Four Advent candles are now lit, which means that Christmas is close at hand. Except for some last minute shopping, mostly by husbands, all the packages should be wrapped, and either put under the tree or mailed. The kids, of course, are getting anxious. They’re shaking the packages and wondering about what’s inside the box. If it rattles, then it can’t be underwear or socks, and if it does rattle, then the imagination goes wild! Of course, everyone is on their best behavior, hoping that their fondest wishes will be fulfilled. But as you can see there’s still one candle that needs to be lit. The first four candles call on us to live lives of hope, peace, joy, and love, as we prepare ourselves to receive into our lives the full presence of God in the person of the Christ child. This last candle, the Christ Candle, represents the light that shines into the darkness of our world, lighting a pathway so that we might truly experience hope, peace, joy and love that are represented by the candles that we’ve already lit.
1. A MURKY START
As we ponder the meaning of these candles that we’ve been lighting these past four Sundays, and then look over at the Christmas tree, which is enwrapped by a multitude of lights, it should become clearer that part of the message of Christmas is enlightenment. For a moment let your mind drift to your evening drives through the many neighborhoods that we inhabit. Think of all the houses bedecked with Christmas lights. Normally dark streets can come alive with brightly colored lights, shining into the ever increasing winter darkness.
Even as Christmas is on the horizon, so is the Winter Solstice. In just two days, we will reach the point where the darkness of night reaches its fullest extent of the year, before the sun begins to reclaim the day from the darkness of night. It may be true that Constantine merged the Roman observance of the Solstice with Christmas, and that many of our Christmas traditions have their roots in this observance, but maybe that’s okay – as long as we recognize this to be true. Perhaps it’s appropriate that at the point at which the light of the sun pushes back the night, we will be celebrating the coming of the Son of God into the World to push back the darkness that has tried to take hold in our world.
This message of enlightenment is also present in the two gospel stories of Christ’s birth. Luke speaks of the angelic glory that breaks into the night sky, revealing the glory that is God, while Matthew speaks of a star that draws a group of sages from the east so that they might honor the one who is born king of the Jews.
There is much beauty in the traditional telling of the Christmas story, but we can also fall into a trap of romanticizing the story. Carols like “Away in a manger” envision the little Lord Jesus lying sound asleep, without a worry in his head, while Mary and Joseph, are surrounded by shepherds and magi, cooing at the little child. But, the biblical story is a bit more complicated than many of our beloved carols would suggest.
As Matthew tells it, an angel visits Joseph in a dream, and says to him: “Fear not.” Do you remember these words from last Sunday’s Cantata? “Fear not Joseph.” You see, Joseph has something to be concerned about. His betrothed is pregnant, and he’s not the father. By every right he can cast Mary off in shame, but being a good man, he wants to put her away quietly. But the angel, tells Joseph: Go ahead, get married, because this child, which Mary carries, is from the Holy Spirit, and he is a sign to the world that God is with us. In this dream Joseph learns the true message of Christmas: God is present and at work redeeming the world, through a mother and her child. Yes, Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is truly one of redemption, but before Jesus can redeem the world, Joseph must first redeem him and his mother, by claiming this boy as his own and by giving him a name, so he can have a future. Only then can he claim us as his own.
There are also hints of this redemption story encrypted in Matthew’s genealogy. Genealogies are fun, especially when we find skeletons in the closet. Those skeletons can be just as exciting to us as the family’s shining stars. Over all, this list that links Joseph to David and Abraham is unremarkable, except for the four women it mentions. Yes, four important but unusual women, appear in Jesus’ genealogy. Although Matthew doesn’t say anything about them, if we know their stories then we get a fuller picture of this one whose birth we’re about to celebrate. One of these women, Tamar, seduces her father-in-law, Judah, because he failed to provide for her. Rahab is the Harlot from Jericho who saves the Hebrew spies, while Ruth is a Moabite woman, a foreigner, whose great-grandson is none other than David. Finally, there’s Uriah’s wife, who bears David a son. Each woman plays a significant role in the life of God’s people and each woman, as is true of Mary, is claimed by God for a purpose. Yes, the Christmas story is one of redemption, Had Joseph not claimed Jesus as his son, then Jesus would have been born with a stigma. Fortunately, Joseph listened to the angel and took away that stigma, even as Jesus takes away ours by claiming us as his own. The story of Christmas reminds us that God doesn’t stand above the fray, untouched by human emotion and tragedy, No, even though darkness may surround us, God is present as the light that cannot be extinguished.
2. THE WORD OF SALVATION
Matthew says very little about Jesus’ birth, but he does emphasize the naming of Jesus. Unlike today, names back then carried meaning. When we name our children we don’t think about what these names mean, we simply choose names that are either popular in our culture or represent a family relationship. Since most parents want to make sure that their kids don’t have odd names, unless, of course, they’re from Hollywood, so today we see a lot more Jacobs and Isabellas in the nation’s nurseries than we do Gertrudes or Homers. As all parents know, picking out a name for a child isn’t easy, but in this case the parents had help from an angel, who tells Joseph to name the child, who is to be born to Mary, Yeshua, which means “he will save his people from their sins.” By giving him this name, Joseph affirms God’s call on the life of Jesus, who will bring healing to a fragmented and broken world. Yes, in him the world’s pain, suffering, disappointment, and terror will be replaced with hope, peace, joy, and love. Because of him, the darkness that lays claim to our world will begin to dissipate and lose its hold on our lives. In giving him this name, Joseph is affirming God’s choice to redeem us, even as God chose to redeem and work through Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife, better known to us as Bathsheba.
3. EMMANUEL IS WITH US
As we consider Matthew’s presentation of the Christmas story, we find ourselves standing on a river bank, looking across the water, into the Promised Land. While we can see Christmas on the horizon, Advent isn’t finished with us yet. Remember the words of our opening hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God to appear. ” Is this not the cry of our hearts, that God’s realm would come in its fulness bringing to our land hope and peace and justice? If we’re willing to join with God in this work of redemption by living into the realm of God, we’ll be ready to join in singing the chorus of this hymn: “Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”
Yes, as the angel said to Joseph, you shall call him “Emmanuel” for God is with us, binding our wounds and setting us free. This hope is well stated, as the hymn continues: . “O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”
Although we live in a world torn by war and strife, our own lives need not be torn by bitterness and disappointment, for Emmanuel has come to “bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and fill the world with “heaven’s peace.” The choice is ours – will we accept this offer to live into God’s realm? Are we willing to cross the river into the Promised Land?
When we gather Friday evening to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel into our world, we will light the Christ Candle and gather joyfully to sing the songs of the season, before sharing together in the sign of Christ’s everlasting presence at the Lord’s Table. As we move through this week, may we prepare ourselves to hear a proud father named Joseph cry out to all who would listen: “It’s a boy.” And when we hear this proud father shout out in joy, we can offer our reply by singing: “come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the new-born King” (Angels, from the Realms of Glory, refrain).