4th Sunday in Advent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 1:18-25 Sermon
December 23, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
6 "Hark The Glad Sound, The Saviour Comes"
2 "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel"
7 "Wake Awake For Night Is Flying"
5 "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus"
THE THINGS OF WHICH TABLOIDS ARE MADE
TEXT (vs. 18-21): “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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.”
I don’t know how many of you read the tabloids; and by that, I mean those magazine-style newspapers that seem to be on just about every newsstand. Now I’m not asking anyone to raise their hand and admit to reading them; however if you’re anything like me, you at least see the odd tabloid from time-to-time.
For me, I usually glance at least at the front cover when I’m waiting to check out at the supermarket. Or when I’m waiting for my mother at the beauty shop, there are always a variety of them there. I lovingly refer to them as “trashy magazines.” But I must admit that there have been times when I see something in those magazines that will pique my interest, so I will break down and buy one. That’s my confession to you this morning.
You know the type of stories these magazines run. One such newspaper has a big splash about Dolly Parton’s secret fight for life, and how Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are carrying on some sort of clandestine affair, and how Angelina Jolie hates her baby. And let’s not forget good old Dr. Phil McGraw and what kinds of problems he and his wife Robin are having in their marriage. My goodness, what would we ever do without knowing about these things!
Of course all of this has carried over into television as well. There are a variety of syndicated television shows airing today, which are devoted to the gossip and secret lives of celebrities. A generation ago, Rona Barrett was the pioneer in this area with her “Hollywood Gossip” segments; but today’s brand of journalism has completely left her in the dust. Her stuff was pretty tame compared to what’s on television today.
This is called “sensationalistic journalism.” It piques the interest of people with some wild headlines and photographs. Some of the stories are true, but sadly some are nothing more than either pure gossip, or someone putting the wrong spin on a situation. But the name of the game is to sell newspapers and magazines and to attract viewers; and these people are very successful at it.
Tabloids have a whole host of free-lance photographers and writers who earn some pretty hefty dollars for taking exclusive photos of celebrities in, shall we say a less than a flattering situation. Embarrassing photos pay big dollars! And you can bet that about every celebrity has at least one paparazzi tailing them, hiding amongst the trees and shrubs with a camera complete with a long telephoto lens. They are just waiting for someone to make one false move, or do something the least bit untoward, and then they’re caught. And it won’t be long before the whole world is privy to their “caught in the act” photographs.
So why do people do these things? Why are there magazines and newspapers published, which admittedly contain false information at times? Why are people lapping this stuff up like a dog drinking out of the toilet?
I think the answer lies within an old T.V. advertisement for the “National Enquirer.” Their slogan was, “Enquiring minds want to know!” We buy this stuff and eat it up just as fast as they can dish it out. If we didn’t, these publications would be quickly out of business. The reporters would be greeting shoppers at Wal-Mart, and the paparazzi would be flipping burgers at McDonald’s. But we buy it, and so these people have the job of feeding our enquiring minds.
This says a lot about our human race, and of course God knows what kind of people we are and what piques our interest. God knew full well what kind of people were living on this earth when he gave the commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Dr. Luther, in his small catechism further explains it: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
So all of this “tabloid news stuff” isn’t anything new at all. People have had, down through the ages, enquiring minds that wanted to know all the dirt. We have lied, betrayed, slandered, and damaged reputations. And even when something is true, it can still damage a reputation. Tabloids seem to be fairly experts on breaking this commandment of God, and we have followed right along with them.
As we look at our Gospel reading for this morning, we have another segment of the Christmas story. Even though this account is familiar to almost all of us, yet it is not amongst the most popular passages we associate with Christmas.
We tend to opt for the more sentimental, and perhaps the more poetic lines of Luke chapter 2 where we read about the manger, swaddling clothes, the shepherds, and the angels. I would seriously doubt if the children in the family would be gathered around the Christmas tree in front of the blazing fireplace listening to grandpa recite our Gospel lesson for today from Matthew chapter 1. It’s as if these words somehow seem out of place with our ideas and traditions about Christmas.
There’s a real stark reality to these words. There is a pregnancy out of wedlock. There are plans for a divorce. And there’s even mention of Joseph and Mary not having sexual union until after her pregnancy. This certainly wouldn’t be our favorite selection of material for a family-oriented Christmas celebration.
Picture for a moment that Matthew isn’t the one relaying this account. Instead, it has been picked up by the tabloid magazines. Can you imagine how different the accounts would be? They would have had an absolute field day! This is the type of stuff that those “bottom feeder” tabloid reporters thrive upon.
Think of the headlines. “Mary of Nazareth Claims Virgin Pregnancy;” “Virgin Claims Holy Spirit is the Father;” “Young Nazarene Woman is Carrying Celestial Love Child;” “Mary Blames Extra-marital Affair on God;” “David’s Royal Family Shamed by Out-of wedlock Pregnancy;” “Joseph Violates Jewish Custom in Huge Cover-up of Fiancée’s Holy Affair” …well you get the idea.
