We have now entered the Christmas season. Despite COVID-19 virus, the social distancing regulations, and the color-coded zones established by NY State, the calendar relentlessly churns forward toward Christmas Day. Interestingly enough, Christmas day is celebrated by the overwhelming majority of countries across the world. Of the 195 countries in the world, 160 countries have some form of Christmas celebration. Among those nations there are some common traditions and some uncommon practices. A few of the uncommon practices include one from Caracas, Venezuela, where it is the custom to travel to church on Christmas Eve wearing roller skates. In the Ukraine, people add artificial spider webs to their tree decorations. In Spain, it is customary to wear red underwear on Christmas Eve. This is just a sampling of the unusual ways Christmas is celebrated across the world.
A common tradition is putting lights on the Christmas tree. For many of us, putting up the lights can be a stressful event. I read an article about reducing the stress of lighting the tree. A British company, Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job—a Christmas Light Untangler. The job involved 36-hour-a-week with the principle duty being to staff and manage the Christmas Lights Detangling stand. Detangling Christmas lights seems like a great service.
It would also be a good service to the Christian community if we detangled the Biblical story of Jesus from the traditions, customs, and folklore about Jesus birth. Detangling the story of Jesus’ birth helps us understand the true message of Christ from the glitter, tinsel, and wrapping paper that symbolizes Christmas.
I would like us to begin our work at the detangling stand by reading from today’s New Testament reading found in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew. The Bible says, “16 Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16). Then Matthew wrote, “18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (Matthew 1:18a). The first truth we learn from Matthew was that Jesus was the Messiah. What did Messiah mean to the people of Israel?
The Messiah had been promised to Israel by God through the prophets. The Messiah was believed to be a coming king of Israel anointed by God. There were two schools of thought about the Messiah. One group believed the Messiah “king” would be a political leader; a ruler, visible and powerful, and victorious for Israel. On the other hand, there were those who hoped the Messiah would be sent from heaven, part human, part divine, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth. Both groups believed that when the Messiah came, it was the beginning of the end of times.
The promise of a Messiah was found in passages from the Books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi, just to name a few. It had been over 400 years since God spoke about the Messiah making the Messiah’s coming long expected. Even the Romans wrote of an expectation of a king coming from Judea. People were waiting for their version of the king to come.
As we untangle Christmas then, we should see the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, as the answer to prayer and the answer to promises made by God. We should also see Jesus as king, not as a political leader, but as one who invites us to be led by him into God’s kingdom. Christmas Day then should be a celebration of our place in God’s kingdom.
As we look further in verse 16, we notice that Jesus’ mother was Mary, but the name of Jesus’ father was omitted. Matthew was signaling to his readers that Jesus did not have an earthly biological father. Matthew would explain the truth about Jesus’ father a little later but he wanted his readers to wonder, who is the Dad? The second thing we learn was that Jesus was born. Jesus was not created out of thin air. He did not descend from heaven in bodily form. Matthew wrote Jesus was born of Mary. This means Jesus, the Messiah, the king, was fully human. Jesus had the customary ten fingers and ten toes evenly divided over two hands and two feet. Jesus was physically helpless and as dependent upon his mother as any other infant. Jesus’ mother would have wrapped him tight with cloths much in the same way mother’s today wrap their newborn babies in a receiving blanket. But as we detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas traditions, we need to bear in mind that there was no halo encircling Jesus’ head. Jesus did not have blond hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion as is often depicted in paintings and nativity sets. Jesus would have had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. Jesus was a king and a human being.
So in our detangling of Jesus’ life from Christmas tradition, we should celebrate Jesus was as human as we are. Jesus understood the human experience firsthand because he lived it.
Matthew then wrote, “His [Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Mary’s family had arranged her marriage to this man Joseph, but the wedding ceremony had not yet happened. Marriage happened early in life, so Mary was only a teenager. Mary was legally bound to Joseph but still lived in her father’s house. The wedding would occur when Mary’s father decided the time was right. When he decided, then Mary and her family would travel to Joseph’s house for the wedding. Joseph needed to be ready.
