MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church December 19, 2010 Fourth Sunday of Advent Matthew 1:18-25
For many long nights he had tossed and turned, gripped by his dilemma. The truth was, he loved Mary. He didn’t understand what had happened; she was such a level-headed young woman, but this… this story, about an angel and the Holy Spirit and a pregnancy. It would have been easier if she had just said there was another man.
It was an agonizing situation. He dared not tell anyone, instead going about his work as a carpenter. You know—to get his mind off this nightmare. Just keep working on nice tangible things. A table. A chair. Sturdy, concrete things. But it at night, his plight loomed once again, and there was no escaping it.
There were two options that Joseph could see. Well, three.
His first option was to report Mary. Make it public. If he did that, she could be stoned to death. That’s what the letter of the law would suggest. She was pregnant, the child wasn’t his, it was an open and shut case.
…It was warm this time of year, but he shuddered under the wool blanket to think of it.
The second option was to quietly call off the engagement. Mary’s life would be spared, but their life together would be over. Other men had done it. Other men had realized that the letter of the law was cruel and bloodthirsty. Other men had quietly dismissed their wives or fiancées for adultery. It was a lesser punishment than death but still serious. And he would be free to marry another and live a nice, comfortable life in obscurity once he’d put that whole mess behind him.
The third option was to go ahead and marry her… but that wasn’t really an option at all. Joseph was righteous. It would have been a disgrace to his honor to go on as if nothing had happened. And if, by some slim chance, Mary’s story was true, well, what kind of life would that be? No, God didn’t need Joseph. God could find some other way of bringing the Messiah into the world. God would find another way.
For many nights he turned over the options. Option 1, stoning, was unthinkable; Option 3, marrying the girl, unpalatable. It had to be Option 2, dismissing her quietly. But still, he wasn’t sure.
Joseph was a righteous man, and so he prayed for guidance. He prayed that God would give him a sign. Something, some little nudge. He didn’t need the burning bush that Moses had received. The still small voice that had whispered in Elijah’s ear would suffice. Just something, anything.
But there was no sign. Night after night, nothing. He was on his own.
But when the decision finally came to him, he was at peace. It was a relief to have a way forward. He made up his mind to go to Mary the very next morning and tell her that she could have her life, but their engagement was broken, their relationship severed. He rehearsed the conversation, planned what he would say, began to picture life after this decision: A new bride, someday. Children. His own children. A whole houseful! Several strapping sons to learn the carpentry trade. He drifted off to sleep with this image clear in his mind, and it brought him comfort.
This was the right decision. He was certain of it.
But that night, his certainty dissolved… his comfort whisked away on the wisp of an angel wing, his decision evaporated in a whiff of a dream. Mary… wife. Child… Holy Spirit. Save the people. Fear not.
He woke up, disoriented. Where was he? What time was it? Was he just given a message to do the exact opposite thing he’d already decided to do?
In the fog between sleep and wakefulness, he was irritated. The decision was made, for heaven’s sake. Where had God been during all those agonizing nights of indecision? And only now, once the decision had been made, does God make it clear what Joseph is supposed to do? What kind of crazy timing is this?
And do not be afraid? OK, that part just made him mad. He wasn’t afraid. He was a righteous man. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced, that’s all. He was trying to do the right thing. The good thing. Where does this angel get off calling him afraid?
* * *
Now, it’s possible that it didn’t happen this way.
It’s possible that Joseph woke up the next morning fresh as a daisy, stretched, wiped the sleep from his eyes, scratched his beard contentedly and said, “Whew, what a relief. I was going to have a nice comfortable anonymous life, but now I get to raise an illegitimate child as my own, who is apparently the son of God. Bring it on, Yahweh.”
But I doubt he turned on a dime. Because he’d made his decision. The deal was sealed. He had resolved, he had determined how his life would go, he had everything all worked out before that angel invaded his dreams and took one look at all his well-laid plans and said “Not. So. Much.”
It’s one thing to be visited by God when you’re in the throes of a decision, still trying to discern which way to go. But for God to intervene when everything’s all nice and settled—well, it’s just downright rude, isn’t it?
