The Rev. Helen Havlik
January 5, 2020
The beginning of a new year is a good time to think about this baby, Jesus, who was born so long ago. Who is he really? What’s the lasting meaning of his life? And what does this mean for us? As Christians we know that Christmas is about the hope that God’s purposes for creation will be known now and fulfilled at some point in the future. That’s what the people of Jesus’ time wanted as they struggled to live under Roman rule. It’s what we hope for as we struggle to live in our time. Matthew believed God responds to our hope by being with us. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 1, beginning with vs. 18. Listen to God’s holy word.
Tom Steagald tells a story about a friend’s grandfather who was a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. One day his daughter was, as Matthew puts it, “found to be with child.” Given how severe and uncompromising this preacher was, it’s no surprise that, filled with both rage and shame, he threw his daughter out of the house. Who knows what happened during the next nine months, but one day, babe in arms, she knocked on the door, hoping to find forgiveness and welcome. Her wise mother let her in, took the baby immediately into the preacher’s study, placed the baby in her husband’s arms and said, “This is your grandchild.” And he held and rocked the child—and they all lived happily ever after, right? But Steagald says, “It would be nice if the story ended there, if the baby and that moment had changed everything, had melted the old man’s heart and mended that poor family, so broken by anger and grief and shame. But the baby changed nothing; not really. For a moment…but then the moment was gone. There were tears but the tears did not cleanse the wounds or soften the [preacher’s] heart. In fact, he remained to the end of his days as stern and severe as he ever had been, refusing to welcome home his prodigal daughter; when he died, they were still estranged.” (Preaching Journal, Goodpreacher.com)
What if Joseph had said “no”? What if he had refused to stand by Mary? He was a “righteous man,” Matthew says, which means he was religiously devout, seeking in his life to do what was just and moral according to the Torah and the Law, which he was always striving to follow faithfully. Once his father and Mary’s father signed the betrothal agreement, it was customary to wait before the couple set up a household together and the marriage contract was finalized—probably because such agreements usually were made when girls were very young. So Joseph knew he wasn’t the father of this child Mary was found to be with. And the law was clear about how this was to be handled. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 says: If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man … lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help…and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. If we think this is a far-fetched scenario, we have only to look at today’s headlines to realize that such punishments still exist—women in some places in the world are still sentenced to be stoned to death, not just for adultery.
What if Joseph had said “no”? He was within his rights to do so—in fact, the Law said he was obligated to do so. But Joseph wasn’t just righteous, he also was merciful: “he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” Which says so much about his character and what he knows of God’s character. He would follow the law but temper it with mercy. Instead of anger, he would offer love. Instead of shame, he would offer compassion. Instead of grief, he would offer hope. Their divorce—which is what it was, since the engagement had been made—could be done quietly, with only two witnesses required. With the notice hand-delivered to her father, only the two families would know what had happened and Mary’s life, if not her reputation, would be spared. It wasn’t “no”—but it wasn’t “yes,” either.
Have you ever absolutely made up your mind about something, only to end up reversing yourself? Some people call this “waffling” or “flip-flopping” or being “wishy-washy.” But new information comes our way all the time that often makes for better choices. Sometimes the things I’m so set on are where I’ve actually gotten something wrong or I don’t have all the information I should have. When some new piece of information comes your way, which is better: defiantly dig in your heels or humbly change your mind? Joseph thinks he knows all he needs to know. But we already know he’s missing some details, the most important being that this child Mary carries is conceived from the Holy Spirit. So when an angel sneaks up on him while he’s asleep to tell Joseph about the miraculous conception and the crucial third way, it’s just the information he needs to change his mind.
Even then what if Joseph had said “no”? My father was 37 when I was born—he had been an old bachelor who had little experience with children, much less babies. By the time he was 44, he was the father of five, with two sets of twins and not enough income. I know he struggled at times with what that meant—I don’t know what sacrifices were required of him or if angels haunted his dreams. But his willingness to be the husband and father he was, that he said “yes” when he easily could have said “no,” is testimony to his character and his faith that God was with him. One of my favorite photos of him was taken when my niece Robin was a baby. He’s lifting Robin high into the air and they’re both laughing. And, after all those years of saying it, etched into his face is “yes.”
What if Joseph had said “no”? What if we say “no”? I will not compromise. I will not bend. I will not yield. I will not give an inch. Sometimes “no” is the right answer. Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. And we can’t do all we’re asked to do; we have to make choices. But be careful—and prayerful. Think about what you’re giving up. Think about whose life may be affected besides your own. Think about what God thinks about your “no.” And then think about “God with us,” born to Mary and Joseph: Jesus, God’s gracious “yes” to hope, to peace, to joy, to love, to life. Tom Steagald continues, “We are so stern, most of us. So afraid. But ‘Do not be afraid,’ the angels sang, ‘for I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people…’ God [has placed a baby in our arms] in hopes he will be born, or born again, not just in Bethlehem but also in our hearts and lives, our thoughts and our politics, our giving and our doing.”
Finally Joseph said “yes” to God with us. Is it too much to think that his earthly father taught Jesus not just to temper the law with mercy, but to listen carefully when God speaks, even when what you hear is unexpected. And to be courageous when it’s easier to give in to fear. Is it too much to think that when Joseph held that child, maybe high in the air, “yes” was the first thing he said? Is it too much to think as this new year begins, that we, too, can trust God to be with us? And that we, too, can say “yes” to what God asks of us?