Matthew said that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, meaning that Jesus’ father was not human but was God himself. The apostle John would later record these words from Jesus. “6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). Jesus was therefore, human because flesh, Mary, gave birth to flesh. And Jesus was divine, God, because Spirit gave birth to Spirit. This means Jesus had the will of God, the divine and the will of Jesus, the human. Jesus had two wills in one being and yet his two wills were never in conflict. Jesus always wanted whatever his father wanted. Jesus came as king to lead, human to live our experience, and was God who would get things right.
We then read that Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and not by him. Matthew wrote, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19). God waited to act through Mary until she was engaged to Joseph and before they were married. Mary was part of God’s plan, and so too was Joseph. An unmarried pregnant young woman was at risk. Her father could have her put out of his home or he could pursue the law and have Mary killed for fornication, sex before marriage. God would use these circumstances to show the character of righteous men through Joseph. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph felt he had two choices: demand Mary be punished under the law with a cry for justice or divorce her as quietly as possible as an act of mercy. Joseph could see no other alternatives. As we detangle the emotions of the moment, we discover that Joseph loved mercy more than justice.
From Joseph’s posture of mercy, Matthew picked up the story again. Matthew wrote, “20 But after he (Joseph) had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him (Joseph) in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:20-24). We detangle the next layer of emotions and discover that God helped Joseph see more options were available to a righteous man. God asked Joseph to be obedience to God even over Joseph’s own sense of mercy. In listening to God and being willing to be led by God, Joseph came to see that Mary, the baby Jesus, and he, Joseph, were part of God’s plan to fulfill his promises. Joseph came to see that God is not a God of chance or improper timing. Nothing about Jesus’ birth was a coincidence and certainly was not a surprise to God. Each person, including Joseph, had been hand-picked by God for a purpose.
So when we detangle Jesus’ birth from the traditions of Christmas Day we realize that God has a plan and that plan includes you and me. In God’s plan, He has a desire for us to be obedient to Him and in doing so we can display God’s righteousness through our lives. As important as Joseph was to the story of Jesus, there is not one sentence recording his words. Joseph showed God’s righteousness by his behavior.
For nearly 400 years, the Jewish people waited for a messenger from God, the Messiah, to lead them as king. Now, in Joseph’s life, God was finally acting. The bitterness Joseph felt in believing Mary had betrayed him was removed and replaced with the joy of doing what God wanted him to do. There was no need for justice or even mercy. The only thing that God required of Joseph was obedience. Matthew wrote, “24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24). Joseph conformed his will to the will of God. That is what obedience means, conforming two wills into one.
When we think of Christmas Day, we see that God was detangling the idea of Messiah. The Messiah had come as a king. But Jesus did not come to command and demand allegiance by the power of political forces or military might. Jesus came in the flesh to walk with people and talk with them and to love them. Jesus came as God to heal the sick and give hope to those who were lost. Matthew wrote that Jesus came to save people from their sins, sins that would destroy not just their bodies but their souls. Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises.
As we detangle Jesus’ story from Christmas Day traditions, we might ask ourselves some questions in the format commonly used in youth groups with each question beginning with the word, “Would you rather?” Try these questions:
- Would you rather live this life on your own or with a God who loves you? Jesus came because God loves you. Christmas is not about packages wrapped in pretty paper. It is about God’s plan to love the world.
- Would you rather live your life where promises are often broken or in a kingdom of God where promises are always kept? God kept his promise of sending His Messiah. Christmas is not about ornaments hung on a tree. It is about holding tightly to the promises of God that will be kept.
- Would you rather wonder what your life is all about or know that you are part of God’s plan? God sent Jesus that you and I would follow Him and fulfill a wonderful purpose. Christmas is not about chance as to what gift may be in our stocking. It is about knowing that God wants to gift us with an abundant life.
We could go on with this list for quite some time. The point is that we need to detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas Day traditions. When we separate the two, we discover Jesus came to lead us into the kingdom of God. Jesus came to walk with us through the good and the challenging human experiences. Jesus came to reveal the power of God. Jesus came to reveal the plans of God. And Jesus came to invite us to show God’s righteousness through our lives. We will not find any of these wonderful and inspiring realities in our wearing roller skates to church, putting spiderwebs on our Christmas trees, or even wearing red underwear. We can only find the essence of Christmas when we put such things aside and come into the presence of God through Jesus Christ. This year, I encourage you to spend some time at the detangling station and pull from all the Christmas Day traditions the essence of Jesus birth. Amen and Amen.