Message December 23, 2018

[Mat 1:18-25 RSV] 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

 

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,

            We have lots of hymns and readings that celebrate the great person and mother that Mary is, we know that she is and often contemplate what she may have felt.  Joseph, Jesus earthly father however often gets left out.  It is not that he doesn’t show up occasionally, but it is a much smaller role.  But today’s text really brings out some of the attributes of why God choose this man, Joseph to be the Earthly Father of Jesus the Christ. 

            Did you notice that we hear Joseph is going to marry Mary, and then when he finds out she is pregnant he is said to be planning on divorcing her.  Did that strike anyone else as really weird?  If they are engaged why doesn’t he just break off the engagement?  So when I was preaching this sermon in the Apartments this last week and asked how you break off an engagement they all said, you give him his ring back!  With a modern day engagements that is all you need to do.  You give him the ring and the whole deal is off.  No harm no foul!  Interesting fact, if you get engaged at Christmas, Valentine’s day or your birthday—you don’t even have to give the ring back, because it was considered to be a gift—you can just cancel the engagement with your words and sell the ring because it is considered a gift! 

            However in the ancient near east an engagement was like a marriage in everything but the legal paperwork.  The example I have from today is actually your driver’s license.  If you have ever talked to a 16 year old who has just gotten their license—they are very excited.  When you ask to see it, they don’t have a license, they just take out that yellow piece of paper saying they passed the driver’s test.  They get to drive with that piece of paper, it is not their license and they still need to wait for the driver’s license—because that means all the paperwork isn’t finished but they have the rights and privileges of driving until it arrives.  For the ancient near East being engaged is like that, it is basically already being married…you just have to wait for the paperwork to be filed. 

            So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that it is not his…well he has effectively just discovered that his wife has been cheating on him.  If the child is not his, then it is someone else’s.  He has every right to be mad/upset/ and publically humiliated.  He has every right to fume/yell/ and sue her for breach of contract.  Of course if he does that she will be publically outed as a breaker of the 6th commandment—thou shalt not commit adultery.  If he does that she will at worst be stoned to death as an adulterer and at best, be socially disgraced with no chance of ever getting married to an upstanding member of that society.  That culture did not forgive or forget such an offense easily.

Now Joseph is a good guy, he loves Mary and though he is really hurt instead of seeking to hurt her and get revenge (which you can understand why he would want to do that right?) he seeks to help her out as much as he can.  When Joseph divorces her there will be shame brought on her and her family and even if Joseph carries out his plan and does it quietly there will be talk and rumor.  Yet if handled correctly she will be alright, she will have lost standing, but will get to live.  And that is what Joseph seeks to do.  Do your best—be kind, be generous, you get to keep your boundaries, but within those boundaries be humble—even though you could take vengeance you choose not to.  These are all good values and important for people to emulate.  No wonder he was chosen to be the Earthly father to Jesus.

Sometimes when we talk about Religion that is what we want.  We want a good basis of morality and treating people well.  We want to have a love for our fellow humans and live together in harmony.  If you go from Confucius to Buddha to The Great Spirit it seems that most faiths want you to be good people.  We are mistaken if we believe that is the only point of faith, because while being good is well, good.  It is not enough.  Even though our faith does ask us to be good and a kind person there is so much more to our faith. 

So Joseph is a good person, but does that stop him from having his heart broken that first Christmas season?  Joseph is good, but he is still forced to leave his home to go and obey Caesar’s laws and get registered.  Many of us would consider ourselves “good people” people who are generally nice, and thoughtful, many of us helped with the Secret Santa and the Mitten Tree this year.  We have held doors for people and given sincere compliments and all of those are great things!  Yet they are not enough because many of us are also heartbroken.  Just like Joseph, we are missing people from our lives that can never be replaced.  For some of us it is because of situations like Joseph’s and there are divorces.  People who pledged to love forever haven’t been faithful. There is this brokenness of relations whether from a divorce or from a family feud that means that people who should have been there are no longer there.  It is tough to have Christmas celebratione when those people who would/or should be celebrating with us are somewhere else.  There are others who have experienced a death this year (or in the years past) and the more we hear the calls for family and celebration the more we realize that our celebration cannot be complete without that person we have lost. There is a permanent empty spot in our celebration that will not be filled this side of heaven.

During those times, this great talk of family and celebration can bring us more pain that joy. Many will experience the grief this year of what they are told should be a great time of family, friends, and fun, but will instead experience loneliness, grief, and regret.  And in those times being a generally good person (and we talk about Sinfulness other times so let’s for the sake of this sermon just assume we are all generally good people) is not enough.  It doesn’t mean we should stop trying to be good or fill this land with the spirit of Christ, but it does mean that if being good is all we have, then we do not have enough. Then faith is nothing more than a moral mandate to be nice.  A divinely enforced Santa rule so to speak.

It is important that we realize there was pain at the first Christmas, because if we imagine that it was all wonderful angels then we will be disappointed when the sorrow of life creeps into ours. The pain and suffering of life has been there since before the very night Christ was born.  In fact it is because of that pain and suffering that Christ was born. When Joseph goes to sleep that night he is heartbroken but clinging to his good plan. He will divorce Mary, forgive her and then move on. He will find someone who doesn’t cheat, and start a life with her. Yet that night everything changes. An angel appears in a dream and tells him that Mary hasn’t been messing around, and although the child is not his biological offspring—it is his Lord and Savior! This child that is going to be brought into the world is the Son of the Almighty and will save all the world from their sins.

I don’t know if you have ever had a dream in which you were pretty sure God was speaking to you directly—I have had only one, and I will say after that dream I was convinced! Joseph’s must have been so much more powerful than that, because in the morning he rises and all doubt and pain have gone away. The sadness and resolve to divorce Mary is gone, and he is now committed to her and the child. Like I said, he is truly a remarkable man.

            This heartbroken and broken Christmas is suddenly transformed; it has nothing to do with Joseph’s goodness but everything to do with God’s goodness. All of a sudden the reality of the world has shifted. All of Joseph’s correct assumptions proved not to be true. And his pain turns to joy. Now I wish that would mean that all of you who are suffering right now are going to wake up tomorrow knowing nothing but joy, but the truth is you will not. Instead though we have a God who came into Joseph’s pain and brought joy out of it, and we have the promise of Christ who will come into our pain and bring joy out of it also. It may not be tomorrow, but God can and will redeem it, maybe in this life, but certainly in the world here after. Thus today we praise God and we bring our pain and our joy and lay it at the manger—asking for God to come into them both and bringing us closer to him. Amen..