Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
I saw a social media post the other day that kind of stuck with me, because of its melancholy tone. It was one of those post that is meant to be shared by people who agree with the sentiment, and it simply said “I miss the way Christmas felt when I was little.” I think that connects with a lot of people. For instance we can always find an emphasis on an “old fashioned Christmas.” We chase a nostalgic feeling we cannot quite define but know we want. To generate this we create traditions that we do year after year to get us in the Christmas Spirit. For some it is watching the same movies every year or baking the same kind of cookies. There is nothing wrong with those traditions, in fact family traditions have some real value. However, I am willing to bet at some point all of us have experienced a sense of disappointment when those valued traditions did not quite give us the sense of Christmas Spirit we were really hoping for. We undertake actions and try to get details perfect in order to get us in the Christmas Spirit, but sometimes these efforts do not pan out the way we want them to because we never actually stop to define what exactly we mean by “getting in the Christmas Spirit” beyond a vague sense of nostalgic comfort. When it comes to defining Christmas Spirit, I really appreciate how the finest philosophers of our time framed it. I am, of course, talking about the Muppets. In the 1992 movie A Muppet Christmas Carol, my second favorite Christmas movie, there is a beautiful song that answer the question wonderfully:
The song perfectly defines the feeling of the spirit of Christmas as the “summer of the soul in December.” The song puts forth that what is at the heart of Christmas spirit is love. What I think truly makes this song something special is that it goes one step further. The Christmas Spirit is not just love, it is the act of loving. The Muppets sang, “It’s all of the ways that we show love that feels like Christmas.” What create the Christmas spirit is not the act of receiving it is the act of giving love that creates the feeling of Christmas spirit. That idea is so on point, it is exactly what we find in scripture. After all, the whole reason for Christmas in the first place is to celebrate that God so loved the world that he GAVE his only son out of love. Love is universally understood to be a positive and good thing in the world, and it is. However, it is worth remembering that love does have an edge to it. Giving love requires intentional effort, it requires genuine risk, and it requires being sacrificial. This is also illustrated in the Christmas story, and we see it in the actions of Joseph. For us, Joseph shows just what it means to be in the Christmas spirit.
I think Joseph is a bit of an underrated character in the Christmas story. In some nativity sets it is really a flip of a coin between which figurine is supposed to be a shepherd and which one is supposed to be Joseph. It is easy to find images and songs that focus on Mary or the shepherds. Heck, even the wise men have a song dedicated to them in our hymnals, but finding anything that really focuses on Joseph requires going off the beaten track and getting a bit more obscure. I am not sure we always give Joseph the credit he deserves.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed. If you noticed in verse 19 of this morning’s scripture it referred to Joseph as Mary’s husband. This is because in that first century Jewish culture, being engaged was the first stage of marriage. Culturally, even though there had not yet been a ceremony Mary and Joseph already considered themselves husband and wife. In the gospels, this morning’s scripture from Matthew is the one that puts the most emphasis on Joseph. We are so used to seeing the people of the Christmas story displayed in still life statutes and paintings, that we forget they were people just as real as you and I. This means they had the emotions and feelings that we also experience. So can you imagine how the conversation went between Mary and Joseph went when she revealed to him that she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit? It was, no doubt, a hard conversation. We get an impression from this scripture that it did not go well, since Joseph’s reaction is to quietly divorce her.
Now at this point, one might be tempted to vilify Joseph a little bit for wanting to walk out on Mary or not have faith in her story, but the scripture does the exact opposite. It states “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” The scripture intentionally lifts up Joseph as a righteous man. A righteous person is one who seeks to follow God, and for a first century Jew that meant following God’s law in the Torah. In cases of adultery, which Joseph clearly believed this was, the law commanded that he divorce her. Joseph chose to be merciful in following the law though. He could have initiated very public divorce proceedings. In this case, the first century law and culture would have been on Joseph’s side. If he went this route it would have been an act that brought complete humiliation and shame upon Mary. Upon learning his betrothed was pregnant it is possible that Joseph felt betrayed, but instead of claiming revenge, he opted to follow the law in the way that would best preserve Mary’s dignity by divorcing her quietly. It is because of this dedication to following God, not just the letter of God’s commands, but the heart of God’s commands is why God the Father chose Joseph to be the adopted father of God the Son.
