A Surprise Twist

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Matthew 1:18-21
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Just eight verses in the Gospel of Matthew. That’s all we hear about the birth we’re about to celebrate in two weeks. Just eight verses. And all that we’ve looked at in this series so far from the Gospel of Luke — the angel’s appearance to Zechariah in the Temple, Elizabeth’s miraculous, late-in-life pregnancy, the visit of the same angel to Mary, Mary’s faith-filled acceptance of a challenging promise, 76 verses of tension and joy and drama — all of this is condensed into just one verse!

Verse 18: This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s it! What takes almost a full chapter in Luke’s gospel, receives just 8 lines in Matthew. And other than a few scattered verses in the gospels, this is all we hear about Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus.

As we read today’s scripture, we know the backstory. We know about the amazing visits from the angel Gabriel, the questions asked and answered, the fulfilled promises. But Joseph… poor Joseph… he doesn’t know any of it.

All he knows is that his fiancée Mary is pregnant.
And he knows it isn’t his.

Joseph and Mary were engaged, which was a much more formal contract in those days. According to Jewish custom, Mary is legally his wife, even though they would not live together, not be intimate with each other until a full year had passed. Then Mary would move into her new home with Joseph, the community would celebrate their wedding, and they would begin officially their married life together.

But, now, all of that is over, Joseph believes. Mary has violated the terms of their marriage promise in the most egregious way possible. She has destroyed their future together.

We’re told in verse 19 that Joseph is a “righteous man.” Dikaios in Greek, meaning to live in conformity to God’s standard. The New International Version renders it “faithful to the law.”

Joseph, as a righteous man, a dikaios man, as a faithful follower of the Jewish Law, would have known the penalty Mary faced for her pregnancy. It was very clear, completely unambiguous.

Deuteronomy 22, verse 21 outlined the punishment: The woman must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death, for she has committed a disgraceful crime in Israel by being promiscuous while living in her parents’ home. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you.

The Gospel of Matthew was written for a largely Jewish audience, and they would have known what would come next in this story. Mary, pregnant by someone not her husband, would be killed in disgrace. And Joseph must be the one to accuse her.

That is what a righteous man could be expected to do.
And that was what Joseph knew those
around Mary would expect to happen.

But that is not what this righteous man, this dikaios man, chooses to do. Instead, he decides to quietly release her from their marriage. He will not accuse her publicly, will not shame her and cause her to be subject to brutal, dishonorable death. He would simply allow her to slip away, still bearing her burden of guilt, but not condemned by Joseph.

It is a remarkable, surprising twist to the story.

In 2004, I saw the movie Raising Helen. There is one scene that I kept thinking about as I thought about the surprising grace and compassion that Joseph shows to Mary. At the beginning of the movie, we meet three sisters: ultra-responsible elder sister Jenny, the wild and unpredictable youngest (the title character of Helen), and fun mom-of-three middle sister Lindsay.

When Lindsay and her husband are killed in a car crash, Jenny and Helen are shocked to learn that it is carefree Helen who is given custody of Lindsay’s three children. The rest of the movie is about the travails of Helen’s transition from cool aunt to responsible parent. And it is also about older sister Jenny’s struggles to understand why Lindsay didn’t leave the kids in her care.

Toward the end of the movie, we hear a letter being read, in Lindsay’s voice:

“Dear Jenny, If you’re reading this, you know that I’m gone. And I asked Helen to be the guardian for the kids. And you’re probably freaked about it. Yes, it’s a surprising choice, considering that you are the most incredible mother I’ve ever known. If you find this letter odd, understand that my ‘always be prepared’ [husband] Paul convinced me to write it now while our children are young. You must know from experience that when it comes to picking somebody else to raise your kids, no one seems right. No one is you. And so you choose someone who is most like you. Someone that will give the kids a taste of their real mom, the mom they lost and never really got to know. In so many ways, we are so much alike, that’s why I chose Helen.”

You must know from experience
that when it comes to picking
somebody else to raise your kids,
no one seems right.
No one is you.
And so you choose someone
who is most like you.

Joseph decides to quietly release Mary from their engagement — before he even knows the reason for the pregnancy! Joseph has every reason to believe that Mary has been deeply unfaithful to him. She has betrayed him, has broken the promise she made to him before their families and before God. She is, by law, deserving of a terrible punishment, even death.

But Joseph, out of kindness and compassion, does not act in anger, but makes the decision to show incredible, unwarranted grace by showing her forgiveness and grace.

Does that sound at all familiar?
(I sure hope so!)

The God who created the whole world, who with loving care shaped creation, who gave each and every one of us life, that God watched humanity turn away again and again… and again. We were — and are — unfaithful and fickle. We reach out to everyone and everything before we reach out to God. We break our promises.

By rights, we are subject to punishment. And, yet. Instead of punishing us, God shows us incredible, unwarranted grace. Not just by letting us go without penalty — that would have been enough. But God’s grace is so overwhelming that God comes down to us in the form of a vulnerable baby born on Christmas morning! And that child would grow to teach us about God’s love, and to show us just how far God will go to save us.

God chose Zechariah and Elizabeth to be bearers of the good news of the coming Savior because of their enduring devotion and loyalty.

