By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | December 18, 2022
Read Matthew 1:18 – 25 (NIV)
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent and in just one week, we will come to the ultimate celebration of the real reason for the season… the birth of Jesus. The gift of love that came down at Christmas… “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God loves us so much that He gave us the greatest gift imaginable… the One who opens the door for us to eternal life. Not because we are deserving of the gift… not because we have gotten our lives and our houses in order to receive the gift… and not because we have demonstrated some special aptitude for what to do with the gift.
No. God has given us this most precious gift simply because He loves us with what the Greek writers refer to as “agape” … which is a selfless, self-sacrificing, all-encompassing form of love that can best be described as UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
And that is what calls for our attention today the UNCONDITIONAL LOVE that God has for us and that we should have for God and for one another.
It is this UNCONDITIONAL LOVE that we find when we look closely at our New Testament lesson this morning. However, before we look at the text this morning, we can find an example of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE if we stop to consider the author of the text… a tax collector who goes by the name of Matthew.
It would seem fair to say that tax collectors are not the most highly revered people in our society today… and when we consider what was taking place during biblical times, it is not a far stretch to say that tax collectors were even less popular back then.
That is because tax collectors had been given the authority and ability to collect not only the taxes that were levied by Rome… they could also collect whatever extra they wanted for themselves. As long as they surrendered what the Roman government required… they could pocket whatever difference they were able to extract from the people.
Now, according to scholars, there were some tax collectors who used hired hands to do the dirty work for them but Matthew did the collecting himself, right out in the open. He apparently had no shame in his game.
Which makes his selection as one of Jesus’ disciples all the more intriguing.
After all, wouldn’t Jesus have known what kind of person He was consorting with? What could He have seen in a greedy, self-serving individual like Matthew?
And what possible reason would Matthew have had for responding, “Yes,” to Jesus’ call to come and follow Him? I mean, Jesus was not exactly the kind of person Matthew would have been used to hanging around. He did not live a flashy lifestyle… He did not ride in a decked-out chariot or live in a glamorous house… and His closest companions were fishermen. What kind of life did Matthew think he would be leading? And why was he willing to exchange his current lifestyle for something so drastically different?
Just what was it that brought these two unlikely candidates together? Let me suggest it was UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
Jesus looked past Matthew’s sordid lifestyle as a tax collector to see the man who was willing to spend the rest of his life convincing others that Jesus was the Messiah. While Matthew looked beyond the lowly carpenter that most people saw and recognized the One who would give His very life as a ransom for them all.
And there is good news for us today because if Jesus can use a lowly and despised tax collector to spread the Gospel, just imagine what He can and will do with each one of us!
So, that tells us a little bit about the author of our New Testament lesson. But, before we take a closer look at the actual subject of our text this morning, I want to tell you a story.
It’s not a story that made the national news and you probably did not hear much about it on the local news either. In fact, it is a story that has become so commonplace that stories like this one do not garner much media attention anymore.
It is a story about a family that was forced to leave their homeland in search of safety and what they hoped would be an opportunity to lead lives as productive citizens.
This family had initially started on their journey, trying to comply with all the rules imposed upon them… but when they got to their first stop, there was no one who would help them. No one would give them so much as a place to sleep despite the fact that the wife was pregnant and extremely close to her due date.
They found one door after another closed to them… until one caring and compassionate person gave them a small space where they could take shelter until the woman had her baby.
But sometime after the baby was born, word came down that there was a bounty on their heads and they needed to flee the country… fast. So, they left under cover of darkness, in search of refuge… instantly becoming refugees in search of asylum.
But where would they go? Who would allow them to come in?
They had heard about the United States and the promises found on the famous Statue of Liberty:
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
They thought that perhaps that was a place where they would find safety, security, and UNCONDITIONAL LOVE from others.
But then they began hearing about asylum seekers arriving in the United States and being shipped around like cargo… So, they worried that it might not be such a safe place for them to go after all.
They heard how innocent people who wanted nothing more than a safe place to live were being treated like pawns in a chess game… being sacrificed for the sake of the more powerful politicians (I mean the more powerful pieces).
And so, despite the dreams they had for their family… Joseph and Mary thought it would be better to find somewhere else to raise their son, Jesus…
Now, as I read the text for the morning, I was reminded of the unlikely and extremely challenging circumstances that this young couple, Joseph and Mary faced from the beginning. The couple was engaged to be married but before the actual wedding took place, Mary was already with child.
In today’s society, a woman becoming pregnant before getting married is not so uncommon… very few people take time anymore to count back from the birth of the child to the wedding day to see how much time has elapsed between the two occasions.
