When I go to the movie theater, Redbox, Netflix, Amazon, or other streaming sites to find a movie, I prefer something that makes me laugh, lifts me up, or makes me think. I don’t like scary movies or dark films; for me, there’s too much darkness in the world for me to invest in a couple of hours of more darkness.
I like to laugh. I enjoy romantic comedies, now called “rom coms.” Some of my favorites are Notting Hill and When Harry Met Sally. The one-liners in these flicks get repeated over and over, even though these movies were released 18 and 28 years ago. I love those movies, because they make me laugh every time I watch them. At this time of year, many people watch and re-watch While You Were Sleeping, Love Actually, or The Holiday. Some watch them for the humor, but many watch them to feel good about the love story.
Today, I’d like to focus on some Christmas love stories, which always make me feel good. And because it is Christmas Eve, I start with how Joseph loved Mary.
In biblical times, many marriages were arranged. We don’t know for sure how Joseph and Mary met. Both lived in Nazareth. We know that Mary was a teen and that Joseph was older. We know more about Joseph from Matthew 1 than from the passage I read earlier from Luke. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, which is similar to engagement. A wedding date was on the calendar, but a problem emerged for Joseph: Mary was pregnant, and he knew the baby wasn’t his. He found himself in a predicament: he had lost trust in the one he thought he was going to marry.
Joseph knew that if Mary’s pregnancy became public, if “the wrong people” heard this news, she could be stoned to death. He didn’t want any harm to come to her. Though he was angry and upset, frustrated and bewildered, Joseph still cared deeply about his fiancée, so he chose another route: he decided to divorce her privately. He could have divorce papers written up, pay a fee, and the betrothal would be nullified. Joseph must have agonized over this decision, but in the end, this was the best course of action. He could divorce her privately, and move on with his life.
Nowhere in Matthew’s rendition do we find the phrase, “Joseph loved Mary.” It’s not there. I think that the marriage was arranged, but I also think that there was a relationship. Matthew recorded that Joseph was a righteous man; he was known for wanting to do the right thing, but I think his decision to divorce Mary quietly, privately was more than just an ethical dilemma. I think that Joseph loved Mary; I think he had an idea of how his life would unfold: that they would be married and then they would have children; that he would work as a carpenter, probably like his father, that his sons would learn carpentry as other sons learned the trades of their fathers. All the plans of his future came crashing down when he learned that Mary was pregnant. So he decided to solve the problem with the least harm to his fiancée; he decided to divorce her privately.
But God had other plans. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The angel gave Joseph three things to do: “Do not be afraid; take Mary as your wife; name the child Jesus.” And when Joseph woke up, he rubbed his eyes, found a way to put his fear aside, married Mary, and then when she had the baby, Joseph named him Jesus. I think that Joseph loved Mary; even though neither Matthew nor Luke have the phrase, “Joseph loved Mary,” I think he did. I think he gladly followed the angel’s directive: taking Mary as his wife allowed him to move forward with how he had wanted his life to unfold. This is a love story.
Last week, I focused on the angelic appearance to Mary; many call it “The Annunciation,” which is another word for announcement. Mary was simply minding her own business, devoutly following God, planning for her future with her fiancée Joseph, and an angel appeared out of nowhere which startled her. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she should not be afraid for she had found favor with God. God had chosen her to be the mother of the Son of God, who was to be named Jesus. The angel offered a description which mirrored what Mary had learned of the role and duties of the expected Messiah. Even as a teenager, Mary understood how babies were made. The angelic announcement didn’t make sense to her, so she asked, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”
The angel explained that this baby would be a miraculous baby, that the Holy Spirit would make sure she was pregnant and that this son would be fully divine and fully human. Gabriel then told Mary that her older cousin Elizabeth, who could not have children, was also six months pregnant, because nothing will be impossible with God. And Mary consented to become the mother of the Son of God. Nowhere in Luke’s rendition do we find the phrase, “Mary loved Joseph.” It’s not there. But I do think that Mary loved Joseph. This is a love story.
Joseph was a descendant of the great King David. Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth of Galilee, but David was from Bethlehem of Judea. Toward the end of her pregnancy, Caesar Augustus, Emperor of the Roman Empire, decreed that a census be taken; this was quite an undertaking given the vastness of the Roman Empire. People had to go to the town of their ancestry.
