Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus.
That was an older episode of Saturday Night Live with Will Farrell, Chris Kattan, and Tom Hanks. Of course, they were dancing to that infectious tune from the 90’s, Haddaway’s song What is Love?
What is love?
And baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!
Some say that the question what is love is the most searched-for phrase on the internet. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Maybe top 10, though. Throughout humanity’s existence, hoards of people have tried to answer this question. Today we are no different, of course. There are many who are trying to define what love is and sadly, along the way, they are defining, according to their worldview, what love is not.
Look, I am just as tired as you are of the bombardment of negative messages and heavy rhetoric out there. There are a lot of hateful things said and done to many people just because of the color of their skin, their sexual preference or orientation, their religious beliefs or lack thereof, or their cultural heritage. Let’s be frank—it is happening.
A lack of love.
Rev. Frank Shaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Central PA, was just defrocked recently. That means the United Methodist Church took away his ability to be an ordained minister. Schaefer has led a congregation in Lebanon, PA for more than 10 years. Earlier this year, a church member filed a complaint because Schaefer performed the 2007 wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions are legal. According to the Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry, this violates religious doctrine. This in spite of Rev. Shaefer’s plea that he performed the ceremony as simply as an “act of love.” On the same day that he was defrocked, members of the Board came to Frank and hugged him or shook his hand, saying: We really don’t want to do this, you know that, don’t you?
Also, following the recent memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, there were a number of inexplicable things said. For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party Republican, attended Mandela’s funeral. He also posted on his Facebook page:
Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe. He stood firm for decades on the principle that until all South Africans enjoyed equal liberties he would not leave prison himself, declaring in his autobiography, ‘Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’ Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free.
Amazingly, Cruz’s condolences and his attendance at Mandela’s funeral were met with incredible backlash and highly-charged, negative comments about how Mandela was a terrorist and not deserving of Cruz’s support.
Sadly, many who commented claimed to be Christians.
And then, we have been bombarded with news and comments about a famous reality TV show personality on a Duck Dynasty, program I do not watch. He made some hateful comments about gay and lesbian people and also said some racist things publicly in GQ magazine. Then a subsequent sermon he preached in PA with similar rhetoric has surfaced, too. The saddest part of all this is that after he was suspended from his TV job [only for a bit], a number of people claiming to be Christians have rushed to his side and have expressed their overwhelming support for him, in spite of his hateful comments.
What is going on here? Did I miss something? What happened to…
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love?
I don’t mean to belabor the point, but during a season in which we promote love incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, where is the love of Christians?
Don’t worry…this won’t end in a rant, because then…nothing good happens. But we do have a responsibility, I think, to address the hate and to combat it with love. Being silent about all this is not the way to show love.
After all, if I were to answer the question what is love I would most certainly tell you various stories about people in my life who showed me mercy when I didn’t ask for it or who made peace with someone they used to dislike or who accepted someone unconditionally—in spite of differences and even when it was unpopular to do so.
What is love? It is when people act compassionately and truly empathize with others.
That is where I would like to go as we look at the misunderstood story about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—a story as I have said before—that only appears in Matthew and Luke, and in just a couple paragraphs and no more. As always, I invite you to come to your own conclusion about these stories in scripture. Listen to some interpretation and study and then ask your own questions.
Some context about Mary and Joseph. When two people got “engaged” in their era it was considered to be marriage, though the couple would not yet live together. Engagements lasted as long as it took for the male’s family to come up with a dowry [money, animals, land, etc.] for the female’s family. Also, the male was supposed to come up with some sort of living arrangement. Engagement did not include a trip to buy a ring at Jerod or Helgsburg Diamonds, and then a period of planning for a wedding that could be broken off by the couple at any time without any legal hassle. No, for Mary and Joseph, things were much different. The first step of betrothal was a marriage contract. Family usually made the arrangements. This betrothal could only be broken by divorce, in essence, nullifying the contract.
The second step would include a marriage feast, and the couple would then start their life together in a commonly-shared home.
So…Mary and Joseph had the marriage contract sealed, and amidst the financial and social preparations, Mary gets pregnant.
According to Matthew’s story, Joseph had no part of it. This was not his kid.
Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man—a good dude. So here are the good dude’s two options: public stoning or divorce.
Joseph dismissed Mary quietly [not subjecting her to public disgrace], meaning that he was breaking the marriage contract. Doesn’t this sound like Joseph was avoiding the more difficult but more merciful choice of staying with Mary?
To me it does.
But Joseph, even if he wanted to stay with Mary, had no choice to do that by law. In fact, if he did not break the marriage contract, Mary would mostly likely stand trial publicly and that would not end well.
Now I don’t like either one of these scenarios. I just wish Joseph would have stood up against the law and stood with Mary.
But then, Joseph had a dream—an angel visited him and reassured him that he did not have to break the marriage contract. This angelic message seemed to comfort Joseph’s fears and he did finally decide to stay with Mary.
Now, what should they name the kid? Yehoshuah [Hebrew], Joshua [English]. But since the NT is written in Greek—the kid is also called Jesous, Jesus [English]. This name means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.”
The Gospel of Matthew is conveniently connecting all this to Hebrew [OT] prophecy. Matthew quotes part of Isaiah 7:14, albeit the Greek version. Why do I mention that? Oh, because there is that little, polarizing word virgin in there. This word virgin in Greek is parthenos. But the actual Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is ‘almah which simply means a young woman.
I told you I would leave you to work out your own thoughts about this, so I won’t dwell here too long. My worldview tells me, after studying these texts, that the Isaiah prophecy has nothing to do with the New Testament story. So is Matthew’s Gospel trying to trick us by connecting current events to very old prophecies? Let’s try to empathize with Matthew’s worldview.
Matthew’s community was made up of people who were waiting for help. In the 1st and 2nd century, people were trying to make sense of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught and lived. People were unsure. So Matthew’s connection to the old prophecies was an encouragement to people that God had not given up on humanity.
Isaiah 7:14, Matthew knew, was about King Ahaz of Judah. It was around 735-732 B.C.E. Syria and Israel were attacking the land of Judah. Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to King Ahaz and to Judah’s people, saying that God will give the king a sign. A baby will be born and before this kid is a teenager, Jerusalem will no longer be torn apart by war.
This ancient promise is seen by Matthew as a present-day promise.
Isaiah thought that Immanuel, God with us, would come in the future; peace and fulfillment would follow. Matthew thought that this Jesus of Nazareth was with the people like an Immanuel, and wanted to bring peace and fulfillment, like Isaiah said, but not just to Judah. Jesus’ message and life, according to Matthew, was for all people.
Both Isaiah and Matthew were talking about the idea of incarnation—that God could be present [incarnate] in the world. The message, though told in different ways across many centuries, is the same:
God is with us.
As this idea developed, God with us became real in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in all those who shared love and mercy with others.
What is love? God. What is God? Love.
What does God incarnate mean? God is in us.
So love is in us.
Okay, I get it–the story of Jesus’ birth is very ambiguous and a bit confusing. I have many more questions than answers. But that’s okay, because Jesus actually grew up and the Gospels say a lot more about that. Yehoshuah personified love, acted compassionately and also said that we could and should too. If we look at the grown-up Jesus, what is love is an ongoing question with many active answers.
Love speaks out for justice. Love does not withhold itself when it doesn’t get what it wants. Love is not conditional, but unconditional. Love cares about what happens to people all around the world because love knows that we are all interconnected.
Love is naturally compassionate and empathetic.
Love knows that someone else is also you.
I have to share this song with you. Have you heard Same Love, written and performed by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert? Hear it now:
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don’t know
When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned
When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen
Whatever God you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up
Love is patient
Love is kind
(not crying on Sundays)
Yes, I agree. It’s about time that we raised up…in love. Jesus did.
But we ought to love people with the same love.
It doesn’t matter if they are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender; black, white, yellow, red, green; religious or not; materially wealthy or materially poor; it doesn’t matter if they are family or not, or if they claim a different culture, nationality, or worldview. It’s the SAME Love that we extend, because that is what love is. Love is NOT conditional; love is free of categories and names and circumstances. Love is the opposite of fear. Love is the great bridge-builder and the patient and kind healer.
So this season and every season of your lives, love people with the SAME LOVE. May that same love [incarnate] live in you.