And then maybe the paparazzi have taken a few photos too. Imagine a secret photo in the article picturing an old bearded man knocking at the Virgin Mary’s door, with a caption reading: “Unknown Visitor at Virgin Mary’s House…Could He be the Father?”
Now if all of this sounds far-fetched, just remember that people have had “Enquiring Minds” for centuries. There certainly would have been a lot of questions in people’s minds, and the old rumor mill would have been running flat out. And when the exact details weren’t known, then people would “fill in the blanks” themselves.
We need to understand the way things were done by the Jews in that day and age. The period of engagement prior to the official wedding was a year long ordeal; and of course it was understood that it was an exclusive relationship. There was the promise of marriage between the two parties; so to break that engagement even before the wedding required a certificate of divorce.
If a woman were to do the unthinkable and get caught having an affair with another man, then it was the duty of the groom-to-be to call off the marriage and expose her sin. She was then subject to public ridicule and even stoning for what she had done. And if a pregnancy occurred as a result, the public shame was only compounded. The woman would then forever be branded as a harlot.
When Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy, he knew what the accepted practice was; in fact he knew that it was expected of him to divorce her. But our text for today gives clear evidence that God knew exactly what he was doing when he chose Joseph. Joseph loved Mary to such a degree that he did not want her to be subject to the tabloid-type ridicule she would have had to endure. So he plans to divorce her quietly, with each going their own way, end of story.
When we read Matthew’s Gospel, we must understand that he was primarily writing to a Jewish audience. So he devotes the first 17 verses of his Gospel to tracking Jesus’ royal bloodline. He was a direct descendant of King David. The Jews knew that the promised Messiah would have that blood line.
Then he focuses attention upon the virgin birth itself, and how Joseph deals with it. He follows that by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the virgin birth. And just so there’s no question at all as to whom Jesus’ father was, Matthew states that Joseph and Mary had no union with each other until after Jesus was born.
Joseph was a God-fearing man and a good Jew. He knew what was expected of him. And had it not been for the intervention of the Angel of God in Joseph’s dream, that’s exactly what he would have done.
God the Holy Spirit caused Matthew to record what he did in his Gospel to answer a lot of “enquiring minds.” Many people had that “tabloid mentality.” Question: How are we to know that this is the Messiah? Answer: Look at the royal ancestry and the prophecy. Question: Why didn’t Joseph do what all good Jews were supposed to do? Answer: He would have, except God himself prevented it. Question: Why did this virgin conceive the way she did? Answer: Look at Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah’s virgin birth. Question: How do we know Joseph, or another man wasn’t the father? Answer: Virginity, even in those days was a fairly simple matter to detect. The virgin was pregnant; and Joseph had no relations with her until after she had given birth and was no longer a virgin.
Today’s critics like to try to find all sorts of alternative explanations to the virgin birth of Jesus. People would much rather believe a “tabloid sensationalism” type theory and say that Mary fell pregnant because she had normal intercourse with someone or was raped by a Roman soldier. A virgin birth just isn’t according to the “natural order” of things.
When you consider the way people are by nature, it is easy to see why they buy into this line of thinking. People want to spice it up a bit, or they think that a virgin birth is just too unbelievable to be true. And as it is far too often, people get the idea that they’re just plain smarter than God, and the way the Bible explains things is just too simplistic for modern society.
Don’t we fall into this trap sometimes ourselves? Isn’t it in our nature to operate on half-truths and believe the worst? Don’t we take some sort of delight in hearing about all of the dirt about somebody and rejoice when they are knocked off their pedestal? Haven’t we been guilty of cranking the grindstone of the gossip and rumor mill ourselves?
We need a Saviour, and we need him badly. We’re caught up in this tangled web of sin. We need him to come into our lives just as it was prophesied from of old. And when we see the world in the shape it’s in, we anticipate his coming even more.
The Bible is a faith-producing thing, and it brings us to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Faith in him is what we all need. Through faith in Jesus, we find forgiveness for our sins right here and now, and we have the hope of heaven in our future.
We can be thankful that God saw fit to record the events surrounding Jesus’ birth through the inspired pen of St. Matthew. We don’t have to rely upon tabloid journalism as the source of our information and the basis for our faith. We don’t have to rely upon human reason and intellect to sort out what’s true and what isn’t. And we don’t have to worry that someone has “spiced things up a bit” to pique our interest.
Even though Christ’s virgin birth and Mary’s pregnancy aren’t according to the natural order of things as we understand them, we can be assured that it happened according to a higher order of things. God did things the way he did for a reason.
We need to be sure about who Jesus is and that he is indeed the Messiah, the promised Saviour of the Old Testament. In the Bible, God has made it so plain that there can be no doubt in our minds. Our text from Matthew this morning is but one example. Thousands of years of prophecy has come to fruition. Mary is pregnant with the Saviour, her Saviour and ours. He not only came to save the world from sin, but to save you and me too.
As we prepare our hearts to receive him again this Christmas, let us exclaim with the hymn writer: “Now let all the heavens adore thee, let men and angels sing before thee, with harp and cymbal’s clearest tone….But we rejoice, and sing to thee, our hymn of joy eternally.”