Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
December 18, 2022
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
When our Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew begins with, “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way,” it may be surprising to some that we will not find images of the manger, the animals, shepherds tending sheep by night, the heavenly chorus of angels. Those familiar images come from the Gospel of Luke. Matthew does not offer those images. Instead, Joseph takes center stage in the action; what we know about Jesus is announced by the messenger of God, and God is the initiator of all that will take place. We could ask for more, but Matthew’s story is complete and tells us everything we need to know about God and the One who is to come.
The scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan see the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as parables, metaphorical narratives with a surplus of meaning inviting the listener/reader to discern what the author wants us to know about what God is up to and to see the world differently. We are not offered the parable of Jesus’ birth for a historical account of what happened or factual information about the event. We are shown it as a way to see something about God. What do we see in this story without those familiar images we’ve come to rely upon when thinking about the birth of Jesus? What is the vision on offer? Since the theme of this Advent is love, I am going to use that as the lens through which to read this parable about Jesus’ birth. I invite us to see how love recasts and reframes what is expected to happen and how love moves and facilitates the journey to God’s promised transformation of all things.
What is God up to here? It appears that God is stubbornly determined to save. God is determined to be involved with humanity and with creation. Incarnating as a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit and carried in the womb of Mary, God will continue to do the work God started so long ago when baby Moses was rescued from the clutches of a murderous ruler, spared that he might lead the people of Israel out of bondage. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.) It appears that God will execute a similar plan to break the hold of new imperial power and the ongoing bondage of sin and error, but this time God will do it by coming to be with us. The messenger of God announces all of this to Joseph and tells him to name the child Jesus, Yeshua, a Hebrew name derived from a word that means to deliver, to rescue, to save. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Emmanuel; God is with us. God loves us so much that God makes God’s self-vulnerable and present, incarnating in the flesh in time and history, to execute a rescue mission. That is love.
And that love is infectious. So infectious that Joseph finds himself acting in ways that confound norms and expectations. The power of love can change how we see, act, and love in return. Sometimes, Scripture does not give us a window into the inner world of biblical characters or provides only limited perspective. But in Joseph’s case, we see both reflection and action. He wants out of the situation. Joseph, a pious, faithful man, would have been expected to hold Mary, who was not pregnant by him, to the letter of religious law and subject her to the shame of divorce. In his compassion, he wanted to do it quietly. Look at how Joseph responds to God’s messenger. He does a more loving thing. He heeds God’s messenger and gets more deeply involved, not less. Love will make us run toward the tough dilemma, not away. Love will lead us to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable, not abandon them. Joseph does not separate himself from Mary. He does not protest his virtue or innocence. He does not seek to salvage his reputation or prove his faithfulness at the expense of Mary. No, he responds in love and faithfulness, trusting a God who is determined to be with us.
All of the rules, norms, and conventions of culture and religion, the social death of shame, and the communal currency of honor come into play for Mary and Joseph, with the man having the most power to determine their fates in his favor. There was nothing about Joseph choosing Mary and Jesus that was planned or certain, or all figured out. But Joseph chooses the way of love. Not love as just an emotion or a warm sentiment but a consequential, active love. A love that dares; a love that takes risks; a love that builds up; a love that embraces; a love that empathizes; a love that refuses to abide by inhumane norms and traditions.
This birth story is a story about love. It is a story about God’s love. It is a testimony of God’s intention to save us. For liberation and redemption, God will be love incarnate, named and known as Jesus. And everything we know about Jesus begins and ends with love. Love is the foundation of the capacity for selfless service, a forgiving heart, and amazing grace. Our spiritual forebears’ witness to the character of God places particular emphasis on God’s lovingkindness, and the words and actions attributed to Jesus demonstrate a consistent reinforcement of the commandment to love . . . Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.
During this Advent season, I pray that we see the world anew through love so generative that it shows up and manifests as Emmanuel; God is with us. That we do not overly romanticize Mary and Joseph’s story. Instead, we see how it challenges the world’s rules, norms, and conventions; how it makes possible liberation for even the most vulnerable among us; how it testifies to God’s promise to save. How will we respond to that kind of love in our own time? How will we honor the messenger of God’s assurance not to be afraid to act when it is risky and contradicts the world’s norms and values?
I had to confront those questions anew the other night when Plymouth Church hosted the Homeless Memorial March and Service. The night began with a march, in which the marchers carried signs bearing the names and ages of all those who died while homeless in Minnesota. I had the honor and privilege of being at the opening of the tower doors to welcome the marchers into the church for the memorial service. I welcomed each marcher, often glancing at the name on their signs and saying a silent prayer. But there was one sign, the sign that nearly brought me to my knees in grief, which bore the words: Baby boy, 1.”
I had been in preparation all week, reflecting on the words of God’s messenger to Mary and Joseph about a baby boy. A baby boy named and known who would be loved and nurtured to live a life that will draw us to the light. That God would choose to reveal God’s self as a baby invites us to pause to think about our responsibilities toward the vulnerable. Perhaps the fate and future of that baby boy that didn’t make it, the fate and destiny of all the helpless babies and their parents all around us, can be transformed by our acts of love. Active, consequential love. A love that dares; a love that takes risks; a love that builds up; a love that embraces; a love that empathizes; a love that refuses to abide by inhumane norms and traditions. How much could we alleviate poverty, homelessness, and displacement with that kind of active, powerful love?
The world is desperate for faithful people to heed the call of God’s messengers to love enough, to care enough, and to get involved enough so that we become signs of God’s promise of liberation and salvation for all. That the world will know us because we love others into liberation. We lead with love, serve with love, and always, not just during this season but always, anticipate the power and presence of love.
If there is one word that provides both the call and inspiration of Advent and Christmas, it is love. Not a sentimental love that we attempt to capture in the greeting card or the perfect gift, but a love that breaks through the coldness, cynicism, and disconnection of the world . . . a love that actually counters all that attacks our worth, our dignity, and our humanness. I’m talking about love alive, whereby our connection to God, our experience of God’s unconditional love, motivates and animates us to show up in the world, loving, serving, and doing justice. A love alive that brings life to us and to everyone we encounter and everything we touch.