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Wed, Dec 18, 2019

Joseph, the husband of...


Duration:33 mins 3 secs

Our Scripture text for this evening comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 13-18. Throughout this Advent season we have been following the genealogy of Jesus with which Matthew opens his Gospel. We have met quite a variety of individuals and characters in this family tree, and tonight we reach Joseph, the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Immediately after the genealogy the gospel’s narrative begins with a righteous man named Joseph who learns that his finance is pregnant and so he plans to divorce her quietly. Instead, an angel visits Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. Joseph awakes and does as the angel commands him and the baby to be called Jesus is born.

The story skips ahead. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in Bethlehem when three magi from the East come to Jerusalem and ask King Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod hears this question and is afraid. He learns from his advisors that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so he sends the wise men there. But before they go, he asks them to come back so that he too might go and worship the child. The magi find the place where the star they have followed stops and are overwhelmed with joy. They enter the house, see Jesus with his mother, fall down and worship him, and give him gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Then, warned in a dream, they go home by another way.

We join this story of dreams, fathers and mothers, kings and travelers. Let us hear this Word of God.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It is not often that we read this story of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the murder of the children of Bethlehem. In the last week before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we like to focus on Luke’s account of joy and simplicity and angels and shepherds and a stable and a baby’s first cries. If we read Matthew’s account at all we stop after the visit of the magi from the east.

But tonight, let us not conveniently skip the story of what happens next. For King Herod who ruled Judea when Jesus was born was a brutal man. He’d been appointed King by the Romans and he had to fight to hold on to the throne. He maintained a private security force and ensured he was never far from a defensible stronghold. Herod killed descendants of rival royal families, he killed his wife and one of his sons, before he died Herod commanded that at his death political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land. He knew on one would mourn for him alone. So, Herod ordering the killing the children of Bethlehem does not surprise us at all.

Yes, Christmas and Jesus’ birth for us is good news, but not everyone feels the same way. Herod certainly did not. A rival king? The prophesied Messiah? That’s not good news – that’s a threat. And so Herod acts with brutality and violence. The fact that Bethlehem was a small village at the time and there might have been only 20 or so boys under the age of two doesn’t change the fact that murder is still murder. Weeping and lamentation filled that community. Mothers unable to be consoled because their children are no more. Yes, Matthew does not want us to forget that joy and threat; birth and death; all accompany Jesus’ entry into the world.

Thus, my friends, as we gather this evening, we need to account for the fact that not everyone is filled with great joy by the news of Jesus’ birth. For those in power are threatened by one who promises to rule in a different way. Those who rely on a “might makes right” kind of strategy will flex their muscles when threatened. Those whose economic livelihood depends on nations having the biggest army are not going to be pleased with a Prince of Peace. Those who would prefer that nothing ever changes often rebel when the new king comes to town.

Even more there are those who come to this season full of loss and grief. One who has been so loved will be missing from the dinner table this Christmas. No presents for him or her will be found under the tree. There are others who know estrangement from family and friends, or who, due to health or circumstance, face the prospect of another holiday alone. For still others depression, lack of sleep, or the pressure to be perfect wears us down to the point where we are just hoping to make it through the holidays, not celebrate them. Yes, there is a reason we call this service a “Blue Christmas” service.

Yet, in the midst of the violence and pain, the grief and the loss, the estrangement and the pressures, one from Jesus’ own family tree comes to stand beside us. Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. Yes, Joseph is really the main character in the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel. Even though Jesus was not technically his child, it is his willingness to listen to the angel in his dream that protects the child Jesus while he is still in Mary’s womb. Now with a threat from Herod revealed in another dream, Joseph packs up his young son, his wife, the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh and leaves under the cover of darkness for Egypt. A few years later it will be in another dream that Joseph learns of Herod’s death and the command to head back for home.

Do you see what is happening here? In the midst of violence and power that threatens the life of God’s greatest gift, there is one asked to care for and protect this child. When the child is grown and his ministry upon the earth complete, Jesus will give his life for the world, for you and for me. But for now, this good news must be protected, nurtured, and cared for against those who seek to do it harm.

Perhaps that is our call this evening, in this Blue Christmas service. Yes, it is our call to draw near, to stand beside, and to protect those who find themselves mourning and crying like the mothers of Bethlehem; those who know grief and loss; those struggling with confusion and burdens that threaten to drown out the joy of a child’s birth. Yes, perhaps we might find our place in Jesus’ family tree as we seek to follow the footsteps of Joseph.

For the light has come and is coming into the world. And the darkness cannot overcome it, no matter how hard it tries. We must not ignore the darkness that threatens, but neither may we diminish the light that still shines. So, let us join hands with Joseph and with one another. For together we might lift each other up until that day when we see:

the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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