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.
This past week, a friend of mine sent me an email about a new company out there. It is a book company called Cornerstone Stories and they are trying to prevent thousands of parables and fables that have been told to children around campfires from burning out and fading away from the human memory. The idea is that for $19.99, you can create your own book of four stories you want so that you can then read them to your children and grandchildren, thus keeping these ancient stories alive and well. You can choose from stories title, “Little Fish, Big Fish,” “The Fox and the Crow,” “The Bearded Fool,” “The Leaky Water Bucket,” and many others. It’s a great idea, I think. In fact, I may just order a book for Elliot sometime. The only problem is that nowhere in their catalog is there the option of choosing the Christmas story. And the Christmas story is becoming a forgotten story.
No, I don’t mean by everyone else out there, who seems to have forgotten that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I mean by us! We’ve forgotten the details of the story. I have forgotten the story. Sure, we all know who the characters are in the manger – the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, the angel, Mary and Joseph, and, of course, Jesus. But do we know the story? Do we know how they all got there? No.
In particular, we’ve forgotten about Joseph. We’ve forgotten Joseph’s story. When do we ever hear his side of the story. It’s in the Bible. But it is rarely ever told around the fireplace.
It is a forgotten story. A forgotten story of grace.
Joseph was engaged to Mary. Now, engaged back then and engaged today are not the same thing. Today, engagements happen at Gooseberry Falls on a sunny fall afternoon, or on the SkyRide at the Minnesota State Fair, or, in my case, over a well-planned game of Monopoly. Today, engagements are joyful moments of joy filled with professions of love and longing, and poetry, and excited phone calls to friends and family. But back then were more likely to happen in the lawyers office then in the booth of the restaurant of your very first date. To be engaged as Joseph was to Mary was to be legally bound to one another. There was no easy way out. In the eyes of society, the woman would already be viewed as his wife. Then after about a year of being engaged, she would move in to his home.
Mary and Joseph are engaged, legally bound to one another, but not yet living together. They are between stages. Which meant that they hadn’t…well, you know. And it is at this point that Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant.
Now, if you are Joseph, there is only one thing that goes through your mind. She’s been unfaithful. She’s cheated on him.
Now the text also says that Joseph was a righteous man. What does it mean to be a righteous man? It means he was the goody goody. He was the child who always colored inside the lines. He’s the one who knew all the rules and follows them to a T. He was the first to raise his hand and give the correct answer to any of the teacher’s questions. As a righteous man, Joseph knew Jewish law and he followed it.
And the law is quite clear about what happens when an engaged woman is found to be pregnant. Listen to the law found in Deuteronomy, which Joseph would have known. “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”
Joseph is a righteous man. He knows and follows the law. And suddenly he finds himself in a situation in which the law is clear. His fiancee must be publicly put to death. What’s he supposed to do?
Can you sense the fear and the terror that he must have gone through? I mean, if we forget anything about this story, it’s the fear and the terror. What do you think it was like for Joseph when Mary sat him down to break the news to him? Nothing short of terrifying, for them both.
Now, if Joseph is going to be biblical about this, if he is going to follow the bible, then Mary is to be stoned to death publicly, and the child growing inside her will die too. This is why we have to be careful with the bible. If we are going to be biblical about things, we just might kill Jesus before he’s even born. This is why my friend Alan says we aren’t called to follow the Bible. We are called to follow Jesus. Read the Bible, study the bible, but follow Jesus.
Now, if that is the context. If that is the law that a righteous man like Joseph would follow, listen to what happens next. Joseph was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace and planned to dismiss her quietly.”
Joseph, the righteous man, the one who always follows the rules, does not follow the bible, and instead, is unwilling to expose Mary to public humiliation and planned dismiss her quietly. So that no one would know her situation. Now that was a moment of grace.
But that was just the beginning of the grace. It wasn’t finished yet, because at night, something stirred with in Joseph. His fear of the situation and his love for Mary and his uncertainty were eating at him. He was still working it all out, even as he slept. Have you ever had that experience, where what was going on in your life at the time, you were working it out in your dreams? Over what to do? In Joseph’s dream, he hears this whispered voice. An angelic voice. And it tells him perhaps what he wanted to do all along – “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She’s going to give birth to a son. The boy is from God and you are to name him, Jesus.”
Finally, it becomes clear what he is to do. It is like a brand new commandment from the mouth of God, and who is Joseph, a righteous man, to deny this commandment. He gets up from his slumber and he takes Mary as his wife. “He says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” (Fred Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 66)
Joseph may not have been Jesus’ father, but he was certainly his dad. And Jesus must have learned a tremendous amount of grace and mercy from his father.
Friends, what we learn from this text is that moments of grace pave the way for God to be born into this world. And by grace I mean moments that give witness to the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. By staying with Mary, by standing beside her and remaining with her, Joseph stands up against the culture and the scriptures that tell him to get rid of her. That takes courage. Joseph says that God’s love for Mary is not conditional. Unwed and pregnant or not, God loves her all the same. Had Joseph not done that, not shown her that grace, Mary perhaps would have never made it to the delivery room in that stable. Moments of grace pave the way for God to be born into this world.
When I lived in Rochester, I had a friend who worked at a church as a youth director. And one of the youth got pregnant. And for 9 months, she left the church. She couldn’t bear the shame of being there. Which is tragically sad to me. It tells me that she had been told that the church is not a place for unwed mother’s to be. It tells me that she has been told that God’s love is not free. That God’s love depends upon how you use your body. That God’s love does not extent to unwed pregnant teenagers. Which is just ridiculous. Of all places, the church should be the place where all unwed pregnant teenager feel the most welcome because Mary was an unwed pregnant teenager. And if it weren’t for the grace shown towards her by Joseph, Jesus would have never been born.
Anyways, the girl in Rochester. She left the church for 9 months. But then, after the baby was born, she came to church. And just before worship, my friend, the youth director, went and sat beside her and the child, and they worshipped together. But after worship, some of the members of the congregation were angry with the youth director. They felt that by sitting next to this young girl and her baby, she was saying it was okay to have a child out of wedlock. They would have preferred that the new mother be left alone and shunned for her action.
What these congregation members missed, what they couldn’t see because they were stuck in their own culture and tradition, is that when the youth director sat beside this young mother, in a moment of grace and solidarity of one Christian sitting beside another, so that an unwed teenager wouldn’t have to be alone in worship, God was born into this world. It was a moment of tremendous grace.
Friends, it is easy for us to forget the details of Jesus’ birth. It’s a frightening story, but it is also a grace-filled, God-filled story in which Joseph paved a path for Jesus’ birth by loving another whom the world said ought to be discarded. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are still waiting for Jesus to be born. We are waiting for Emmanuel – God with us. Mary is not even in labor yet; the contractions haven’t started. But take heart, because all that changes on Tuesday night. God is coming to us. God is always coming. And it will be moments of grace that pave the way. Amen.