The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Delivered 12/20/98
Text: Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7:10-16)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

What a week! The confluences of history have flowed together as never before. On the one hand, bombshells in Baghdad; on the other, bombast in Washington. For someone who is as much of a history buff as I am, these would seem to be exciting times, but instead they are just sickening. As one congressman noted in the impeachment debate on Friday, this is "The Nightmare before Christmas."

Under normal circumstances, you would have found me glued to the tube on Friday and Saturday. After all, this was history! For only the second time in our nation's history, a sitting President, rightly or wrongly, was being impeached, and, of all things, by a lame duck Congress! But, to be honest, I could not bear to watch. The so-called debate was a sham - most of the speeches were delivered to empty seats in the House chamber and were given only for their value as film clips during local newscasts around the country. No minds were going to be changed. Yesterday's vote was a foregone conclusion cast almost exclusively on a partisan basis. The political drivel was only a repeat of what has been said over and over and over again in ten-second sound bites. The only statement that was genuinely new was Henry Hyde's incredible assertion that to fail to proceed with this process would somehow lead us down the path to AUSCHWITZ! Say what?

Meanwhile, this is all played out against a backdrop of cruise missiles, smart bombs, B-52's, and Stealth fighters pounding Iraq. Yes, the timing is suspect, but so is the method. Hundreds of millions of American dollars are going up in the smoke of Baghdad, dozens of innocent Iraqis are dead or injured (and thank goodness it is only dozens and not thousands) in an attempt to get Saddam Hussein to become an upstanding world citizen. The attempt has failed before, and no one doubts that it will fail again. But the bombs fell anyway. Surreal.

Religious leaders of every faith are saying this is wrong. Presbyterians agree. One would wish, though, that whomever the Pentagon chooses to come up with names for any future operations might be old enough for the job, or at least be enough of a student of history to do it right. Operation Desert Fox? Erwin Rommel was the Desert Fox. Erwin Rommel was a Nazi General! Another bizarre note to the nightmare.

Now add one more surreal element into this pageant - the sights and sounds, the lights, the laughter...of Christmas. Along with the bombshells and bombast, we hear, "Peace on earth...Goodwill." Something is oddly out of place.

Is there any word from the Lord in all this? You bet your life! I find it in this story of Joseph from our gospel lesson. If there is anyone in the Christmas story who could feel the kind of removal from reality that we experience in our mess, it would be Joseph.

Put yourself in his sandals. A simple man, a carpenter. He is about to get married. It would be the normal Jewish three-step procedure.(1) There was the engagement, which was often made when the couple were only children, usually through the parents or a professional match-maker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other - marriage was considered far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart. Then there was the betrothal which was the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. It lasted for one year during which the couple was known as man and wife, although they would not live together. Betrothal could only be terminated as a full-blown marriage could be - death or divorce. The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.

Joseph and Mary were at stage two. Suddenly, Mary turns up pregnant. And the baby is not Joseph's. Joseph KNOWS it is not Joseph's. What a dilemma! Nightmare!

What a jumble his feelings must have been! Rage? Unquestionably. Fury at her unfaithfulness. Fury at whomever had defiled the marriage bed with her. Embarrassment? Of course. Half his friends would think he was a fool for having been cuckolded, and the other half would think that he did not have enough self-control to wait until after the marriage feast. Sorrow? No doubt. His life was planned out - it was going to be with Mary. Now that would not be possible. Sorry for her too, even though this was something she had brought on herself.

Now what? Jewish law allowed stoning as the penalty for adultery, but that was a sentence not often carried out in practice. Joseph could have made a public spectacle of Mary to prove his own innocence in the affair. No. Finally, the decision was made to handle the situation quietly, to give her a Bill of Divorcement in the presence of two witnesses as the Law required, and then let her go her way. Perhaps she would return to the home of her cousin Elizabeth to avoid the shame of having the child in Nazareth. One way or another, the nightmare would be over.

But we know the story does not end there. He was asleep, but sometime during the night, was awakened with a start. "Joseph. Joseph. Wake up."

"What?" He looked around in the dark of his room, the only light from the moon beaming through the window. He saw the silhouette of a man. But there was something about him that told Joseph there was no reason to fear.

The silhouette spoke. "Joseph, son of David, 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."

