No Exchange Necessary
I am a big fan of Joseph. Not so much the Joseph with the coat of many colors from Genesis, but the Joseph we meet in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Little is said about this Joseph in Scripture, but what is said makes me a fan. I imagine him to be a person who listens first and then speaks, a person who thinks carefully before he decides on anything, a person who genuinely cares even when caring is costly.
Matthew is obviously a fan of Joseph too. The word he uses to describe Joseph is “righteous.” Joseph is not “self-righteous,” thinking he is smarter, wiser, better, holier than anyone else. No, Matthew says Joseph is “righteous” – a person who wants more than anything else to do the right thing. He is a person who, even before he has a vision from God, is prepared to treat Mary in a far more compassionate way than is expected by law.
When Joseph wakes from his divine dream, he does not argue biology with God; he accepts the news and does what he is told to do. He names the child as instructed, loves him as his own, takes him to the synagogue each Sabbath, and teaches Jesus the skills of carpentry. Joseph awakes and does the right thing because he believes the promise of God in his dream. He awakes knowing that “God with us” is about to be born in the world and he has been chosen by God to care for the promised “God with us” even before he is born.
The late William Sloane Coffin was pastor of one of the most prominent churches in our land, Riverside Church in New York City. His position, though, did not spare him a parent’s greatest pain. His son, Alex, who had gone to one too many holiday parties drove into Boston Harbor one night and died.
In a Christmas sermon delivered two years after Alex’s death, Coffin writes: “Two years ago in the early morning hours when I received word that my son had been killed, friends . . . came to my apartment. I can hardly remember a word of what was said, but I’ll never forget the facial expressions. I’ll never forget the arms around me. The fact that friends came at all at four in the morning helped prevent despair – not from seeping, but from flooding my soul, drowning me in grief.”
Coffin continues, “And that is exactly the way it is with Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’ This child, whose birth we celebrate two days from now, is not a memory but a presence, a constant caring presence of unbelievable sensitivity. Only of Jesus can you say: ‘He knows exactly what I am going through.’ As the Spiritual claims, ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus – Glory, Hallelujah.’
“Christ is always with you – as he was with me the days and months following that worst of nights – not necessarily giving advice, nor even saying a word; not easing the pain so much as improving the quality of the suffering. Christ, by his constant, caring presence brings a touch of heavenly joy to every earthly sorrow.” (Collected Sermon, p. 220).
What a fabulous sentence! “Christ, by his constant, caring presence brings a touch of heavenly joy to every earthly sorrow.” The real Christmas story is not so much about angels singing glad songs to poor peasants or magi stalking a star to a stable. The real Christmas story is about doing the righteous thing that Joseph did and Mary did, embracing promises about which we can only finally trust to be true.
The real Christmas story is captured in three words spoken to Joseph in a dream: “God with us.” That promise is about to take flesh in Bethlehem. “God with us” even when we fail to be with those who need us. “God with us” when we are scared to death what the tests will reveal. “God with us” when we are sitting across from that empty chair, never thinking we could feel so alone. “God with us” when our heart is about to explode with pride as she takes that first step or boards that first school bus or accepts that first offer letter.
The one about whom the angels serenade is “God with us” and not just with us, but with this world that God so loves, with Haitians wondering when natural disaster, governmental chaos, and international exploitation will ever stop raking their land and stealing their future. God is with those who are victims of Israeli abuse of power in the walled-off city of Bethlehem today, sadly, by the very ones who in earlier years were victims of Nazi abuse of power. God is with those whose voices will not be finally silenced, voices that refuse to cede tomorrow to the relentless scourge of gun violence. God is with those who are telling the whole American story which includes the story of human trafficking and slavery, even if we wish to pretend those realities never happened. God is with those navigating the maze of poverty, who are trying to connect with someone who will listen to their story and then actually care.
The late American physician, Paul Farmer spent the majority of his life living with and working for an equitable health system in Haiti. It is a daunting task and one that most people would finally abandon. Not Paul. Like Joseph, Paul was a righteous man, a person guided by a vision that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Christmas promise. He writes: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
On a night before the first Christmas, Joseph heard the promise of Emmanuel, God-with-us, a promise that means that there is no life that matters less, no life that does not matter to God, and that includes your life and my life. “To look at the last great self-portraits of Rembrandt or to read Pascal or hear Bach's B-minor Mass is to know beyond the need for further evidence that if God is anywhere, [God] he is with them,” writes Frederick Buechner, “just as [God] is also with the man behind the meat counter, the woman who scrubs floors at Roosevelt Memorial, the high school math teacher who explains fractions to the bewildered child. And the step from ‘God with them’ to Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, may not be as great as it seems. What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.” [from A Room Called Remember]
“The wild hope of Christmas” is that God’s promise to us, the Christmas promise of Emmanuel, is a promise to which we awake each morning and by which we can sleep in peace each night and because of which we can treat each other, even the orneriest among us, with respect and dignity and love each day.
So, no matter what your circumstance today, and no matter where you wake next Sunday, Christmas morning, there will be at least one present waiting for you to open. It is the Christmas present of Emmanuel, “God with us” and it is a present that you will want to open first, a present that you will never want to exchange.