I love to go places I’ve never been before. It can be as simple as a new neighborhood in New York or as exotic as a whole new continent – the effect is the same. I am excited and interested and curious and engaged.
I caught the travel bug early in life, even before I went to school. My parents used to refer to me as their little gypsy – claiming that I was always eager and ready to get in the car and go. And then when I was 17, I was an exchange student to Spain. And that experience changed and charged everything for me. I had never been abroad before. I had never seen Roman ruins or eaten blood sausage or had a cocktail and been to a disco. I was never the same.
But lo these many years later, I have discovered that not all trips are delightful. Not all first experiences are enlivening. Sometimes to utter the words, “I have never been here before” is actually an expression of terror. “I have never had a brain scan before.” “I have never been to court before.” “I have never lost my job before.” “I have never made funeral arrangements before.”
Since the election in November, we’ve had a lot of conversations in our house that end with my saying: “I don’t know because we have never been here before.” What does it mean for the President-elect to disparage the whole intelligence community? I don’t know because we have never been here before. What does it mean that a foreign government, in an unprecedented way, manipulated a presidential election? I don’t know because we have never been here before. What does it mean for top government positions to be given those who have pledged to destroy their prpgrams? What does it mean for the future leader of the free world to be hailed by white supremacists? I don’t know because at least in my lifetime, we have never been here before.
Once there was a man named Joseph was engaged to a very young woman named Mary. And what engagement meant in first century Palestine is not what it means for us today. To be engaged was a legally binding agreement that preceded the marriage feast, sometimes lasting as long as a year. During this time, the man and the woman did not have sexual relations or live with one another. But they were, in a very real sense, already in the first stage of matrimony. One day Mary came to Joseph with the jaw-dropping news that she was pregnant. The implication, of course, was that she had been unfaithful and promiscuous. And in that moment, Joseph’s world imploded. He had never been there before.
Suddenly the once happy bridegroom had to make a heart-rending decision. He had two choices in how he ended this marriage. He could do it publically and expose Mary to the judgment of society. According to the Law of Moses, he could demand that Mary be put to death for her supposed sexual impurity. Deuteronomy 22:21 states that if a young woman, ready to marry, is not found to be a virgin then “she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you.” And even if by some chance Mary escaped this fate; even if this law was no longer followed, she would still shunned for the rest of her life. No other man would have her.
But Matthew says that Joseph, being a good-hearted man, could not bring himself to divorce Mary publically. Instead he chose to divorce her quietly, without any public charges of sexual impurity. Perhaps he hoped that in doing so he could shame the real father into marrying her and bringing up this child.
And so it was decided, until an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream. And the angel claimed that the child in Mary’s womb was not the result of unfaithfulness, but instead was from the Holy Spirit. The angel said that Joseph should raise this child as his own and should name him Jesus. And that instruction is especially significant because in the ancient Palestine, a naming ceremony could also double as an adoption proceeding. To name a child publically was to claim a child publically.
Mary was also in a terrifying place she had never been before. Although Matthew is told from Joseph’s perspective, Luke is told from Mary’s perspective. In Luke when the angel of the Lord announced that she would bear a son, Mary was incredulous and replied: “But how can this be since I am a virgin?” And here the narratives of both Matthew and Luke converge with the incredible claim that this child is from the Holy Spirit.
The virgin birth is one of those doctrines that cause a lot of people to stumble. What are we moderns to do with this tale of a miraculous conception, accomplished outside normal biological function? Some of us just flat out dismiss it as the superstitious belief of ancient people. Others take a more nuanced approach and consider it very clever allegory or literary device. And others still simply accept it without the need to demythologize it or parse it. But no matter how you view this story, what we are all left with is the tale of two people who, through no choice of their own, were taken to frightening places where they had never been before.
So why all the drama? Couldn’t God accomplish God’s purposes in a more natural and orderly way? Why put these two poor people through all this stress?
Why indeed - except that in the stress of Mary and Joseph, we see something of our own stress; our own inability to control where we sometimes end up. And in this story of Mary and Joseph, we find the foundational idea of our Christian faith - that God’s preferred method of self-revelation is through ordinary, messy, mixed-up people like Mary and Joseph, to ordinary, messy, mixed up people like us? What sets the Christian faith apart is the doctrine of the Incarnation – the notion that God became one of us in order to save all of us.
It’s a dangerous doctrine for many reasons, not the least of which is that in Christ, we see the vulnerability in God. What most of us really want; what lots of preachers promise, is a magician God – a God who swoops in to rescue and save us from all that frightens us. Instead what the Gospel offers us is Emmanuel, a Hebrew phrase literally meaning “with-us God” or as we say it “God is with us.”
We stand at the edge of a new year full of uncertainty. We stand at the end of a new administration. We stand at the edge of an environmental precipice. We stand at the edge of health and love and sometimes even our lives. Sometimes, through no choices of our own, we stand in frightening places we have never been before. And of course we want to be rescued.
But the promise of Christmas is not that we will be rescued. Mary was not rescued from her doubts and fears and dreadful predicament. Joseph was not rescued from him nagging questions and personal responsibility. But neither were they left bereft and alone. Instead, in the midst of all of their messiness and humanity, God was revealed. Emmanuel was born – not above or beyond, but right alongside.
We don’t know what the future holds. But of this, dear friends, we can be sure – that God is revealed in the messiness of our lives. And it is precisely in places that we have never been before, that Emmanuel is born.