The Gospel of Luke gets top billing at Christmas time. And no wonder, it has all the cool stuff; everything leading up to Jesus’ birth, the angels singing their lungs out, Mary and Elizabeth having lots of girlfriend time with their pregnancies. Most of the Advent and Christmas carol texts we have come out of the Lukan tradition. It’s one long lullaby, Luke’s story is, and sung in the feminine voice.
Matthew is a different story. The Lion of Judah has a lot of testosterone. If Joseph was ignored and given a bit part in Luke, he’s pushed into a leading role in Matthew. In fact the way Matthew gets to Jesus is through his father’s angst about the condition of his young pregnant wife, for which he could boast no responsibility. The gospel dances all around this issue, even liberally borrowing a text from Isaiah and changing what was simply “young woman” into “virgin.” A young woman shall conceive is changed into a virgin shall conceive and be called Emmanuel.
All of this is tough stuff and messy. And Matthew lets us on the inside of young Joseph’s troubled head, his worry and confusion, his troubled dreams. He’s dealing with personal and social disgrace and doesn’t know what to do. According to Mozaic law he can quietly divorce her and send her back home, which might be the simplest and most compassionate thing; no public shaming, just cutting our losses and moving on.
You and I think that dreams are interesting, perhaps disclosing the repressed aspects of the subconscious. Let’s have a dream interpretation group. But the ancients had a more exalted understanding of dreams: They were the province of the divine communication. Through the Biblical narratives you find one dream after another, always revealing important information to the dreamer. And there is no firm line of demarcation between dreams and visions, waking or sleeping. Angel visitants can come to both. We might say, “I don’t know whether I was awake or asleep.” To the ancients it didn’t matter. God showed up either way.
All of this is a great comfort to preachers as they look out and see some of the flock dozing during the sermon. Ah, God is coming to them in a dream!
Joseph has descended into the darkness of his own dreams, a sweaty, fitful, troubled sleep. And there in the midst of his consternation something from the other side of the veil of consciousness appears. And the murky, holy presence tells him things that would be impossible in the daylight: Don’t be afraid. God is using what looks like an impossible mess for good. Stay the course with her and it will turn out as it should.
Can you believe it? Well, that was enough for Joseph who did stay with Mary, protecting her and the new baby from the craziness of King Herod by sporting them off to Egypt, returning to Nazareth only later after crazy king had died.
It occurs to me that most of life comes at us in the form of an impossible mess. Oh, we try to tend it with our own machinations, improvising as we go. But sometimes the mess is just too messy. We descend into troubled sleep, tossing and turning, waiting for dawn, fearing dawn to come because we might awaken to something just like yesterday, and the day before it. Messy, with no clear solution in sight.
My experience and maybe yours as well, is that the most important things in life often come to us when we are most vulnerable, on the edge, tossing and turning in our sleep. When all the balls are in the air a mysterious presence may knock them to the ground or insert another unexpected one that changes everything. It isn’t that things get un-messy; they usually don’t. What happens is what happened to Joseph, the word from beyond us snatches away our fear and reassures us that, in the end, good will come out of what appears to be hopeless: Do not be afraid, Joseph. Out of the mess will come a future that needs to be.
And maybe that’s where you are in your life, not exactly in the same place as Joseph, but close enough. There is so much unresolved. You’re not exactly sure what way to turn. It’s messy.
If so, or if you’ve been there or will be there, do not be afraid. And why? Because God creates, brings forth the future out of that mess. It may not be what you expected, or desired, or planned, but that is beside the point. Life pays a visit on us like the delivery guy tossing the television over the fence onto our front porch. It’s here so now what?
What I want to share with you tonight is that the mystery of life is so much more than we imagined it to be. Our story line is thicker, messier, harder and richer than expected. And out of it comes what needs to come. For Joseph and his untenable situation it was a Jesus. For you and me it will be other things, and maybe even, in small measure, a tiny role in God’s purposes in this tiny little breath of time walking around on this planet.
I think one of the reasons we are often left speechless on Christmas eve, and other times when light shines in the winter darkness, is that we are awe struck with the beauty and power that springs upon us at unlikely moments.
Who cannot be struck to silence at the simple but profound thought that the sacred fabric of the cosmos is focused like a laser ray in one time and place, in one baby and family, among one family and people, so that, beyond every wildest imagination the curtain could be pulled back in one dramatic tug? And against every resistance of ego or pride we get a glimpse of that mystery, see ourselves for who we really are and drop to the knees of the heart and mutter prayers of thanksgiving?
One time Helmut Thielicke told about a photograph that stands on a bookshelf facing his desk. It is plain, has no value as a work of art, yet year after year it comes out at Christmas. It is simply a picture of a Christmas play. It is obvious that it is not a professional group. The most elaborate costuming consists of several terry cloth bathrobes. One sees a large group of mostly younger men of various races walking with candles to an altar. Other men cower at the altar with great fright. The intention is clear: a white robed figure is an angel and the cowering men at the altar have just received its message.
People come in, pick up the picture, and ask about it. Usually they are struck by the gripping expressions on their faces. Each one of the performers is totally involved. Some people guess that these people come from a drama group from a church or maybe from a nearby college.
“The people,” Thielicke tells his inquirers, “are indeed caught up in the Christmas mystery. As you can see, they have taken it to heart. But this is no Christian men’s group or college drama troupe. It is a photograph of the Christmas celebration at a prison. See the young man? He killed a friend in a fight over a wristwatch. Year after year he is given the same part. He kneels before the manger and says, ‘I lay in fetters groaning … you come to set me free.’”
Whatever fetters hold you, or me, or this planet in a troubled sleep, whatever messiness surrounds you or those you love or care about, whatever confounding circumstances surround your life, be not afraid.
Bow before the Christmas mystery and listen to the echoes within your dreams. For all is well and all shall be well. And the flash in the sky you see against a pallet of a billion stars is called Emmanuel, which means God with us. And surely, most surely, he is.