December 6, 2020
I saw this meme circling around the internet a few months ago and thought I’d share it with you all this morning. It was titled, “If 2020 was a math problem,” (kids, you will get all the bonus points if you can get this one right …) It goes like this. “If you’re going down a river at 2 MPH and your canoe loses a wheel, how much pancake mix would you need to re-shingle your roof?
If 2020 was a math problem. Now, if it doesn’t make any sense, well, that’s the point. The “math problem” as it were, like 2020, has been, a bit disorienting and a bit of a mess.
And in many ways, the Christmas story when you add up all the facts and the context surrounding it, at first glance, seems a bit non-sensical, it’s a bit of a mess.
In the Christmas story, into the world comes the son of God, but yet not into fame and riches and safety and security, but rather he’s born as a baby, in a small town, to two poor teenage parents, born in a backyard stable. The circumstances surrounding his arrival defies every expectation we might have for someone of Jesus’s stature. And yet there’s one more detail that I think we often miss, a detail at the center at our story today. And that is, Jesus was born into a scandal. Yes, into a tabloid level scandal. He was born in a scandalous way, a son seemingly born out of wedlock, that is, to the perception of the community around him, and I’ll explain more about that shortly. The point for now is that any way you look at it, Jesus was born into one heck of a mess. Which is actually good news for you and me. For people with messy lives, in a messy and disorienting 2020.
Last week we started our Advent Sermon Series, where we’re taking the Christmas story in slow motion as we study some of the key characters of the Christmas story. Last week we looked at Mary, the mother of Jesus herself and in Mary we witnesses her remarkable faith and obedience to the call upon her life to be the mother of Jesus. And today, we continue on by looking at a similar yet, different passage as we take a closer look at Mary’s husband, Joseph.
And similar to Mary last week, Joseph too was encountered by an angel, an angel who tells him about the upcoming birth of Jesus. But yet the circumstances and context for Joseph’s angel encounter were very different.
Here’s how our passage begins and right away we’ll get a sense of the scandalous nature of Jesus’s birth -
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiahtook place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
So here’s what we know. Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married, and yet sometime before their wedding day, they both learn that Mary is pregnant. Now, when exactly Joseph learns of this, we’re not totally sure. Maybe he one day noticed she had a bit of a baby bump, or yet probably more likely is that Mary simply broke the news to him over dinner one night and told him that the angel Gabriel stopped by earlier and told her that’d she’d be giving birth to the son of God. Maybe they had that conversation, maybe they didn’t, but if they did, don’t you wish you could have been a fly on the wall for that one? Anyway, we’ll never know for sure how Joseph found out.
Regardless, at the very least we know this. Mary and Joseph are engaged and Mary is pregnant. And for Joseph, having not had his own angel encounter just yet, for him the only logical explanation as he sees it is that Mary must have been unfaithful to him. After all, he knows for sure that it’s not his baby, therefore, it must be someone else’s. And even if in fact Mary did try to persuade and convince him that her pregnancy was the result of an immaculate conception of the Holy Spirit, can you really blame the guy for not believing her?
You see, Joseph’s only logical explanation for all this is that Mary’s been unfaithful to him, which had to have absolutely crushed him. It must have devastated him. All of his hopes and dreams and plans have now sailed away. His whole life, as he sees it, has become an absolute mess. And now he’s got to figure out what his next move is. And so here’s what our passage says next -
It says, 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here. When it says that he “planned to dismiss her quietly” it’s essentially the equivalent to saying that “planned to divorce her.”Apparently engagement was more serious and binding than it is today, to the point where to break off an engagement back then would have legal ramifications. And so, he plans to divorce her, but yet it says, he plans to do so quietly, in a way that is honoring to her and without bringing her undue shame or making a public spectacle of the whole thing.
And by divorcing her quietly, Joseph can maintain his reputation as righteous man, that is, someone who is obedient to and upholds God’s law, and he plans to accomplish this both in terms of not staying in relationship with someone who he believes to be an adulteress, but yet also, by letting her go in a compassionate and honoring way, in a way that maintains her dignity as far as possible.
And yet, just as he was about to go forward with the divorce, it says,
an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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.
Well, that is important information - that kind of changes everything now doesn’t it? Now, on one hand that had to be comforting news to Joseph. Here he either learns, or has reaffirmation to what Mary told him, that in fact, the child conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit and that Mary has in fact remained faithful and committed to him.
And yet the angel in this announcement also tells him, “do not be afraid.” You see, though there’s the comfort of knowing that Mary has in fact been faithful to him, there’s also the discomfort of knowing that this will be a challenging road going forward. Lord knows, word gets around quickly in a small town like Nazareth and it’s only a matter of time before people put two and two together – and that the time between Mary and Joseph’s wedding date and giving birth to Jesus do not add up. Everyone will know that this is an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, either because the two of them conceived this child before they got married or because Mary was unfaithful to Joseph and had someone else’s kid. This is a scandal in the making no matter how they try and explain it. (Now, to be clear, our modern sensibilities may bristle at the idea of a child being born out of wedlock being seen as scandalous, I’m simply trying to articulate how the people way back when would have perceived things) The point is this: in a shame and honor society, where reputation was everything, this was going to be a hard road to walk for Joseph (and Mary too, for that matter).
