Good News, Hard Choice!
December 17, 2022
There is much legend attached to the Christmas story; some of it with no reference point in the Scriptures; some of it like a beautiful frame around the picture and some, perhaps more fantasy than legend, function like a parable, pointing to truth beyond themselves. But whatever is set to paper, there is a thread pulled from the original tapestry, and it is the original "tapestry" that Matthew is interested in. Matthew begins: "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about..." Christianity is concerned with what actually happened because our faith is based upon truth, not the other way around. Believing something does not make it true; but truth, once it breaks through the clutter, faces us where we are with what it is. Rejection, not denial is our only recourse to commitment and God will hold us responsible. C.S. Lewis, a professed atheist until he was in his thirties, wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: "In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in England" (Surprised by Joy, P. 228) Lewis was a man of truth, no matter how hard it was to give in.
The Pledge: "His Mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph..." In the world into which Jesus entered a pledge was like an engagement only with stronger rules among God's People, the Jews. Once a couple was pledged to each other they would be considered man and wife only they would live separately for a full year after the pledge was made. After the year was up there would be a marriage ceremony and the man would take his bride home to his house. This was the state of Mary and Joseph's relationship. This is why the Scripture refers to Joseph and Mary as husband and wife before they came together. A marriage pledge carried so much weight that it could only be ended by a legal divorce for a reason prescribed by the laws of the Jewish Faith. As personal as marriage might be for a couple it was not private. It was monitored by the community.
Found With Child: Matthew writes that this is how it was: "before they came together (took up married life in the husband's home), she was found with child..." Both the Church and the world have a tendency to romanticize and porcelainize Mary's pregnancy but this is how it was: Mary went through religious hell for our sins. She was "found with child" by the community; we don't know if her parents believed her story or not. She was found with child before Joseph's visitation by the angel.
I sat with a teenage girl one time while she told her parent's she was pregnant. She was scared, I was scared, her parents had a hard time with the news. "But," you say, "Mary's situation was different." You know that; I know that; but Mary's community, a tight knit religious community, didn't know that. Matthew writes: "She was found with child through the Holy Spirit."
Joseph, "a Righteous Man" In my study of today's text, God's plan for children is to be raised by two, not just one, But two godly parents. In Luke 1 we learn that Mary was, "the Lord's servant," (you can't do better than that when you're picking a girl, guys). And in Matthew 1 we learn that Joseph was a, "righteous man." You can't do better than that when picking a guy, girls. Why? If he is faithful to God, he will be faithful to you!
I strongly disagree with expressions within the Christian faith who say a virgin birth was not necessary. From the Nativity story we learn that God's ways are not safe, and many times not comfortable. If you want safe don't become a Christian! Anne McConney, an Episcopal priest, writes, concerning the way it was, circumstances of Jesus' birth: "...miracles are messy. That erupt like explosions into our careful lives...They change our ideas about how the world ought to be. They remind us that God is neither comfortable nor controllable, that God is, in fact quite prone to do the unexpected.. Most of the time we don't want (a miracle). A miracle might change us; a miracle might make us think new thoughts in new ways; (reprinted in the Covenant Companion, December, 2006).
Caught Between the Truth and a Hard Place: When the word got out that Mary was pregnant and Joseph found out he was caught between the truth and a hard place. Joseph was a righteous man and therefore obedient to the laws of God. He was a man of the Book, or in those days, the scrolls. Mary's apparent circumstances required that Joseph must divorce her and be encouraged to do that publicly; a process that would be horrible beyond Mary's worst nightmares. If Joseph didn't divorce her he would be most likely accused of being the father in a illegitimate relationship. What is he to do? He lost a lot of sleep, finally deciding, out of a broken heart, to divorce her privately, to spare her further embarrassment and heartache. But sometimes our best attempts to formulate a plan within the parameters of our faith fall short of God's solution. We might be missing something; we need to hear from God; lay our plan at his feet and ask, "God, you know my heart, I have a plan but no peace, am I missing something?"
So Matthew says, this is how it was: "...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Verses 20-21). And being a righteous man he did not leave Mary, but did as the angel of the Lord had said. "He took Mary home as his wife (as presumably, the gossip and hurtful accusations continues) and because he was a righteous man. "He had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus" (Verse 25).
Joseph and Mary. Real people in a real world; caught between the truth and a hard place because of their commitment to God. They never imagined it would be this way. This Messiah thing, or that they would have a part in it. But it was and they did and so the prophecy was fulfilled: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel - which means, 'God with us.'"
Until next time,