December 7, 2014
Last week we looked at Nazareth,
the small town in the region of Galilee,
and we looked at Mary and the announcement she received from the angel Gabriel.
We were reading from the gospel of Luke.
Today we move to the town of Bethlehem,
Which means “place of bread.”
And it was a place of bread – lots of bread.
It was a town of farmers, millers, and bakers.
And many people believe, it was the home of Joseph, the carpenter.
If you’ve ever been to Hershey, PA,
You know that you can literally smell the chocolate in the air.
Well, I imagine that the same thing happened in Bethlehem.
As soon as you entered the town, you could smell the aroma of bread baking.
(Pass around candle of bread baking)
If towns had mission statements,
Bethlehem’s might have been one similar to Panera Bread:
“a loaf of bread in every arm.”
Everything in Bethlehem was about the bread.
Bread was what they made;
Bread was what they talked about;
Bread was what they ate.
It was not the place to go if you were sensitive to gluten!
Bethlehem was about six miles from Jerusalem.
It was about 80 miles south of Nazareth
In those days, it would have taken close to 4 days to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
We hear from the gospels that Mary and Joseph were betrothed.
Betrothals were different from modern-day engagements.
Betrothals were more like contracts.
Contracts made between families…
I will give you my daughter and such-and-such for a dowry
And in return your son will marry her.
Signed and sealed – like any contract.
The wedding itself?
That was later – that was the party and the celebration.
The commitment had already been made at the betrothal.
Somehow, Mary manages to get the word to Joseph that she is pregnant.
Maybe it was in person at the home of Elizabeth.
Maybe it was through a trusted messenger.
And Joseph is devastated.
It’s not hard to imagine that he felt angry, betrayed.
This is no ordinary breakup of an engagement.
Not only did he have to deal with the emotional devastation,
There were legal ramifications as well.
The contract was broken.
It was a crime.
If Joseph brought it to the authorities,
There was a clear sentence which could be expected – death by stoning.
If Joseph didn’t bring it to the authorities,
He would be an outcast – what self-respecting husband
Would allow his wife to shame him in this way?
Even before his dream,
Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man,
And he makes a decision – he won’t bring it to the authorities;
He won’t tell anyone;
He will dismiss her quietly;
and he will endure the pain himself.
And the text says that he makes his decision,
Not because it is easier for him – it’s not –
He does it so that Mary is not disgraced.
But then an annunciation comes to Joseph in a dream.
He hears the words angels often say in the Bible,
“Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus,
For he will save his people from their sins.”
And Joseph says….”Oh, okay then!”
Actually, I don’t think that was the point where Joseph believes the announcement.
I think it happens when he then hears the angel in the dream
share words of the prophecy from Isaiah:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
Joseph has just had the worst day in his life.
And God has given him a sign – Emmanuel – God with us
Just as God had given a sign to King Ahaz of Judah over 700 years earlier.
These words from Isaiah chapter 7
Were words given to King Ahaz as he was facing the worst day in his life.
He was on the verge of battle with not one, but two kingdoms:
The Kingdom of Israel to the north;
The Kingdom of Syria to the east.
Isaiah says that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook
as the trees of the forest shake before the wind!”
They were about to destroy the southern kingdom of Judah.
It was the year 735BCE.
Isaiah is consoling King Ahaz with words from Lord – “do not be afraid,”
but Ahaz is still afraid.
So Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign.
Ahaz refuses, but The Lord gives him a sign anyway,
And this is the sign God gives.
I’m reading from Isaiah, chapter 7, beginning with verse 14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Not long afterwards, Isaiah has a son.
The age of maturity – of knowing the difference between good and evil was thought to be around 13.
And 13 years later, in 722 BCE the kingdom of Israel is defeated by Assyria.
Ahaz’s enemies have been defeated.
The sign of Emmanuel has come to pass.
The way that the gospel writer Matthew understands the story of Jesus,
Is that Jesus is a sign.
He is a sign not just for one people or one kingdom,
But to all people.
This child is a sign that we don’t need to be afraid.
This child is a sign that we are not alone.
This child is the son of God,
So that we may know that no matter how dark the world may be,
God is with us.
We are living in some dark times.
Racism, war, and poverty top the list.
But once again this year we wait and we watch and we hope for the sign that God has given us.
O Come O Come Emmanuel!
This sign will be our comfort.