Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday December 22, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Each week in Advent, we have been watching part of A Muppet Christmas Carol during our Story for All Ages - you can find this week's clip here.
On Tuesday evening, at our Christmas Eve service, we are going to be reading the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. Today, we heard the same event – the birth of Jesus – from the perspective of Matthew’s Gospel. The two versions of events are very different – here in Matthew we have no shepherds, no journey to Bethlehem, no manger. We have no angel appearing to Mary to ask her to bear God’s son, we have no visit between Mary and Elizabeth, we have no song where Mary tells of God’s vision for a world turned upside down.
I often think that while Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus – the one that is probably the more familiar version – while Luke tells us the story from Mary’s perspective, in Matthew we get the same story told from the perspective of Joseph.
Here in Matthew’s version, there is still an angel, but the angel appears to Joseph instead of Mary. Joseph has just found out that the woman that he is engaged to is going to have a baby, and he knows that he certainly can’t be the father of this baby.
In the eyes of the world in which he lived, he should have put her aside – not married her, but sent her back to her parents in disgrace. From the perspective of the culture in which Joseph lived, this would have made him a laughing stock – possibly impacting his ability to ever get married – but this would be better than raising a baby that was not his biological kin. And from the perspective of the laws of the culture in which they lived, Mary was at risk of being killed, stoned to death for the shame and dishonour that she brought to her family.
It was a messy situation that this couple finds themselves in, right from the beginning of the story.
But like I said, an angel appears to Joseph. This angel tells Joseph to stick with the original plan – that he is to marry Mary – for it is God’s son that she is carrying.
Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt in this moment? We’re told that he was a righteous man – I can imagine him at his prayers, listening to teaching in the synagogue, living his life according to the Torah, the laws of the Jewish people. And so he knew that the right thing to do was not to marry this woman. And yet he also seems to have been a man of great compassion – we’re told that rather than exposing Mary to public disgrace (likely meaning a public stoning), instead he was going to quietly break their engagement. And along comes this angel, this messenger of God, telling him to forget this plan, and to go ahead and marry her.
He must have been in a turmoil – like I said, it’s a messy situation. But he was able to imagine a different course of action, a different way of being. Instead of doing the thing that he planned to do, instead of doing the thing that the world around him expected him to do, he was able to imagine a different future, and he was able to act on it.
Joseph was able to imagine a world where he married Mary, a world where he raised this child as his own, a world in contrast to everything that his culture told him to do. And he was able to act on it.
And to me, this is the very definition of hope. Hope is being able to look in to the future, being able to imagine a different way of living and being in the world, and then living as if that different way were already here. Hope is looking at the pain and the messiness that we find all around us and knowing that this pain and messiness isn’t permanent, isn’t the final state of things, then living in the present in light of the different future that is coming.
Joseph is living in hope. Joseph is able to choose differently because he is able to imagine a different future – one where he doesn’t send Mary back to her parents, one where he trusts that God is in control of the story.
In the story of A Christmas Carol, this morning we encountered the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, the third of the three Spirits that Scrooge encountered that night. To me – and to the character of Charles Dickens that Gonzo plays in our movie clip – this is the scariest part of the story. In every adaptation that I’ve seen, this third spirit presents more like the Grim Reaper than anything else. And yet I propose that this spirit is really the spirit that gives Scrooge hope.
This Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge the future – shows him the future that will happen if nothing changes. This spirit shows Scrooge a future where he, Scrooge, has died and no one is sad to have seen him go. This spirit shows Scrooge a future where he has no family to mourn him or inherit his belongings that he has worked so hard to acquire. This spirit shows Scrooge a future where Tiny Tim, the son of his employee Bob Cratchit, has died, leaving a sense of loss and sadness behind.
It is a very bleak future that this Spirit presents to Ebenezer Scrooge. And Scrooge, having been softened by the visits from the two previous Spirits, is affected by this vision of the future. He is able to realize that he doesn’t want this future to come to pass. And most importantly, he is able to imagine something different.
Scrooge is able to hope. He is able to imagine a future where Tiny Tim doesn’t die because he, Scrooge, pays Bob Cratchit a living wage. He is able to imagine a future where he is surrounded by friends and family. He is able to imagine a future where he lives in the love and peace and joy that he witnessed through the visits from the first two Spirits. He is able to imagine a different future than the one shown to him by the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, and because of this hope, transformation becomes possible.
The invitation of Christmas is an invitation to transformation. At Christmas, God becomes human, and our humanity is forevermore transformed and connected with God.
And so on this Sunday when we have lit the candle for hope, I invite you to open up your imagination. I invite you to join Joseph, to join Scrooge, in imagining a different way of being. As you look around the world, as you notice the places of pain, the places of sorrow, the places of oppression, the places of discrimination, the places where God’s creation is being destroyed, I invite you to imagine a different world. I invite you to imagine a world that is aligned with God’s vision for the world. I invite you to imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat; a world where all people have the same rights and opportunities; a world where there is no illness or pain; a world where all people live lives that respect all of God’s creation.
And once you can imagine this world, I invite you to live as if this world is already here!
Scrooge and the Visit with the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come
Illustration from First Edition - Public Domain