Even more, the angel says this to him and you are to name him Jesus –
In this patriarchal society, it was the father who had the responsibility of naming the sons, and in naming Jesus, Joseph would effectively and legally be adopting Jesus as his own. He would now be his responsibility, where he would then be “all in.” And later we’re told, that’s exactly what he did – he named him Jesus.
In this story,Joseph was invited to say yes to God’s call. Called to say yes to this divine interruption, to say yes to this new and unexpected turn his marriage his taking, to adopt a son that biologically wasn’t his own, but will soon be in just about every way. It was costly, sacrificial, the whole situation was incredibly messy. Joseph steps in and says yes to the mess.
And in many ways, Joseph’s story and the call that was placed on his life, is similar to that of Jesus’s story, and the Christmas story at large. In Jesus, we see God himself step into our mess.
Here in this passage, we’re given some insight as to the meaning for two of the names of the Son of God. One being Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” The other being Jesus, which technically means “The Lord saves” or as Matthew fleshes out for us, that this Jesus will save us for our sins. In these two names we are given a better understanding of who this Son of God really is, both in his being, but yet also his purpose. He’s the God with us, the God who came and dwelt among us, who lived life alongside us, he’s Immanuel, but yet, we’re also given insight into his purpose.
You see Jesus stepped into our mess, he came on a divine rescue mission, he entered and made himself vulnerable to the sins and injustices, troubles and brokenness of this world, so that he could save us and forgive us of our sins.
As the song goes, as we just sang, “Mild he lays his glory by; born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”
Joseph, in a way, in his costly sacrifice, as he takes on a sense of shame for sins he didn’t commit, is a picture of Jesus’s great love and sacrifice for us.
So friends, here’s my encouragement and challenge to us all in this Advent season
Find ways to step into and embrace the mess of the people and lives around you. In doing so, we reflect and image the loving and sacrificial way in which Joseph, and more importantly Jesus, stepped into our mess and brokenness.
What might it look like to step into the mess of someone else? A phone call, a thoughtful gift, a handwritten card, listening to and consoling a crying friend, offering to help move, a grocery run, shoveling snow, rides to and from the hospital or clinic, an encouraging note to our doctors and medical professionals who are swamped right now, a date night for our teachers who are overwhelmed in this season … go find one way in which you can help and be with and walk through the mess with someone … make a window visit to one of our members at the nursing home, isolated to a level that the rest of us can’t even begin to understand.
We can also flip this around as well. Not only should we actually step into the mess of someone else, let’s be courageous and vulnerable and invite people into our messes as well. That’s one of the greatest gifts we can actually give each other – the gift of not having it all together.
I was visiting over the phone with one of our church members this week and I asked this person how I could be praying for them and they shared about their marriage and how all the time together and close proximity has been good in some ways, but challenging in others. And this person was asking for patience and understanding, for hardened hearts to be softened. And I just love that prayer request – this person was inviting me into the messiness of their life in a real and tangible way. What might that look like for you?
In this season of isolation and quarantine and staying at home, and all of that is right and necessary, and maybe it’s harder than ever to help those in need but yet what might it look like to go out and embrace the mess of someone else or to invite someone into yours?
I’ll finish with this …
One of the books I was reading in preparation for this message described Joseph as the “unsung hero” of the Christmas story. That’s nice, I guess, but yet a little much if you ask me. In my opinion, anytime you have a husband and wife who are expecting, the only person in that duo worthy of being a called a hero is the wife, you know, the one who’s actually pregnant. In the grand scheme of things us guys might as well be a decorative house plant in the childbearing process. But unsung hero? C’mon. But yet, let me try and get serious here again, you can see what that particular author was getting at. Joseph is rather heroic. Joseph took responsibility that wasn’t his own, sacrificed his reputation, wedded a vulnerable Mary, and raised a child that wasn’t biologically his own.
That’s rather heroic, yes. And as we’ve already highlighted, in a way, Joseph is a picture of Jesus himself.
How many of us, if we were Joseph and simply walked out the door, said ‘exit stage left,’ this isn’t my problem, this isn’t mine to own. But yet Joseph said yes. He was courageous, maybe fueled by both his love for God as well as his deep love for Mary.
You see, Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is a picture of the adoption that is possible for all of us, that Jesus started on that rescue mission so many years ago, to adopt us once and for all into the family of God. Friends, that’s what we celebrate and remember this Christmas season. That he is Emmanuel, God with us, and that he calls us to be in his family forever and ever.