This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
--Matthew 1:18-25 (CEB)
Holy is God’s name, who shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, for those who honor God. Amen.
I’ve mentioned to you before that, when I was 14 years old, my father committed suicide. Painful and traumatic as that experience was for our family, it was made even more painful by the response of my paternal grandfather. My father’s father. Who blamed my mother for my dad’s suicide. Who in his own hurt and pain over the death of his son, my father, chose to strike out. To hurt her.
Today, we hear a similar story. A story of pain and hurt. But, it is a story with a different ending. A story that teaches us that we can choose a better way.
Being engaged in Joseph’s day was a fully contractual affair. A legally binding contract. Usually decided upon by two fathers. In other words, an arranged marriage. This was the situation between Mary and Joseph. But then, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. As far as he knows, his new wife has been unfaithful to him. As a faithful Torah follower, Joseph knows that, in the case of adultery, the Torah commands that both the adulterer and the adulteress were to be put to death. This is what Joseph could have demanded.
But, quickly, we learn that he doesn’t choose this way. Instead, he decides to divorce her quietly. To call off the engagement. To dissolve the marriage contract.
But, even this kinder, gentler response is not God’s plan. Enter another divine interruption. An angel. Who appears to Joseph in the middle of a dream. Who first words - as with Mary last week - were, “Don’t be afraid.” Who says, continue to choose a better way. Choose to stay with Mary. Choose to become an adoptive parent. Choose peace over violence. Choose grace over condemnation.
We might ask why it took the intervention of a celestial being for Joseph to make these choices. To not abandon his partner, even though, under the Law, he was fully justified in doing so. It’s easy for us to condemn him for simply wanting to walk away. To point a finger at him for wanting to preserve his life. Because to remain with Mary would not at all be the easy choice with all that could be put at risk. His reputation. His livelihood. Even other relationships. Walking away was the easier thing. Walking away was justified, wasn’t it? Oh, how we want to condemn Joseph!
But, aren’t we a lot like Joseph? Every day we are faced with opportunities to choose a better way. To put our power and privilege at risk. To do what is right. Yet how often do we decline to engage? Especially when it might put our relationships at risk. Or our jobs. Or our reputation.
Every day we are faced with opportunities to choose peace over violence, whether that is physical, emotional or psychological violence. Instead, like my grandfather, we strike out against or blame those who have hurt us - whether the hurt is real or perceived - and seek to harm them. With our words or our actions. Or both.
Every day we are faced with opportunities to choose grace over condemnation. To go directly to the person who has hurt us and offer forgiveness. Or to confess our error. To stay in the game and in the relationship, especially when it would be so much easier to simply walk away.
There is a reason God has written the law on our hearts. Not to condemn us, but to nudge us in a different direction. To nudge us to be people of a different way. To relinquish the hurt or the shame to which we so tightly cling. To let go of our woundedness, which is what so often drives our need to strike back - woundedness that may come from the situation at hand, but, more likely, from some deep, deep hurt we carry with us.
Imagine if Joseph had not heeded God’s command to take Mary as his wife. What might have happened to her and her newborn child? How might the Christmas story unfolded in a much different way if Joseph had made a different choice?
You and I. We are redeemed by this Jesus. Joseph's son. Emmanuel. God with us. You and I are called to that different way. That different highway envisioned by the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 35 - that Holy Way. A way not traversed by the unclean but by those walking on that way. Where even fools won’t get lost. Where no predators will exist. Only the redeemed will walk on it - those the Lord has freed. Who will return and enter Zion with singing, with eternal joy upon their heads. Where happiness and joy will overwhelm them. Where grief and groaning will flee away.
Sadly, my grandfather never apologized to my mother. Never chose that better way. But, the rest of his family - of my extended family - did. They wrapped their arms around us and held us up, walking the way with us in our grief and loss, loving us, helping us heal and return once again to a place of happiness and joy. They, like Joseph, chose a better way.
With God’s help, you and I can, too. Amen.