening but you wouldn’t exactly be sure exactly what it is. A virgin birth would be quite surprising, a sign of the hand of God in this matter, but what to make of this baby and his future? Perhaps a future king, perhaps the one who will restore the throne of King David. But in all of the excitement, who will Jesus grow up to be is not for certain. There is not sign post saying “This is God in the flesh!” There are no angels shouting “By the death and resurrection of Jesus the world will be saved.”
So what happens after the early events surrounding Jesus birth? The Gospel of Luke records a story about pre-teen Jesus trekking out on his own from the oversight of his parents, going to the temple and amazing everyone with his insight and understanding. But other than that, nothing of great significance is recorded about Jesus’ life until he is past the age of 30. All these dramatic events about angels, the Magi, shepherds, and a virgin birth all signaling something marvelous about this young baby and nothing remarkably significant happens for thirty years. Thirty years! Thirty years and nothing has happened resembling the fulfillment of mother Mary’s hopes:
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear
him fromgeneration to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
andto his descendants forever.” (Luke 1.46-55)
In fact, the entrance of Jesus didn’t immediately bring blessings to everyone aside from the joy of a family to Mary and Joseph. In fact, it ushered in a widespread massacre of Bethlehemite infants by a jealous and fearful Herod. Rather than dreams being fulfilled, the dreams of many families had been dashed; rather than hope stirring in the air, the fog of despair hovered over Israel, waiting and longing for God to do something, even after God has done something in becoming present as a person.
Now, this might seem depressing on first glance, but there is an important truth here that is hope for the depressed: God’s redemption doesn’t happen in an instant. In a day and age where we look for the technological or medical miracle to immediately fix our problems but are more often than not left disappointed, we have missed the miracles that
Why? Because God is not like some parent who upon seeing a child’s room in disarray, immediately comes in and puts everything in place. He is a God who rather
The story of the birth on Christmas isn’t the story of a miraculous birth. Rather, it is the story of the beginning of a miracle that spans over thirty years, that we can make sense of in retrospect. It is the story of the beginning of a miracle that spans millennia also, that we are still making sense of to this day. It is
This miracle that occurs over time is expressed well in the words of our communion liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ risen, Christ will come again.” God’s work of redemption in all our stories and the story of the world is connected by discrete events, all strung together as part of a long-term process that holds them altogether. So too, the significance of the birth of Christ held together and made effect by all that follows.