Christmas Isn't Cancelled | The Purpose of Christmas
Well, Christmas is now less than two weeks away. And most years, we’d know exactly what the next couple of weeks would be like. In the two weeks leading up to Christmas, we’d be finalizing plans with our family. We’d talk about who was bringing what to Christmas dinner. Or who was staying overnight and where they would sleep. Or we’d be finishing up the last of our Christmas shopping, making sure that we had time to get every present wrapped before we hit the road on Christmas Day.
But, like we’ve been talking about over the last couple of weeks, this Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.
This Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.
COVID-19 is still exponentially spreading across our country and across our state. In the first week of December, there were nearly 1.5 million people who tested positive for COVID-19 in our country and more than 25,000 of those people are right here in Kentucky. And if the positive cases weren’t bad enough, we’ve also seen COVID-19 contribute to the deaths of over 15,000 Americans and 200 Kentuckians in that same period of time.
And because of this surge in the spread of this novel and potentially deadly virus, the CDC began recommending that we all postpone our holiday traveling plan back on December 2. So, over the next couple of weeks, instead of finalizing plans to see our family...we’re all trying to figure out if we can actually celebrate Christmas without seeing our loved ones this year. And instead of finishing up our Christmas shopping, we’re trying to figure out if we can have everyone open their presents on Zoom. Instead of getting ready for our regular Christmas celebrations, we’re trying to figure out if we’re even going to be able to celebrate Christmas this year.
And since we’re all wondering about how we can celebrate Christmas this year, we’ve been trying to remind you every Sunday that even though this Christmas isn’t going to be normal, Christmas isn’t canceled.
Christmas isn't canceled.
Even if we can’t celebrate Christmas the way that we’re used to, Christmas isn’t canceled. Even if we have to change all of our typical plans, Christmas isn’t canceled. Even if we can’t see any of our family and friends, Christmas isn’t canceled.
And Christmas isn’t canceled because Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate, Christmas is about who we celebrate.
Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate, Christmas is about who we celebrate.
So this Christmas, instead of wondering and worrying about how we can celebrate Christmas, I’ve been talking about who we celebrate at Christmas. And we’ve been doing this by taking a closer look at some of the stories that take place in the lead up to Jesus’s birth.
And the story that we’re going to be looking at today comes from the book of Matthew. And, just as a reminder for you, the book of Matthew is an account of the life of Jesus. So in the book of Matthew, we’ll find stories about Jesus’ life, his ministry, his miracles, as well as his crucifixion and resurrection. But right now, we're focusing on the story of Jesus’s birth and today we’re going to be looking at the part about the man who will be Jesus’s earthly father, a man named Joseph.
But before we get into Joseph’s story, I want to try to help you see this story through his eyes. And to help us do that, I have a question I want to ask you. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? And, if you’re worshiping with us on Facebook or YouTube right now, why don’t you go ahead and share your answer in the comments thread. Tell us, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Now, this is one of the quintessential questions that we all get asked almost as soon as we start speaking in sentences...and sometimes even earlier. Like I once heard about a little boy named Thomas who told his mommy that he wanted to be an “oooh oooh ahhh ahhh ahhh” – which was his way of saying monkey, in case you were wondering – before he could really talk at all. And it’s a question that doesn’t necessarily get easier to answer as you get older. The truth is that the average American will change jobs between ten and fifteen times during their career.
And while a child's answer to this question can range from silly (like when a 7-year-old boy named Jamie told his parents that he wanted to be a ninja chef), to sensible (like when a 3-year-old named Dylan said that she wanted to be a “big girl” when she grew up), to sentimental (like when another 3-year-old named Jamie said that he wanted to be a daddy); there are a handful of answers to this question that would undoubtedly pop up on every playground in America. It seems that no matter where you go in this country, there are at least a few things that every kid wants to be when they grow up.
Like being a fireman. Because from a kid's perspective being a fireman is pretty awesome. I mean, you get to hang out all day in a clubhouse with all your buddies and a cool Dalmatian. And when you need to go downstairs, you get to slide down a pole. And you get to play with the most powerful squirt gun in the world, which never needs to be refilled. When you throw in the occasional siren, a fire station is only a ball pit away from being like Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups.
