"The Good News of God-With-Us"
We don't know very much about Joseph. But in today's account in Matthew, Joseph was a central character. Matthew tells us that Joseph makes the disturbing and painful discovery that his fiancée is pregnant. According to first century Jewish law, their engagement—or betrothal—was the first stage of the marriage contract. For all intents and purposes, then, Mary and Joseph were married, but hadn’t yet moved in with each other or consummated their union. That would have taken place a few months later, when there would be a feast to celebrate when Joseph took Mary to his home.
We’re so used to hearing the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth that we risk not hearing what Matthew is telling us here: this is an unplanned pregnancy. Joseph knows he isn’t the father. In their patriarchal culture, the birth of the first born son was all important-- and crucial to the family line and property transfer. He’s supposed to believe that Mary’s baby is from the Holy Spirit?
In our own time, when a lot of people raise children without benefit of marriage, the issue of legitimacy may sound a bit quaint. But the heart of this story is much bigger and more profound than that. The heart of the story is about a just man-- a good, decent, conventional, law-abiding man of first century Palestine-- who wakes up one day to find his life turned upside-down. His betrothed wife is pregnant, and decent, conventional men of his time did not marry girls who are “found to be with child by someone else.” It would have been obvious to anyone in the neighborhood that Mary had betrayed his trust and the very order of things.
Mary's pregnancy forces Joseph to consider his options. He’s a righteous man, which means that he loves God and tries his best to follow God's laws in his own life. So he turns to that law for guidance in what to do with Mary.
According to Jewish law, Joseph had two options. He could bring charges against Mary in a public trial. He could accuse her of adultery. This might have resulted in her death, by stoning.
The second option would be to divorce her quietly, without pressing charges against her. In the presence of two witnesses, he could write out a paper of divorce and present it to her.
Joseph had decided to take the second option and divorce Mary quietly. Instead of invoking the law, he decides to arrange for her to go away from the accusing eyes of neighbors, have her baby discreetly, and then each will go their separate ways.
Joseph must have been having a restless night, tossing and turning, when an angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream, and tells him he has an important role to play in God’s salvation plan. He hears the angel saying, "Don't be afraid, Joseph. The child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. God wants you to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The way Matthew tells it, everything hangs on what Joseph decides. If Joseph believes the angel and obeys, the story can continue. Mary will have a home and a family... and her child will be born the son of David.
But what if Joseph doesn't believe? What if he wakes up from his dream and divorces Mary? Then she’d be an outcast-- possibly killed by her family for disgracing them and herself... or disowned by them and left to scratch out her living however she can-- feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she can beg or steal. She and the baby would be marginalized and vulnerable.
The child is Joseph's until he says otherwise. Whether or not he is the biological father, Joseph becomes the child's father the moment he says so, because the issue at stake is not simply a biological one but a legal one. Jewish law states: "If someone says, 'This is my son,' he is so attested."
According to Matthew, Joseph's belief is as crucial to the story as Mary's womb. It takes both parents to give birth to this remarkable child: Mary to give him life... and Joseph to adopt him and give him a NAME-- Jesus, son of David, from whose house the Messiah shall come.
The story is about a righteous man who looks at a mess he didn’t create-- and decides to trust that God is present in it.
Joseph's conventional sense of right and wrong and righteousness gives way to God's. Joseph trusts and obeys... and decides to take Mary home with him to be his wife.
This is a beautiful example of self-sacrificing love and grace. The LAW stated his options clearly. They both involved judgment and punishment. But Joseph is challenged to be bound by an even greater law-- the law of LOVE.
This man who has always seen righteousness as a matter of following the rules, coloring inside the lines, now trusts in the promise of the angel and takes Mary as his wife. Here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Joseph becomes the primary example for true righteousness and faithful discipleship. Everything in the drama of Jesus Christ that will unfold from this moment hinges upon this man and his righteousness.
Can we relate to this story?
We look around the world-- Syria… Yemen… Darfur and South Sudan… Palestine and Israel… and in our own nation, where many people feel anxious and hopeless… maybe even like strangers in a strange land.
We see things that are unjust. We are appalled when we hear words of bigotry and hatred. We’re deeply concerned for those who are marginalized or oppressed.
When we're presented day by day with circumstances beyond our control, we may be tempted to divorce ourselves from it all.
But then maybe we hear an ANGEL whispering in our ears: "Don't be afraid. God is here, in the midst of all this. It may not be the life you had planned. But God may be born here too-- if you'll permit it."
Can we hear God’s word for us? Don’t be afraid. Trust in God’s promises. The messy, impossible things we see around us have the possibility of new life and new possibilities.
For that to happen, God needs human partners. Joseph and Mary. And you and me. Ordinary people who are willing to work with God, as partners in God’s plans for good.
I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “Our lives... our losses... our Lord. And not just each of us alone, but the whole church of God, looking out at a world that seems to have run amuck... groaning in labor pains and proclaiming over and over again to anyone who will HEAR that God is still with us... that God is still being born-- in the mess and through it... within and among those who will still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.”
Sometimes that means sleeping on something, instead of being too quick to think we know what God's will is. Sometimes it means struggling with difficult issues. Sometimes it means changing our minds about what's right and wrong.
We live in a broken and fearful world. But in the midst of chaos and fear and sadness, the message of Christmas is that God is with us. God has come to us in Jesus, full of grace and truth, to bring God’s amazing, transforming love to us.
I’ve started re-reading Rev. Dr. William Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction, in preparation for our next Engage book group gathering in late January, and over the weekend I noticed one of the first passages I underlined a year ago. Rev. Barber was talking about the influence his un-educated grandmamma had on him. He recalls how when he was growing up, he’d sit in the kitchen as his grandmamma and others would cook quantities of food for the family and others. She and some other ladies from church would gather food, anointing oil, and some money, and they’d say, “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.”
As a young boy, he thought his uneducated grandmamma was mis-speaking-- that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” He thinks he may have even tried to correct her error in wording a time or two.
But looking back, he says he sees that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon.
“As a person of faith struggling to survive in a society that so often despised her and the people she loved most, my grandmamma knew that any prayers worth their salt had to be accompanied by food for the hungry.
She and other mothers of the church practiced ‘visitation’ as a spiritual discipline, every bit as important as Sunday worship or Holy Communion. She knew in her bones that faith and works, belief and practice, were inseparable. And she knew in her careful choice of words that love in action was not simply about helping people. It was a practice of hope that both enabled others to keep going and helped her to keep her eyes on the prize and hold on.
Rev. Barber writes, “Though she had no formal training in theology, my grandmamma knew what the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann said so clearly: ‘Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the good of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfilled presence.’”
Jesus is waiting to come into our hearts more fully this Christmas... to changed us, little by little... and to fill our lives with the wonder and joy of God's love… and invites us to work in partnership with him to bring the kingdom of love into the world.
Joseph believed the good news he heard from God, and he said YES to God's plan. His heart and mind were changed, and he became God's partner in the divine salvation plan.
May it be so with us!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
December 18, 2016
 Barbara Brown Taylor, "Believing the Impossible," in Gospel Medicine.
 Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement (Beacon Press, 2016), p. 3.
 Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 21.