HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1: 18-24 (CEB)
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.
We continue this morning our Advent series looking more closely at those who surrounded Christ at the time of his birth: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, angels and others. The Nativity is often a beautiful decoration in our home, but we probably think very little about each of those characters and what their presence at Jesus’ birth tell us about the new work God was beginning in Christ. Last week, we spent some time with Mary and we talked about Mary’s willingness to follow God’s will, even though it would take her through what would certainly be many trying circumstances. Mary was a humble servant who willingly said to God, “Here I am, use me. May it be with me according to your will.”
To a great degree, the same is true of Joseph. Here is a man who was prepared to marry this woman, who as we see, had just revealed that she was pregnant, and not by him. Joseph had decided to dismiss young Mary and move on with his life, but as Matthew tells the story, he didn’t. After the angel visited Joseph in his dreams, Joseph changed his plans. He set aside his bad feelings against Mary and he disregarded the future struggles that might come because of this unplanned path that had now been laid out before them, and he, like Mary, submitted himself to the will of the Father and God’s new plans for their lives. We see that Joseph, too, was a humble servant of the Lord. But there is something more at work here with Joseph, and that is the mercy, compassion, and faith that he shows in the face of Mary’s unexpected news.
We heard again this morning the story of Joseph and Mary’s engagement, their pledge to be married. Among Jews at this time, the marriage vows were made at something called a betrothal, and the law required that only death or divorce could end these vows. The normal interval of time between this pledge to get married and the time that the husband and wife would live together and have a physical union was a year. But during this interval Mary became pregnant. And according to the law, this is a situation that could be punishable by death. Imagine what a difficult problem this must have caused! We talked last week about the challenges Mary would have faced, so let us think now about what this news means for Joseph. Mary was pregnant, but Joseph knew that he had nothing to do with it.
Can you imagine how Joseph would have felt? I mean, think of a time in your life when you felt you had been betrayed by someone you loved and trusted. You feel angry, frustrated, hurt, let down, wounded, heart-broken, sad, hopeless, perhaps even jealous. I imagine that Joseph probably felt all those emotions, and maybe many more. Matthew tells us, “When Mary…was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” (Period) “Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.” It seems like it was all so simple doesn’t it? Mary was pregnant. (Period) So Joseph decided to divorce her. But think of all that is not said. There is a whole lot that happens where that period is. Joseph has to sort through all those emotions. He may even think about what he’d like to do to that guy who got Mary pregnant. He has to think about the implications of this news, and his own actions related to it. If he turns Mary in for adultery, she could be put to death. If he claims the child as his own, they could both be punished for their failure to follow the marital laws. It’s not just that Mary was pregnant and so Joseph decided to divorce her. There was a lot to sort through. I’m sure Joseph lost some sleep over the decision, but finally, he decides what to do.
Matthew tells us, “Joseph…was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate [Mary], he decided to call off their engagement quietly.” And here’s where we get the first glimpse of Joseph’s deep level of mercy and compassion. Joseph could have decided to publicly accuse Mary—making a spectacle of her, and thus causing her to be stoned to death. He could have gotten his revenge! After all, the law was on his side. Joseph already had a career as a carpenter, and there were probably plenty of other fish in the sea. These thoughts must have crossed his mind. It would have made perfect sense, and the townspeople might have been more than happy to participate in a public stoning. Joseph could have been a hero in the eyes of the people. Joseph could have decided to do things the way most people would have done them, but instead, Joseph decided he would dismiss Mary quietly. This would allow him to save face, but it would also save Mary’s life. Joseph chose mercy over the law of retribution.
During his ministry, Jesus taught that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Any righteous Jew, like Joseph, would understand that righteousness comes through obedience to the law. Emphasis was on following ritual, obeying regulations, and making sacrifices of burnt offerings. But even before Jesus is born, God teaches us about a new kind of righteousness; righteousness that is borne out of the mercy and compassion that we show to others. The way that we begin to learn about this new righteousness is through Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, in his actions toward Mary. And look what happened!
When that spark of compassion ignited in Joseph, his desperate situation was completely turned around by the entrance of God. God’s will literally led Joseph in a direction that he did not expect to take! Once Joseph had made the decision to do the ‘right’ thing, we see that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” What a shocker that must have been!
You know, we’ve had an onslaught of bad news in our area over the last couple of weeks. I don’t know how that has affected each of you, but I’ll just admit to you that it’s left me in a kind of strange place. I feel like I’m in really unfamiliar territory. On the one hand, I have all these questions. On the other hand, I’m finding no adequate answers and no real sense of peace. Everyone keeps saying, “It’s okay, God’s got this. God is with all these people who are suffering,” and so on. It’s the same kind of stuff I normally say when there are these accidents and natural disasters that we’ve seen the last few weeks. But somehow, this time, to me, that seems like a cop out. It doesn’t feel like enough.
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have an “appropriate” response; this was just what was on my mind this week as I was thinking about Joseph. Because, the truth is, Joseph got slammed with some pretty bad news all of a sudden. Matthew doesn’t tell us a whole lot about how Joseph processed that news, but I doubt very seriously that he just immediately “decided” what he was going to do. The Bible doesn’t say that Joseph cried out to God. It doesn’t even say that Joseph cried, although he probably did. Matthew tells us that Joseph was righteous, but he tells us nothing about how Joseph was feeling after he received the news of Mary’s unplanned pregnancy; if he was angry, or doubting, or depressed. He got the news; he lived with it for some undisclosed about of time—likely wrestling with all his options—until he came to a decision. Then, once that decision was made, the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and explained exactly what was happening. Then, Joseph’s life was set on an entirely different course, even from the one he had just decided to follow.
Anyway, I say that to say this. I learned a little from Joseph this week about how to deal with bad news when there are no easy answers. Sometimes, it seems, the best we can do is just be faithful. Based on what our faith tells us about who God is, we have to do the best we can to find our way out of a bad circumstance, even when things get so bad that it feels like God isn’t even there, isn’t even listening. And what the story of Joseph shows us is that when we live righteously, when we are faithful to the best of our ability, God will show up, and God will do amazing things. For Joseph, answers and assurances came immediately. For us, it might take a whole lot longer, but the facts don’t change. Somehow, some way, sometime, God will show up. The birth of Christ is proof of that promise, and we always have that promise before us, even when it may seem as if there is nothing else. I have to believe that now; as families continue to face immense grief in the aftermath of the bus accident, as people pick up the pieces of their devastated lives after the fires and tornadoes and floods. We have to believe that God is still going to show up in amazing ways. It seems trite. But it’s not trite; it’s faith.
Joseph’s life was changed when Mary told him that she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit. And at least at first, this was not good news; no matter how he responded, his future was going to be radically different. He could have chosen to cast judgment upon Mary and sent her away to be ridiculed and ostracized, maybe even stoned. And that would have been a pretty miserable future, not only for Mary, but for Joseph as well. Instead, Joseph decided he would handle the news with as much compassion as possible, he would dismiss Mary quietly so no one would know of the scandal, and Mary’s life would be spared. That, too, would have led to a pretty miserable future; he would have to separate from his wife, this woman he loved and to whom he had devoted himself. And he probably would have worried regularly about the baby’s health and well-being without a father to care for it.
But because Joseph kept faith and opened a window of mercy, God’s work carried forward in the best possible way. God showed Joseph his plan, and before long, Mary and Joseph were the happy parents of the most important person who has ever been born. They were the parents of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. And because of their devotion; because of Mary’s willingness and Joseph’s mercy, we are all offered hope for the future through our Savior, Jesus Christ!
I don’t know about you, but I need that hope today.