Or like being a princess. Which according to one 6-year-old girl means, “You get to wear pretty dresses and you get to ride ponies and everyone calls you “Your Highness” and you get to eat cake all the time and you get to live in a castle where no one ever tells you to make your bed.”
Or like being a pilot--which basically includes the two most important things any child looks for in a job: a big machine and flying. Plus, if we've learned anything from TV and movies, flying a plane involves a lot of pushing buttons and flipping switches; which makes being a pilot kind of like going to an arcade with wings.
Or like being an astronaut. Which kids either see as their chance to be a Jedi and show off their lightsaber skills or as the chance to float around in anti-gravity doing somersaults while sucking down pouches of freeze-dried ice cream and Tang. And that's the kind of nutrition every astronaut needs when they're jumping around on the moon like it's a giant bouncy house.
But even if these are the kinds of things that kids dream about becoming when they grow up today, these aren’t the things that kids dreamt of growing up to be when Joseph was a kid. For any little boy who grew up in Israel 2,000 years ago, there was only one thing they all wished they could be when they grew up...and that’s the Messiah.
Why? Because these little boys had been told since they were in the womb that the messiah would be a great political leader, straight from the lineage of Israel's greatest king: David. The messiah would be well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments. He would be a military leader, who would win great battles for Israel. And he would be a great judge, someone who made righteous decisions. Essentially, growing up to be the Messiah would be like growing up to be Superman and the President of the United States all rolled into one...and that would be pretty cool.
But for most of the little boys in Israel, the hope of becoming the messiah was little more than the innocent dreams of a child. But for a kid who grew up in the hometown of David, someone whose family could trace their ancestry back to the king, these weren't just dreams. Becoming the messiah actually seemed like it could come true.
You see, it's been said amongst Jews that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the messiah...if only the timing is right. And in the Old Testament book of Micah, the prophet Micah tells us exactly where the messiah will come from when it says:
“As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.”
And Joseph met these criteria. Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem. Joseph was a descendant of King David. And as a child, Joseph couldn't help but imagine what it would be like to be the messiah...what it would mean to follow in the footsteps of King David.
So Joseph must have driven his mother nuts, running around the house swinging a slingshot above his head pretending to be David slaying the giant Goliath with nothing but a slingshot and a few stones. And whenever Joseph got together with his brothers or cousins, they must have engaged in epic imaginary wars where each boy took turns pretending to be the king defeating the Philistines.
But eventually, even the most passionate dreams of our childhood give way to the reality of being an adult. No matter how cool a job may have seemed as a child, there just aren’t too many of us grow who actually grow up to become princesses or pilots. So instead of astronauts, we become accountants. Instead of firemen, we end up working for the federal government.
And the same thing would’ve happened to Joseph. Eventually, the dream that he might be the chosen one of God, gave way to the reality that he was a carpenter's son. So instead of taking up a sword to lead Israel against their enemies, Joseph took up a saw and built the tables Israelites would share with their friends.
But, even though Joseph eventually realized he wouldn’t be the long-awaited messiah, Joseph would’ve still expected to live a good life. He would’ve dreamt about having a good job, a wife, and kids. And when we first meet Joseph in Matthew chapter 1, he is well on his way to living out this new dream. Joseph was engaged to be married, with dreams of starting his family. But Joseph was about to learn something big about following God.
So let’s take a look at Joseph’s story. It’s found in Matthew 1, and we’ll start reading in verse 18. Matthew writes:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
Matthew 1:18-19 (Common English Bible)
Since we know how this story goes, it's hard for us to put ourselves in Joseph's place...but try to do just that. Try to imagine what it would be like to go visit your fiance when you hadn't seen each other in weeks or maybe even months. As you arrive at their door, a million thoughts are running through your mind about how you'll spend your time together. Maybe you'll head out for dinner and a movie. Maybe you've planned a picnic at your favorite spot. Maybe you just want to sit at home on the couch next to each other.