In any case, Joseph took Mary for his wife. Whether he did the angel’s bidding without a second thought, or whether he dragged his feet and stammered out a protest, I guess we’ll never know. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he shook his fist at God and the future God had planned for him.
Because we know other things:
We know that Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Period. It was so out of the question that the mere idea of being pregnant made Sarah laugh so hard that she almost fell over.
We know that Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, was once so discouraged that he prayed for death and laid down in the middle of the wilderness to die.
We know that Jonah had made up his mind, no ifs, ands, or buts—he was not going to go to Nineveh like God commanded, and he was so committed to that course that he bought a ticket on a ship bound for the other direction.
And we know that Paul—called Saul—was so convinced of the danger of the Jesus movement that he was having Christ’s followers tortured and put to death.
In each and every case, like Joseph, they had resolved what they would do. And in each and every case, God confounded their expectations. You think you’re so smart? You think you know how this is going down? Watch what I’m going to do next.
And Sarah… had a child.
Jonah went to Nineveh and the city was transformed.
And Saul became Paul, a titan of the early church, who would suffer the same torture and imprisonment that he had perpetrated against the followers of Jesus.
Each of them had carved out a path for themselves—had resolved, like Joseph, to follow a certain path. And each of them was shown the expansive, explosive grace and purposes of God, which disrupted all their best-laid plans and thrust them into a bold new future. And in Joseph’s case, that wondrous future would mean the liberation and salvation of the world.
But no, strictly speaking, we don’t know if Joseph had a “you’ve got to be kidding” moment. But if he did, he is in excellent company.
Because the gospel is full of “You’ve got to be kidding” moments.
Turn the other cheek?
Sell all we have?
Sin no more?
Take up our cross?
You’ve got to be kidding.
You want me to give to the poor in a down economy? You’ve got to be kidding.
You want me to show hospitality to the immigrant?
You want me to love Barack Obama?
You want me to pray for John Boehner?
You want me to treat the Muslim as a child of God?
the gay man?
the woman with the sign on the corner?
the cousin who drinks too much and ruins Christmas dinner?
the obnoxious dolt at the office? Child of God? Child of God? Child of God?
Love All? Really, All?
What Joseph, and Abraham and Sarah, and Elijah, and Jonah, and Paul, all come to realize, is that God’s always bursting things open for us, moving us in the direction of inclusiveness. There is a kind of reckless grace to the whole thing. We know it when we see it. It’s like going off the map, into something wilder and deeper and more interesting than we ever could have planned ourselves.
* * *
It’s a story on every TV channel at this time of year, about a man named George Bailey. George has an adventurous spirit, and his life is filled with great decision and ambitious plans to get himself out of the tiny hamlet of Bedford Falls—but these plans get thwarted every step of the way. He’s all packed for college when his father has a stroke and George must take over the family building and loan. His brother comes home from college with a new wife and a promising job, and again George’s plans and dreams take a backseat. He gets married and is on his way to the honeymoon when there’s a run on the bank and he and his bride must use their honeymoon money to help out the building and loan’s clients. At every turn, George has resolved to do big things, grand things, but it is never meant to be. And yet, as he discovers with the help of an angel named Clarence, he is deeply loved, and he’s had an impact way beyond what he could have imagined. He realizes, as we do, that It’s a Wonderful Life.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
That’s the testimony of Joseph, and George Bailey, and anyone who’s come to realize that stepping into God’s future is scary and wonderful and terrible and life-giving in ways we never would have imagined without God. That’s the good news of Christmas that we’re waiting for, yearning for: that God is coming into the world, reconciling all things, shaking things up, offering crazy abundant life.
I realized something for the first time this year. In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s a character up in ‘heaven’ that is sort of in charge of all the angels. Clarence talks to him from time to time when he gets stuck on how to help George.
His name is Joseph.
Now… I sure don’t want to make too much of this. But I have to think that if anyone was going to understand George Bailey, it’s Joseph. If ever there was someone who knew what it meant to let go of one’s resolutions and plans and decisions in order to embrace a more life-giving path, it would be Joseph, the father of Jesus—who didn’t quite live the life he planned to live, but who became a hero of our faith by stepping into the incredible drama of God.