God chose Mary for her faith and trust.

And I’ve come to believe that God chose Joseph because his graceful character so deeply reflected God’s own.

“You must know from experience that when it comes to picking somebody else to raise your kids, no one seems right. No one is you. And so you choose someone who is most like you.”

Now… I have to stop here and admit something to you. I’ve read today’s passage from Matthew many times. I’ve preached on it at Christmastime. I’ve read commentaries and watched dramatic reenactments. And yet, I’ve always felt that Joseph came across as a bit passionless, wishy-washy… milquetoast.

Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.

“As he considered this.”

Really? His fiancée is pregnant after apparently cheating on him, shaming him in front of their families and community, and he is “considering” it?

How… controlled of him.

This week was the first time I have dug into the Greek word translated so boringly here as “to consider.” And, frankly, it changes everything about this story for me.

ἐνθυμέομαι
enthumeomai

It means to meditate upon, to reflect upon, to ponder. But it means to do so in a deeply passionate frame of mind. It means to think about something while agitated or moved by strong impulses to act. It is an inner, intense chewing over of the facts.

Joseph is not coolly considering his plight — and Mary’s — as he lays down to sleep. All his plans, all his hopes, all his dreams have been destroyed by Mary’s thoughtless promiscuity. He is wracked with emotional pain, deeply wounded, very angry and hurt.

Which makes what he has decided to do all the more remarkable. He has not yet been visited by the angel. He doesn’t yet know that Mary is innocent, that her child is God’s own child, conceived by the Holy Spirit.

And, yet, in anger, in pain, Joseph still decides to compassionately release her and let her go unpunished. He refuses to destroy her future, and that of the child she carries.

Compassionate.
Full of grace.
Faithful…
even when faced with faithlessness.

“You must know from experience that when it comes to picking somebody else to raise your kids, no one seems right. No one is you. And so you choose someone who is most like you.”

Slipping into sleep, Joseph knows that his dreams will likely be full of trouble.

But… then… another wonderful, surprise twist to the story!

An angel appears to him in a dream, and everything that Joseph has feared is turned completely on its head.

“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”

The angel tells Joseph to name the child “Jesus,” which means “God saves.” In that culture, it was the father’s right to give the child a name, and, by doing so, to officially claim the child as his own. By naming the child Jesus, God has laid claim to the unborn baby. Joseph will raise this child with Mary, but it is clear from the very beginning whose this child truly is. This baby, to be born in Bethlehem at the end of a long journey, is the child of the most High God.

Joseph now knows that Mary hasn’t been unfaithful to him. No, indeed! She has been chosen by God to bear the Savior, to be the mother of a child promised long ago. All Joseph’s pain evaporated, all his wounds gone, healed. He knows that this child will be God with us on earth. And that he, by marrying Mary, will become Jesus’ legal father.

Can you imagine the joy with which Joseph awoke that morning? He had gone to sleep filled with such anxiety, such torment. Now those storms are past, and he knows the truth of Mary’s worth, and of God’s beautiful faithfulness to the world.

Joseph immediately obeys the angel’s command, taking Mary home with him as his wife. Regardless of what the people around him might say, no matter the gossip, despite the social consequences, he does what he now knows is right. This righteous man, this dikaios man, he does the perfect, God-honoring thing.

But… let’s stop and think about what this really means for Joseph. Joseph was no fool. He knew quite well that the society in which he lived was based on honor and shame. And so, even as Joseph takes Mary for his bride immediately after the dream, he knows that when the baby arrives, people will be able to do the math. At this point, Mary is at least three months pregnant, and when a full-term, healthy-sized baby is born less than six months after the official marriage, the community around them will know full well that conception happened before the wedding.

Shame. In their culture that would bring shame on Mary, on Joseph, on their families. Deep shame. Because it would mean that they either had defied the Law and been intimate before it was legal to do so, or that Mary had cheated on Joseph.

And so even though he knew the truth about Mary’s condition, Joseph was still incredibly brave and faithful in taking her as his wife. But he knew — he knew — that this child about whom rumors would spread throughout their small community — this child was more than he appeared.

This child was a gift beyond price.
This child had come to save the world.

What was it like, in the mess and noise of that stable in Bethlehem, for Joseph to hold for the first time the small child entrusted to his care by the Creator of the universe? What was it like for him to cradle in his arms the one who would be called Emmanuel, God with us? As he rocked the child to sleep, what were his thoughts?

We’re not the first people to wonder about this, of course. On their 2005 album The Christmas Sessions, the band Mercy Me released a song called “Joseph’s Lullaby.”

Go to sleep my Son
This manger for your bed
You have a long road before You
Rest Your little head

Can You feel the weight of Your glory?
Do You understand the price?
Or does the Father guard Your heart for now
So You can sleep tonight?

Go to sleep my Son
Go and chase Your dreams
This world can wait for one more moment
Go and sleep in peace

I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight
But Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
Simply be my child

Go to sleep my son
Baby close your eyes
Soon enough you’ll save the day
but for now, dear child of mine
Oh, my Jesus sleep tight.

Our scripture reading for today continues with these words:  All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”

Amen! And hallelujah!

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