I am not a big fan of the Hallmark Christmas movie genre. I am sure you have seen one or two of these “classics.” The storyline is the same. A small town, a person comes home that has been away for a long time. The small town is in some crisis that only this person and can fix. Usually, the mine is closing, the store is being sold, or the family home that people have lived in for generations is being sold. There is usually an evil developer that comes into the story a little more than halfway through. There is a love interest of some kind, but in the end, it all works itself out, and everyone lives happily ever after. Well, only if life worked that way.
Many people will strive for that “perfect Christmas” the Christmas card Christmas with the fire burning in the background. At our house, it is usually on Netflix with Christmas Carols playing in the background. We search for that perfect gift, and maybe we find it, perhaps we don’t. We expend a tremendous amount of energy in pursuit of something that does not exist, something that is a creation of a greeting card company.
Many feel extreme joy this time of year, but others feel a sense of loneliness or sadness that prevents them from having the sort of Christmas that they think they should have. There is no such thing as a perfect Christmas.
Today we hear the second part if you will, of the Christmas story that began last week. This week we focus on Joseph and his role in all of this. But it is also a reminder that God sometimes upsets the comfortable social expectations and conventions. That first Christmas was anything but perfect. Most people would not expect God’s incarnation to come through the life of a poor girl from a backwater outpost of the Roman Empire. I think we sometimes forget just what a scandal the incarnation was and that behind that pretty nativity scene, there is a story of both wonder and scandal.
The passage we heard this morning from the Gospel of Matthew calls to mind the fact that preparations for that first Christmas were anything but perfect. Joseph, whom the text refers to as a “righteous person,” discovers that his soon-to-be-wife is pregnant. The writer of the story knows the back story that this is God’s Son, but this is unheard of in 1st Century Palestine, heck that is unheard of in 21st century New Hampshire!
In Joseph’s mind, this pregnancy is a violation of the social convention of his day. He decides that he is going to divorce Mary, which legally is the more humane of all of the options available to Joseph at this time. Because he is a righteous man, he decides to divorce her quietly so as not to disgrace Mary or her family.
We are like Joseph at times. We go about our business and do not want to stir things up or call attention to ourselves; we handle things quietly and without a fuss. There is a reminder for us in this text today that we do not always have to do things in a loud way to get them done; we can work behind the scenes to bring about change.
But there is another lesson to be learned through the actions of Joseph, sometimes the life we are being called to by God goes against and causes us to violate social conventions. Sometimes we are being urged to flip over the tables in the temple, refuse to sit at the back of the bus, use any drinking fountain or bathroom we want. Sometimes we are being called to stand up and to speak truth to power. Sometimes we are being urged to stand up even when everyone else is sitting down.
Joseph did not violate the social convention of his day to be rebellious; he broke convention because God, as God often does, intervened unexpectedly. God sent an angel to Joseph in his dream. The angel told Joseph that everything is going to be okay. God is about to do some fantastic stuff. Yes, God understands that he is asking you, Joseph, to do something that goes against everything you have been taught and understand to be accurate, but hang in there; God will be with you every step of the way.
This is the real message of this passage that God works even outside of the ways we think God works, in spite of the way we believe God works. God works through our less than perfect lives. God can use us even though we are wretched sinners beyond any hope of reconciliation. God can and will do something new and amazing!
Somehow, Joseph believes what the angel is telling him, that this child is from the Holy Spirit, that he already has a name, Jesus; and that he will save people from their sins. Those of us who know how this story unfolds and ends struggle with understanding just how this infant will save us from our sins and show us a new way, imagine what Joseph must have been thinking.
Again, we have all been Joseph. Perhaps there has been a time in your life when someone has intervened in your life that prevented you from doing something in haste or set your feet on a different path. I recently came across something that said, if you are in the position to help someone do it because God may be answering their prayer through you. Yes, we have all been Joseph, but we can all be the angel as well.
As one can imagine, this news catches Joseph off guard. He is unaware of the journey that he is about to be on. God has chosen Joseph to be the protector of his only son. Joseph has been called not only to go against every social convention he knows, but he is being called to make sure nothing happens to Jesus. Jesus is not his biological child, but Joseph will love him and care for him, risking his own life at times, to make sure nothing happens to him. Poor Joseph does not get the credit he deserves for the part he played in the story.
Mary and Joseph knew the end of the story; they knew that God was going to do something amazing, they did not know all the steps they would have to take in between, they started with small steps, following God’s promise that all would be well. But this text is also calling us to rise and to follow God’s call, not knowing where the journey will take us, or the path that God has set before us.