In 1995, we were living in Kenbridge, Virginia, a small town in the middle of nowhere. We had to travel 65 miles to a hospital for our son Samuel to be born, and Jennifer and I made it to the hospital in about an hour. Joseph and Mary had a much longer trip.
Joseph had to take Mary who was great with child from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which was an 80-mile route if they traveled directly. We don’t know if they bypassed Samaria or not. We don’t know if they traveled by foot or on a donkey. The trip would’ve taken a minimum of four days and maybe as many as ten days. The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was difficult, because they traveled through the hill country; a pregnant woman walking the hills or riding a donkey had to have been challenging.
Luke recorded that while they were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver. We don’t know if Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for a day or a week prior to Jesus’ birth, but we do know that Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a feeding trough. Nothing is mentioned of an innkeeper, only that there was no room in the inn.
Luke then shifted the setting from manger-side to a field outside of Bethlehem. Shepherds were staring at the night-time sky, maybe sittingaround a campfire, and out of nowhere an angel appeared. The contrast of its brightness against the backdrop of the night-time sky was significant. The shepherds were scared to death!
So the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, because I have great news for everyone: today in Bethlehem a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord has been born to YOU, and here’s how YOU will know where to look: the baby will be wrapped in strips of cloth and will be lying in a manger.” And then the black night-time sky was filled with angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom He favors.” The shepherds were finally finding favor with God.
The story of the shepherds revealed something about God which became revolutionary to the non-Jews. Remember that Luke was writing to a Gentile audience. Shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of the Messiah, yet shepherds found themselves on the bottom rung of the social and religious ladder. They were dirty; they couldn’t participate in worship, because they were unclean. They had to handle dead animals; the most religiously orthodox of the day had nothing to do with the lowly, dirty shepherds.
Yet God chose them to be the first to hear the good news; people who were considered unacceptable were told by angels that they had found favor with God. This baby Messiah was born for them! They were not accustomed to being chosen by God; instead God’s followers generally shunned them and kept them out of important religious services. But the angels, God’s messengers, said that they were being included. And while the initial announcement came from one angel, a heavenly army of angels emphatically assured them that they had been favored by God. Being chosen to receive this news, finding favor, learning that the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord had been born for them was quite an indicator that they were loved by God. This really is a love story.
With all the hustle and bustle of this season, unfortunately many see Christmas as a chore rather than a love story. This week I was waiting in line at a local store, and a lady told the cashier, “I just can’t wait until Christmas is over.” I became sad thinking that this woman has missed the point; I then felt a bit of conviction because my focus this month hasn’t always been solely on the birth of Jesus.
Doing all the work for our Open House, attending Christmas parties, planning for family gatherings, buying and wrapping presents at times crowded out the reason of the season, “the why” of the day. Most, maybe all of us, at some point have become tangled in the tinsel of a busy schedule and a Christmas season that is quite commercialized.
God chose Mary, and God’s messenger spoke to Joseph in a dream. God used a Roman Emperor, and then God showed favor to those who were out of favor with the religious of the day. God came to earth, poured into the flesh of an infant, not only for the lowly, dirty shepherds, but also for all of us. The love story continues every day in understanding that love came down at Christmas, that God loved us enough to send Jesus into this world. Had this Savior, this Messiah, this Lord been only for certain people, he would have been born in a palace, but he was laid in a manger. Had this Savior, this Messiah, this Lord been accessible by only the wealthy, the announcement would have been made to the aristocracy, but instead God’s messengers told the lowly shepherds.
This love has continued for two millennia; God continues to love all of us, individually. We don’t need to have angels appear out of thin air; we don’t have to have messengers appear to us in our dreams. We have the promise of Emmanuel, God always with us, and this God will also always love us.
While the phrases “Joseph loved Mary” or “Mary loved Joseph” are not in the Bible, we can read in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should perish but have everlasting life.” The love shown by God is more than just words in the Bible. Love is more than a feeling; love is an action. Joseph showed his love for Mary; Mary showed her love for Joseph. God showed love for shepherds; God continues to show love for us. God has many character traits, but chief among those is love; God is love. We experience love not because of words but because of actions. And that is why we can celebrate the birth of Jesus: because we have experienced God’s love.
At the end of the day, Christmas is a love story: Jesus was born because God loves us so very much.
Have you experienced this love of God? If not, say yes to a relationship with Jesus and accept this love of God as the best Christmas gift ever. Never forget: God loves you. AMEN.