Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
We have fully entered into the Christmas season. A sure sign of this is the proliferation of “Christmas” movies that are now appearing on TV. If you happen to have access to Netflix or the Hallmark channel, you can fill your days with such movies. Many of these movies are rather sugary sweet. The prevailing message is that Christmas is a time for sentimentality. I would like to suggest that the true message of Christmas is not sentimentality but courage.
Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. The purpose of Advent is to prepare us for and lead us to the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, we have a rather sentimental view of the Christmas story. We focus on an idealize image that sanitizes the realities of the genuine event. The truth is that God asked two people to be extremely courageous in the face of challenges they would rather avoid.
In Luke’s gospel, we are invited to listen in on a conversation between the Archangel Gabriel and a young girl named Mary. Mary is pledged to be married and is looking forward to all that entailed. Marriage meant security for the future. It meant the promise of children and establishing a home. Mary’s expectations were most likely pretty simple. She would live an uneventful life as the wife of the local carpenter. She would have children and raise her family. She would live out her days in the familiar surroundings of her community. When Gabriel showed up, all of that changed.
Look carefully at what God was asking Mary to do. He was asking her to risk her marriage to Joseph, her security for the future, her reputation in the community, and her dreams of a quiet, simple life. To accept what God was asking her to do was to take a very difficult path. God was asking her to risk everything and trust Him beyond trust. For her to accept was a supreme act of courage.
In Matthew’s gospel, we get to see Joseph’s side of the story. Joseph was living in anticipation of his marriage to Mary. According to tradition, he would have been preparing a home for them to live in. As a carpenter, he may have been spending all of his extra time crafting the furniture that would equip their new home. Joseph would have been anticipating having children who would carry on his name. He would pray that God would bless him with sons. He anticipated living a simple life as the village carpenter in the familiar surroundings of his community.
When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, his dreams evaporated. His dream of establishing his family within the community, with the woman he loved, was shattered. Everyone would know that Mary was pregnant before the wedding. The tongues of Nazareth would be wagging. Either Joseph had failed to exercise self-control or Mary had been unfaithful. Either way, their marriage was ruined before to had a chance to begin. Matthew tells us that Joseph struggled with the decision about what to do. He really loved Mary, but he could not marry her under these circumstances. It was just too big of a hurdle to get over. He had no choice but to end their relationship.
But God stepped in and challenged Joseph to set aside his fear and to trust Him. He informed Joseph, in a dream, that this was all a part of God’s plan for the redemption of Israel. The road before them would be hard, but God would go with them. He was asking Joseph to exercise unprecedented courage and to go forward with his marriage to Mary.
Both Mary and Joseph had a decision to make. Both had to make their decision alone. Both had to trust God and trust each other. Both had to exercise courage. Both chose to risk everything to do what God was asking of them.
There is very little value in this season if our focus is on temporary sentimentality. It can make us feel all warm and fuzzy for a time, but it will not change our lives. But if we understand that this season is calling us to be people of courage in our world, then it can change our lives. Just as God asked Mary and Joseph to trust Him completely, He is asking us to do the same thing. He is asking us to carry Jesus into our world. It will mean that we will not fit the common patterns of life. It means that people will misunderstand and even find fault with us. It means that our plans will be altered. But it also means that we will step into the most exciting adventure possible.
"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.