You’ve got to love some of Paul’s words. In the midst of arguing that the Corinthians should remember that they are Christ’s and not part of some faction, he points them to the fact that the gospel—the good news of God’s salvation!—is foolishness to the world. When he first brought the gospel to this community, Paul was insistent that he didn’t use the flowery, incisive, over-the-top rhetoric of the day to convince them, but instead let the gospel speak for itself. And to most people, this message that Paul was giving sounded like foolishness. The community around the Corinthian church saw what they were doing and saw it through the eyes of people who don’t understand. What he said then is just as true now.
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It’s said that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, and I think we all know why. After all, how did you find your mechanic? And how often do you try a new restaurant that none of your friends recommend? When someone we trust points us in a direction, we trust they’re looking out for us. I tend to trust that people around me are more experienced in basically everything, so I really value the recommendations of others. And you can’t get a much more forceful recommendation than John the Baptist made for his disciples to look to Jesus.
The other weekend, Annie and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. It’s the last of the series of movies that have been grouped into three trilogies, and this final trilogy follows the main character, Rey, in her discovery of her force powers, her calling as a Jedi, and how she saves the galaxy from evil—more or less. But a huge part of this otherwise massively heroic plotline is Rey’s search for her parents.
Now, I’ll skip over the specifics in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet and doesn’t want any spoilers, but the discovery of her identity—her lineage, her parents, who she is—has a major impact on her. Being able to name who she is, being able to define that identity, also helps shape who she’ll become, what her destiny will look like, how her actions are shaped. Identity, being able to name who we are, matters. And it matters more than just what you call yourself.
There’s something about this time of year that makes us want to hold on to Christmas just a little bit longer. At exactly the stroke of midnight on December 26th, all the radio stations that had been playing Christmas carols non-stop since November suddenly go back to their regular programming. The decorations come down. The glittering lights disappear, and it feels like the magic just up and disappears.
But in the church, we keep it up just a little while longer. We celebrate Christmas as a whole twelve-day thing, continuing our carols and the joy and the hope of the season. We linger just a little bit longer at the manger. We hope for just a little more time with the innocence and wonder of the Christ child. So this reading from Matthew is quite an unwelcome contrast, I suspect.
One of my favorite things during the Christmas season is seeing the creative ways that people decorate their homes for the season. Growing up we would put ice sickle lights along the roofline and wreaths on the doors, but this year we didn’t get a ladder in time to put up lights. But many other people did decorate—and there are some really good ones. And one piece that’s nice to see is the nativity scene. I’ve seen quite a few in yards, in front of churches, and even the one that’s out in East End Park in Ellsworth.
And these nativity scenes are just one of the ways that we put the story of Jesus’ birth into art. We condense the Christmas story into a scene of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men, oxen, donkeys, and of course the baby Jesus all huddled under a makeshift stable. Paintings of the birth follow the pattern, and everyone always looks so serene and holy and, well, clean.
Over the last few weeks in Advent, we’ve been reading these texts that talk about the coming of the kingdom. Isaiah spoke of a vision for the end when he let God’s imagination show him a world without the evils of war. John the Baptist shouted about bearing good fruit, worthy of repentance, to set the world right. And Jesus reminded us last week to look and listen for the signs of the kingdom: miracles of healing, wholeness, peace, and life. And this week, Joseph has a dream to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of God-with-us.
We’re familiar with the story. Joseph, who is betrothed to Mary, discovers that she is pregnant. That leaves Joseph with really only one logical reason that this could be: Mary has been unfaithful to him. His plan is to dismiss her quietly. I think that’s important to note: the quietly part. Joseph is a genuinely good man. He doesn’t want to disgrace Mary or her family by publicly humiliating them. But he’s also a man of his time, and he doesn’t see bearing the shame of a wife who is already pregnant.