But as soon as the door opens, all of your plans go flying out the window. This moment that you had been dreaming of for weeks has turned into a nightmare in an instant. And this person, who only moments ago you desperately wanted to spend the rest of your life with, has done something so awful you can't even look at them.
That's the position Joseph finds himself in. When he finds out that Mary is pregnant, he doesn't automatically assume that she is carrying the child of God...he assumes that she's been unfaithful to him before they even said their “I do's.”
And rather than waiting for an explanation, or even attempting to believe that his fiance was carrying the son of God, I imagine that Joseph stormed off; determined he would never see this woman again. And the truth is, he didn't have to ever see Mary again. According to the law, Joseph could have turned Mary in, and she would’ve been killed for getting pregnant before she was married.
But that’s not what Joseph does. No, Joseph still cared about Mary and he couldn't stand to see her harmed...regardless of how badly she had hurt him. So instead of demanding justice–which the law said was Mary's life–Joseph decided to be gracious. He decided to end their engagement quietly.
But that didn't mean the matter was settled. As a matter of fact, by ending their engagement instead of turning her over to the law, Joseph was actually claiming responsibility in the matter. Everyone would believe that Joseph was the one who got Mary pregnant before their wedding day, even though he didn’t. And Joseph would be left to pay the price for it. He would still have to pay the dowry he had agreed upon with Mary's father. Plus he would have to pay a penalty for what he had done. But Joseph had made up his mind, and he was willing to pay this price.
But that didn't make what he was going through any easier. When he showed up to visit Mary that day, he felt like he was part of a family, but, when he left, he felt alone in the world. When he showed up, he felt overwhelming love, but now he felt betrayed. When he showed up, he thought he knew who Mary was, but now he could only think of the accusations against her. When he showed up he was overcome with joy, but as he left he was tormented by his pain.
In a matter of moments, Joseph went from the highest high to the lowest low and, along the way, Joseph felt the full weight of all that is wrong with this world.
You've probably been there, too. In one moment you were walking down the aisle to marry the person of your dreams and in the next you found yourself filing for a divorce. In one moment you felt strong enough to leap tall buildings and in the next you felt too feeble to safely walk downstairs. In one moment you felt better than you've ever felt in your life and in the next moment you hear dreaded words like cancer or dementia. In one moment you were preparing for a huge holiday celebration and in the next moment COVID-19 forces you to cancel your plans.
We've all been there. We've all felt alone. We've all felt betrayed. We've all felt pain. But Joseph's story doesn't end with his pain. For, you see, even in the midst of the lowest point of Joseph's life...God was still there, God was still at work. As Matthew goes on to tell us:
20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.
Matthew 1:20-24 (Common English Bible)
Do you see what's happening here? Adam Hamilton explains it well in his book The Journey: Walking Toward Bethlehem when he writes:
“At that very moment when Joseph felt his lowest, God was at work in Mary's womb, doing the greatest thing God has done since the creation of the human race. God was orchestrating the birth of a Savior...Something amazing was about to happen, but Joseph could not see this yet.”
In the midst of Joseph's pain and suffering, God was becoming human. And as a human God would be able to experience the same type of pain Joseph must have felt when he learned about Mary's pregnancy. And as the early church leader, Gregory of Nazianzus put it, “That which was not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.”
“That which was not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.”
Or to put it another way, when God became human, God became capable of understanding our pain and our suffering. God became capable of knowing how bad it hurts to be betrayed. God became capable of knowing what it means to be isolated and alone. So Christmas tells us that God became one of us.
Christmas tells us that God became one of us.
And because God knows the pain that Joseph felt, and because God knows the pain that you and I endure every day, God is able to help us through it. But what awaits us on the other side of our suffering? Well, Joseph found out when that angel appeared to him. On the other side of his suffering, there was new life and a new purpose. The same is true for us.
So this Christmas, let us begin to understand what it really means to find that baby in a manger. Because it's about so much more than a simple nativity scene. It's about God becoming one of us, to heal us of our pain, and to save us from the brokenness of this world. And may we realize that the greatest gift we can give this Christmas season is the gift of helping others through their struggles, helping them find new life and a new purpose. After all, that is the purpose of Christmas.