That’s It! (Fourth Sunday in Advent)

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So, that’s it!  That’s all there is.  The Gospel reading I just read is the entirety of Matthew’s Christmas story.  Mary is found to be with child.  In retrospect, the Gospel writer notes that this pregnancy was through the power of the Holy Spirit, but the writer never tells us who clued Mary in on this.  Yet Joseph marries her anyway, and after the baby is born, he names him Jesus.  That’s it.

There is no great lead-in to the story.  Instead, there’s a long genealogy, with names so hard to pronounce that not even pastors are expected to read them out loud!  And after this story, the next thing – the wise guys following the star to find Jesus – likely doesn’t happen until two years later.

It just seems like there should be more here!  After all, this is the birth of the Savior of the world.  And Jesus is the focus of Matthew’s whole story!  Honestly, if on Saturday I were to read this story as our Christmas Eve Gospel, you’d all feel cheated and wonder what was wrong with me!

After all, Luke’s story is much more interesting.  It’s got shepherds and sheep.  It’s got angelic choirs.  It’s got an interesting story line about traveling in a time of social and political upheaval, and the drama of figuring out how to find a place to stay when Mary is about to give birth.

But there’s none of that in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus is born.  It just happens without any hoopla.  And except for Mary and Joseph, not even shepherds find out that anything big and momentous has happened for years to come. And maybe that’s the point. 

For most of us, Christmas is supposed to be a big, huge deal.  Of course, it’s a major festival on the church calendar, but even for totally secular people, Christmas is a time of big parties, huge meals and also huge expectations that this should be “the most wonderful time of the year.”  We often expect big things.  Marketers tell us we should buy big things!  And if we’re just not into all the big hoopla that surrounds Christmas, we often feel like there must be something wrong with us.

But the fact is that, even in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus came into the world – when this great, momentous thing happened – almost nobody noticed.  And for years, nothing seemed different.  Life went on, and Jesus grew up.  God was doing a new and transformative thing, but there was no hoopla.  There were no after Christmas sales.  But God was doing a new thing in the life of the world nonetheless.

And so maybe Matthew’s Christmas story – coming as it does on the Fourth Sunday in Advent before the real hoopla begins – is a helpful corrective.  And that’s because Matthew’s story reminds us that God often works in our lives in ways that don’t seem big and flashy; in ways that nobody else notices; and in ways that don’t, at first, seem to be a big deal to us either.

Matthew’s Christmas story can perhaps serve as a helpful corrective for us in a Christmas season that often seems consumed by the hoopla.  For it’s more often the case that, like Joseph, recognizing and living into the new and transformative things God is doing in our lives is found through:

  • The ordinary things going on in our day to day lives, that really nobody else notices – we sometimes read this story and think, “well, this isn’t ordinary because Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit”!  And that’s true, but nobody else thought that at the time; and Joseph’s whole plan of action was to make sure there was no “public disgrace”- that is, that there would be no hoopla! And even afterwards, living into what God was doing was often done by just doing the daily tasks of living and raising Jesus…
  • Being open to God’s guidance and direction through means other than choirs of angels – Joseph just had a dream.  How did he know that this was really an angel in the dream and not his own subconscious?  It had to have felt different than just an ordinary dream.  And while God can use dreams to speak to people, sometimes the direction and guidance comes through a feeling, an emotional nudge or a thought you just can’t shake.  Is that God trying to tell you something or show you a new direction?  It’s a question Joseph was willing to ask and entertain, and that’s one of the things this story calls us to do as well…
  • Patiently waiting to see what’s next – the next thing in Matthew’s story doesn’t happen for probably 2 years.  But even in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus is born (and Mary and Joseph make a quick stop in Jerusalem on the way home), the next thing doesn’t happen for 12 years!  Part of the Christmas story is recognizing that God is in our lives for the long-term, and so we also shouldn’t be looking for quick and neat answers.  Instead, we should constantly be open to watching for what’s next, even when it takes a while…

So, before the Christmas hoopla really gets into full swing, Matthew reminds us that the importance of God’s story lies not in big and flashy drama that surrounds so much of our Christmases and so much of our lives.

Instead, the new and transformative work of God in our lives often comes quietly and without fanfare.  And Matthew’s Christmas story calls us to look for God’s work in the quiet and ordinary things happening in our day to day lives.  Matthew’s Christmas story invites us to consider how God may be directing us through subtle things like a gut feeling or the casual conversation we have with a friend.  And perhaps most of all, Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that God’s transformative and redeeming work is still going on in our lives, even when all the hoopla is over.