Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019
“How does your family celebrate Christmas?” You might be asked by an acquaintance as you sip beverages at a holiday party.
“Oh,” you respond, “we usually stay home, take it easy. And your family?”
He answers, “We normally travel to my in-laws’ place.”
Normally? Usually? What are we talking about here? We’re talking about the birth of Christ, that’s what! Words like ‘normally’ and ‘usually’ don’t have a home in this story. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the story of God saving the world. We retell and relive the story every year, but the repetition doesn’t normalize or demystify what’s happening. God has acted and is acting among us.
The story begins with a man and woman in ancient Israel, about 6BC, betrothed to be married. The Jewish betrothal was more binding than what we consider an engagement today.
Today, a UNC senior and his girlfriend walk across campus. They come to the Old Well, he drops to a knee, and proposes. Through tears of joy, she says yes, and they’re engaged. After graduation, she has a change of heart. She gives the ring back, breaks off the engagement, and that’s it. Tears are shed, feelings hurt, and dreams broken. The law is not involved. It’s sad, but it happens all the time.
In ancient Israel a betrothal was a legal contract each family entered. Aside from infidelity, betrothals weren’t broken. The “giving and taking of sons and daughters in marriage” was a sign of normal life. One of the ways a prophet would indicate God was about to bring the absolute disruption of society was to say “No more will they be given and taken in marriage.”[i] I know I said “normal” does not fit in this story, but the story starts in the most normal of ways, with a betrothal.
When Joseph learns his betrothed is pregnant, and he has not slept with her, he reaches the normal conclusion. She’s committed adultery. Sadly, that too, was a common occurrence, common enough that there was a legal statute regarding it. For ancient Israelites, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy was the law. Deuteronomy 22:21 states that a woman guilty of adultery will be taken to the gate of her father’s home, and stoned to death there by the community.
It’s possible that by 6BC, death by stoning was no longer a normally practiced punishment for adultery. Even if that’s the case, Mary the adulteress would be tattooed with shame, a fate almost like death in a shame-based culture. You can bet that conservative legalists would watch Joseph closely. How, Joseph, will you deal with this hussy you’ve taken for a wife? Some people are sadistic in how eager they are to see harsh punishment laid down on people who mess up.
Joseph wasn’t listening to the heavy-handed conservative legalists. He knew the law. He had options in front of him. He could ruin Mary’s name and Mary’s family name. All he had to do was call for a public trial, which was within his rights. But Joseph was a compassionate man. He may have even forgiven Mary, but staying with her was not one of his options. He did not think he could go through with the marriage, so he would handle it all with no fanfare. Matthew writes, “her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
Joseph did not know what was coming next. He was operating in ordinary time, in everyday circumstances. For the sake of compassion, he would suck up the embarrassment and heartache and he would do it quietly. He may have felt hurt by what he thought Mary did, but he wasn’t going to hurt her. He would protect her reputation as much as he could, ending the whole thing quietly.
The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the story of God saving the world. Who are the human partners God employed in this story? One was Mary. We get her side of the story in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view. He didn’t know God was watching. He didn’t know he was about to become the earthly dad in the “holy family.” He was an Israelite carpenter determined to the right thing even when the right thing seemed to come with no reward. The one option he did not see available to him was staying with Mary.
Renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas sees Matthew’s gospel as an ongoing exercise to help us see the world through Christ.[ii] When we see the world through Christ, we throw normal out the window. We see people and circumstance differently, with new eyes. For Hauerwas, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is a way of describing the beginning of new creation. What does the world look like in the new creation?
The first glimpse for Joseph comes in verse 20, when the story jumps from normal to something we can hardly imagine. Circle that verse because it is where everything turns for him and for us. The verse begins, “just when he had resolved to do this.” ‘This’ is his compassionate response, mercy for Mary, unsatisfactory for the punishment-minded legalists, but revealing of this carpenter’s godly heart.
The next words, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream,” change everything. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” the angel tells Joseph, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” From the Holy Spirit; what does that even mean?
Joseph was afraid. Angel visits shock the heart. And this would be just the first of many angel visits and fear-producing steps in this humble man’s journey. But beyond the fear, Joseph was invited into something wonderful, a new work of God. As we follow him through the story and experience it as he did, we too are invited to step into new creation, the wonderful story of God acting in the world. We are beckoned by the story as Joseph was by the angel. We may join in this new thing God is doing. Faith in Jesus is the key that unlocks the door.
Joseph wanted to do right by showing compassion to Mary, but he was still afraid of what people would think and say. He was not ready to think outside the box in which he lived. Without God’s help we aren’t ready for that either.
Fear drove the legalists to want to punish adulteresses. If they could righteously condemn her sin, they wouldn’t have to face their own. We see so much condemnation of others in our own day, especially in politics and in the blogosphere and other social media platforms. In America, we have a hair trigger. We’re ready to pounce with our words of shame for her – she messed up as a parent; or for him, he’s an addict and commits crimes to get his next fix; for this politician because I don’t like his policies; or for that coach – he doesn’t win enough; or for our own child – he’s not becoming who I think he ought to be. We liberally toss around judgment. It’s safe.
It’s scary to face our own shortcomings. The outrage we spew in condemning others protects us from the more real, rawer work of seeing our own sins, seeing the damage we do, and confessing. What does the angel then say, after telling Joseph not to be afraid because Mary is carrying a Holy Spirit baby? “He will save his people from their sins.”
Israel wanted a Savior. Around the time Jesus was born, all kinds of people were claiming to be the Messiah. Joseph along with every other Israelite knew the rhetoric. A Savior Messiah will unite the people to rise up and with the power of God drive the Romans out of the Promised Land. The Savior was supposed to save God’s people from foreign occupation. They held this expectation because they did not understand that the real problem wasn’t Rome or Greece before them or Persia before them or Babylon before them. The real problem was sin.
The angel promised Joseph that the baby his wife carried in her womb would be a Messiah to save Israel and the world from sin. Homiletics professor David Lose notes the simplicity of the story. Jesus was born of Mary in the normal way, the way all people are born. He would live an extraordinary life, but then die, just as people die. But, because of who he was, his death meant anyone who put their faith in him, would never again need to fear death.[iii]
Jesus was an unexpected Messiah offering salvation to all people even though it wasn’t exactly the salvation they sought. Joseph played a central role in the beginning of the story by obeying the angel in spite of his fear. Each time his life turned from the normal he understood to some new twist he never would have imagined, he ventured deeper into the story of God.
You and I have our normal Christmas holiday traditions and practices. We read the story every year. This year, I think the story calls us to enter. God acted to save the world in the birth of Jesus. In our telling of his story, in our living out our faith in him by showing the type of compassion Joseph showed, God today draws us and the world into the salvation he offers. Living the story, we accept that normal life has come to an end. God has something we might not expect in mind. It is better than anything we could ever ask or imagine.
[i] Revelation 18:23 is one example of this.
[ii] Hauerwas, Stanley (2006), Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids), p.24.
[iii] Working Preacher website - http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961