Joseph had no chance to reply - the visitor disappeared. What would Joseph have said anyway? We can see him lying there thinking till morning, then, at daybreak, trying to figure out what had happened. Had there really been anyone there the night before? Perhaps it had been a dream. Just a continuation of the nightmare? No. The message was from the Lord. It was too strange to have come from anyone else.

We know the rest of the story. Joseph came through. The betrothal was resumed. There was that trip down to Bethlehem for the Roman census, not much fun for a very pregnant young lady. The baby came. Joseph named him - that was the prerogative of the father, and Joseph accepted this child as his own, "of the house and lineage of David," as the old King James has it. Good man.

One of my friends recalls the days when he taught confirmation to each year's 9th grade Sunday School class.(2) At this time of year, he would do the same exercise. He would tell the class that scholars thought that Mary was the same age as they were, about 14 or so. He would then show them Deuteronomy 22:23-24, where according to Jewish law Joseph could have brought charges against Mary, and if found guilty, she could have been put to death. He would then divide up the class with all the boys on one side and all the girls on the other. The girls' assignment was to list all of Mary's options, while the boys were to list Joseph's.

This usually would generate a lively discussion, especially once they realized they did not have to stick to nice, neat, happy-ending choices. With not much prompting, they would generate quite a list. Mary could have...had an abortion, claimed she was raped, committed suicide, run away, etc., etc. Joseph, on the other hand, could have...brought her to trial, quietly sent her out of town, left town himself, eloped with her, made up a story, etc., etc.

In one particular class when all of these options were listed on the chalkboard, my friend stood back. He asked, "What does all this tell you?"

The class was very quiet for a moment or two. Then John, the worst troublemaker in the bunch, said, "Wow! Look at all that could have gone wrong. God was really taking a risk."

Smart kid. Indeed, since the beginning of creation, God has been willing to risk. But I want you to note one thing, and if you take nothing else away from here this morning, take this. This very first story in the New Testament, this story about Joseph, this story about the nightmare his life had become, this story about the angel's midnight message, this story...is really GOD'S story. From the first story till the last, the essence is caught in something as simple as a name. Emmanuel. God is with us. Remember that the next time your own life has become a nightmare. Emmanuel. We are not alone. God is with us.

For many people around the planet, this has been a year of nightmares. In Asian nations millions of people have lost their livelihoods in the wake of the financial crisis. In other parts of the world tens of thousands have lost their homes as a consequence of floods and hurricanes. Throughout the year wars have taken their toll of innocent civilians and have added to the already-existing ranks of millions of refugees. Bad year.

But the good news I bring to you today is that the nightmares WILL end - they always do. Nations around the globe are beginning to get financial houses in order. Relief and rebuilding efforts are underway in Central America. The bombing in Baghdad has stopped; it soon will in Washington. Since the outcome in the Senate is as much a foregone conclusion as the vote in the House, perhaps cooler heads will prevail, a bipartisan resolution of censure will be adopted, and a months-long trial will be avoided. We can only hope. But as Richard Gephardt, the House Minority leader, said in the debate on Friday, "It's no wonder to me and to you that the people of our country today are cynical and indifferent and apathetic about our government and about our country. The politics of smear and slash and burn must end."

Good can come out of this Nightmare before Christmas. I know it with every fibre of my being. God takes awful situations and turns them around all the time. God can do it with this one too.

A few weeks ago, the North Carolina Council of Churches adopted an edited version of a paper authored by your pastor entitled, "With All Due Respect." It is a call to our political leaders to stop the partisan "mud wrestling," to raise the level of political discourse, and begin treating one another with civility. We know there can and even should be honest disagreement regarding policies and practices, but incivility frustrates the airing of those honest differences. The call to our politicians is STOP DEMONIZING THOSE WITH WHOM YOU DISAGREE! The call to the media is to stop relying on ten-second sound bites to frame political debate, because they encourage people to jump to conclusions, to speak without thinking, and to say outrageous things in order to capture attention. The call to the church is to insist on better performance by our political leaders in their public behavior (and private behavior improvement would also be appreciated). Once again, we CAN become a CIVIL society. Good CAN come out of this nightmare. Let us INSIST upon it.

Remember, nightmares end, whether they be national or personal. We are not alone. Good news. Emmanuel - God is with us. The darkness and all the terrors it holds fly away as the new day breaks.

Hurry, Lord. Bring on the dawn.

Amen!


1. William Barclay, CD-ROM, Daily Study Bible Series, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) Used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

2. Howard Chapman, Via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1998 12 20," #64, 12/17/98

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