18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus
I really enjoy our weekly RobbinsWay Biblestudy. The preaching pastor brings the scripture for the week next door. A group of residents – some Lutheran and some from other denominations read the scripture together and discuss it, ask really good questions and make helpful observations. For example, this past week, I introduced the Gospel as Matthew’s version of the Christmas story told from the perspective of Joseph and one person said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story.”
I was a bit surprised – but then I realized that – as a church but also to the extent that the Christmas story is told in our culture - we are so focused on Luke’s Christmas story – that we either ignore Matthew’s story or mix the Christmas stories together. In most of the Christmas plays, Joseph gets one line – “Do you have any room in the inn?” or he plays the strong silent type.
But Matthew tells a different story. Matthew gives us a clue into the heartache – heartbreak of Joseph because Joseph had relationship problems. His fiancé was pregnant – and he knew the child wasn’t his.
Breaking an engagement – just that word – breaking… gives a hint of the pain involved. A friend of mine told me the painful story of breaking his engagement. He said, he felt horrible leading up to the date of the wedding because there was no reason that he shouldn’t go through with the marriage. His fiancé was a lovely young woman. She was beautiful, smart, kind. They got along. His fiancé was blissfully busy with planning the perfect wedding. But… he wasn’t sure…and his best friend happened to be another woman and he wasn’t sure where his heart was going and so as the date of the wedding came closer he told his fiancé, “I need more time. Don’t send the invitations.” But…she didn’t listen. She sent them anyway. When he found out, the answer that he was looking for became crystal clear. He called off the wedding. And the next day, together, through tears, they sent out cancellation notices. He described it as: gut-wrenching sadness.
As painful as that engagement breakup was for my friend, Joseph’s situation was worse. Engagement at that time wasn’t just a promise. It was a very public legally binding contract. It was like being married but not living together. So imagine Joseph’s heartache after finding his betrothed, his wife-to-be…was….pregnant. And he knew the child wasn’t his. I mean… what would YOU think?
I can only imagine Joseph’s deep sadness and shame, anger and hurt. Feelings of betrayal run deep. After all, they lived in a small town and word gets out. Everyone knew it wasn’t his kid. I imagine it wasn’t easy for Mary either. After all, who would believe that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit?
Clearly Joseph wasn’t the first man to discover his fiancé wasn’t the person he imagined her to be and so, according to the law, he had two options. He could restore his own honor by publicly denouncing her and accusing her of adultery. The punishment would have been public disgrace and, according to the law in Leviticus, could include stoning her to death. The other option was quietly divorcing her. After considering the options, Joseph chose to divorce her as the most gracious way out of a shameful situation.
Single mothers today face lots of challenges, but in those days, a single mother would have been in great danger. Joseph thought that he was choosing the most gracious of the two options before him. But God intervened to provide a third way: Do not be afraid. Marry her anyway. It wasn’t an obvious or an easy choice. It may not have even occurred to Joseph. But when God has a message that is outside of human imagination – God sends angels. And this was so far out of Joseph’s personal interest that it took an angel in a dream – when Joseph wasn’t able to argue or complain or point out all of the reasons why that was a really bad idea – to convince Joseph to marry her anyway because this was not an ordinary child, this child will save his people. Name him “Jesus.”
We, who know the end of the story, take Joseph pretty much for granted – as the obedient one. And, if you or I had a dream like that – well… I hope we would be obedient too. But it couldn’t have been easy. Did he even tell his neighbor, “An angel visited me so I decided to marry her anyway – it’s God’s son after all.” Probably not. And the months before the birth were probably not filled with baby showers and talk of strollers and baby toys. More likely, it was filled with knowing glances and clucking tongues from neighbors and more shame, anxiety and concern for Joseph and Mary.
And that is where Joseph and Mary connect in a real way with us. Christmastime can be such a complicated time for us. On the one hand, there are wonderful Christmas songs and stories and cheer. I’m always amazed at the youth when they go from the Wednesday night before their program of not knowing any lines – to Sunday being able to share the story in a beautiful way; and the choirs – here and elsewhere singing the songs of Christmas that inspire and uplift me.
And yet… there are also the times that the expectations of what Christmas “should” be can become overwhelming and even painful. At those times, Christmas – instead of seeming bright, looks blue.
For example, not so long ago I met a friend for lunch. He was in a bad place. He had done some things and said some things he completely regretted. And now he was stuck. His family had disowned him and he felt lost and alone. Christmas was a painful memory of the joy of the past.
This year has been full of anxiety – and it hasn’t taken a break for Christmas. As I talk with seniors next door at RobbinsWay, they worry whether the new administration will continue to support housing services – and where will they go if they can’t afford it? Another friend said his children were worried about school friends whose parents are not documented and wondering what will happen to them. And all you have to do is look at the news about the pain and devastation in Syria – and the sad sad story of orphans calling over the internet for help – to feel helpless, anxious and blue.
I’m a little blue myself right now. As many of you know, on Thursday, Vicar James and I went to do a wellness check on Clarke Robinson. I always called him Butch. The night before he had sung a verse of “Mary’s Boy” as a solo at choir practice. He sounded great. But when Anne called because he did not show up for Dinner at Your Door, I was fully prepared to go to his house and call 911 to get him some help with his diabetes – which was a day-to-day challenge for him. I wasn’t imagining that he had died.
And yet… it is into just such a time as this that Jesus was born. It is into just such a mess as this that God came – as a baby – to be God With Us. And it is to just such ordinary people like us that Jesus was born. Jesus wasn’t born to a wealthy princess. Mary was a poor peasant girl. Joseph wasn’t connected with the government. He was a carpenter who thought he was betrayed by his wife-to be. Jesus was born into a world of hurt to be our Savior, and to be Emmanuel, God With Us.
And that’s who and what Jesus continues to be. For Jesus is Emmanuel, God WITH US – Yesterday and Today and all of our Tomorrows. God is Really With us through the challenges as well as the joys of our everyday life. God is most certainly with us as we hear inspiring anthems sung whether by church choirs or by choirs of angels. But God is just as certainly WITH US in our heartbreak and in our sorrow. Jesus is God With Us through challenges with housing and health and homelands. Jesus is God with Us in places of peace and in places of war and strife. Jesus is God with us through life and through death and restoring us to new life in Christ.
For Emmanuel – God With Us-- comes to us each day, just as we are –not as we think we should be – but with us as we are, despite our challenges, doubts, fears and sorrows and walks with us so that we can lean into God’s mercy and grace.