And even fewer people stop to consider whether or not the groom is really the father of the baby. It is as if no one really cares one way or the other because almost no one gives these matters a second thought.
However, in biblical times, it was quite a different story for a woman who found herself in Mary’s shoes.
Because Mary had never been with Joseph, her pregnancy must have certainly been the result of her being unfaithful… at least that is what Joseph and their respective families and the community would have thought.
And, according to the customs of that time, Joseph would have been well within his rights to divorce Mary, which was the only way to end a betrothal in those days… other than death that is… and that could actually have been the punishment for such an offense under Jewish law.
But Joseph was a good man and he did not want to hold Mary up to public ridicule so the scriptures say he planned to simply divorce her quietly.
That is until the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him the real story… that Mary was indeed with child but it was not because she had been unfaithful.
It was because God had chosen Mary to become the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NKJV).
Mary was going to give birth to a son and the angel of the Lord told Joseph that he was to give the child the name, “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And once Joseph awoke from his dream, he did what the angel of the Lord had instructed him to do… he took Mary home as his wife and when the child was born, he gave him the name, Jesus.
Now in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we find the familiar story about the Magi (or the three wise men) who went in search of the one who had been born king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1)… and how Herod tried to find out where the Christ child had been born… claiming he wanted to go and worship him as well.
However, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in yet another dream and told him that Herod wanted to kill the child and Joseph needed to take his family and escape to Egypt… and that is what Joseph did… once again following the direction of the Lord.
And according to the scriptures, Joseph and his family remained in Egypt until the angel of the Lord came to him again in still another dream… this time sending them to the land of Israel and ultimately to the region of Galilee and a city called Nazareth… again in fulfillment of prophecy that declared the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.
Now, one of the key points for us to take notice of in this story of Joseph and Mary and the baby, Jesus, is that at no point in time, do we read anything about Joseph hesitating to do as the angel of the Lord instructed him to do.
He took Mary as his wife. He gave the child the name, Jesus. He took the family and fled to Egypt. He left Egypt and ultimately went to Nazareth… all with seemingly no thought to how this would impact him.
Joseph’s actions were selfless and self-sacrificing… he would have been subject to ridicule for taking Mary as his wife when she was already pregnant with a child that was not his… but he married her anyhow. He left his home and fled to a foreign country for the safety and security of that child which was not his own… and he left that country, again for the sake of a child that was not his own.
Talk about selfless, self-sacrificing UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
And here we are… roughly two thousand years later… the direct beneficiaries of that UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
And yet there are still those who are resistant to offering that type of selfless, self-sacrificing, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE to others… hesitant to do as Joseph modeled and unwilling to do as Jesus, Himself, commanded… to love God with all of who we are and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (see Matthew 22:36 – 40).
But in this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus… there is a call for us to share that UNCONDITIONAL LOVE with others.
And in the event we may find ourselves trying to be selective in where and how we share that UNCONDITIONAL LOVE and with whom we share it… I want to leave us with this reminder that I came across on Facebook the other day:
It’s an unwed mother who carries God.
It’s the pagans from the East who recognize God.
It’s the workers in the field who hear from God.
It’s the marginalized neighborhood who welcomes God.
It’s God who chooses the lowly and the broken to rise…
God uses the least likely suspects to serve as reminders that His UNCONDITIONAL LOVE came down to earth for all of us… without exception… and went all the way to a cross at Calvary.
As we read in Romans 5 (8) Jesus was willing to give His life in exchange for ours in spite of the fact that we were and still are sinners… He did it without regard for the mess we have made and continue to make of things… He willingly and lovingly took on the punishment that was ours… because that is what UNCONDITIONAL LOVE does…
UNCONDITIONAL LOVE looks beyond self and freely gives for the sake of someone else… and not just for those we like or for those who make it easy to love them.
UNCONDITIONAL LOVE has no regard for our past mistakes, our present mishaps, or our future missteps.
UNCONDITIONAL LOVE is not concerned about convenience… in fact it is best displayed when things seem most inconvenient.
And most importantly, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE neither demands nor expects anything in return.
However, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE does accept love in response to the love that has been given… that is why 1 John 4:19 tells us, “We love because he first loved us.”
And on this fourth Sunday in Advent, we celebrate that love… that UNCONDITIONAL LOVE which God has given to us through His Son and our Savior, Jesus the Christ.
It is a love that is truly divine and greatly excels beyond anything that we could ever imagine… and if you know that to be true, won’t you stand and join in singing our Hymn of Discipleship: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (v. 1, 2, 3) #517.