Once God sent an angel to clear things up for Joseph, he continues to do the righteous thing and he does what the Lord had commanded. However, this decision came with personal cost. The culture of the Ancient Middle East, much like to day still, places a high cultural value on the concepts of honor and shame. In staying with Mary, Joseph chose to give up much honor and take on a lot of shame in their local community. Some of you are aware of how fast news, rumors and gossip can spread in a small town. Nazareth was a small town where everyone knew everyone else. Given human nature I am sure small towns were the same way then as they are now. Joseph and Mary gave the town a lot to talk about. For Joseph, there were only two options in the eyes of the community. Mary being pregnant meant that he either violated the stipulations of the betrothal or he was the husband of an adulteress. Either event, was a very shameful one for Joseph. In a society where the only commodity one has is their honor, Joseph had to pay a very high price. This is how Joseph embodies the idea of Christmas Spirit. Because he was righteous he was loving, and doing the loving thing had a very real cost for him. If we continue the story, we know that Joseph had more to give, as he had to take his family and spend several years living among strangers in Egypt before coming home.
As I mentioned earlier, there are not very many songs about Joseph, especially well known ones. Several years ago now though singer/songwriter Todd Agnew tried to give voice to Joseph. He wrote a Christmas song from Joseph’s perspective called “This is all I have to give.” In the song, Todd Agnew, gives Joseph these words: “ This is all I have to give, You can share my home and bear my name, but this is not how you should live, The son of God has become the son of man, the glory of God taking the form of man, May the grace of God shine upon this man, ’cause this is all I have to give.” As the Muppets taught us the secret of Christmas Spirit is the act of giving love. Joseph shows us how to do it. He gave all he had to give. It was an act of obedience to God, but giving that much must be an act of love.
Considering Joseph’s part in the Christmas story should also cause us to consider what is it we have to give. Joseph sacrificed a lot to support and invest in Jesus. As an act of obedience and love Joseph gave up his honor and more for the Christ child. To honor and love Jesus, what are we willing to give? I am convinced that finding our answer to this question is the key to truly getting caught up in the Christmas Spirit. Methodist Pastor Mike Slaughter also wrote about this in his book “Christmas is Not Your Birthday”. Slaughter wrote: For our lives to be meaningful . . .we need to give them away. Meaning is not found in personal comfort and material luxuries. So, it should be no surprise that a meaningful Christmas is not found in mindless spending, eating, and stress. Rather, we find meaning when we give sacrificially to those in need, because by doing so, we are giving to Jesus himself. It is his birthday after all!”
At this point, we are only ten days away from Christmas morning. If you find yourself in a bit of a slump this year, lacking the Christmas Spirit then may I suggest you might be looking for it in the wrong places? We are not going to find the Christmas spirit in cookies or wrapping paper or nutcrackers. Where we will find the Christmas spirit is when we give food to the hungry. We will find the Christmas spirit when we give clothes to the cold and poor. We will find the Christmas spirit when we tend the hurts of the abused and used. We will find the Christmas spirit when we enable the dreams of the forgotten and the marginalized. We will find the Christmas Spirit when we give ourselves away for the sake of God’s kingdom. Christmas is truly a season of giving, and giving is crucial to the Christmas spirit
Giving is a big part of the Christmas spirit, but we can get so caught up in the idea of giving, that we forget why we are giving. The Christmas Spirit is giving out of love, it is giving sacrificially and it is giving even when there is a risk. This is what Joseph showed us with his total commitment. There are a number of ways we can give. The way we give sacrificially on Christmas can be out of our resources, as we provide for the material needs of others. However, we can also give with our time. We can volunteer to help others. We can then take a step further and we can give with our talents, so that others can benefit from our involvement in their lives.
So may you look for the Christmas Spirit in all of the right places. Joseph shows us that the spirit of Christmas should be about what we give, not what we get. May we follow that example. May we do as God has commanded us and may we give in love. Doing this will put us in the Christmas Spirit, but hopefully it will go further. Going back to the song from the Muppet’s Christmas Carol one of the other lines that is sung is It is the season of the heart
“A special time of caring The ways of love made clear. It is the season of the spirit
The message, if we hear it is make it last all year.” As followers of Jesus Christ this is worth remembering, because our desire to give should last for more than just one month a year. May we will be willing to give out of love to meet the needs of others. If we are consistent in this, then not only will we have Christmas spirit, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit all year. Then wherever we are and wherever we go, it will feel like Christmas.