“Breaking a Resolution”
Message preached on
Believe it or not, New years day is two weeks away. Have you
even begun to think about making a new year’s resolution - something
you intend to accomplish in the next twelve months, or perhaps a bad
habit you hope to overcome? ... No? ... Guess we have to get past
Christmas first, don’t we.
Well, for now let’s recall the story of someone who thought
long and hard over a resolution he had to make.
You know who I’m talking about. We just heard about his moment
on center stage, as revealed by the gospel storyteller Matthew. This
morning, let’s travel a spell in the sandals of Joseph. He was the
father of Jesus ... though not really. He was ... but he wasn’t. ...
This confusion is the crux behind the whole affair.
We don’t know all that much about Joseph. Unlike Jesus’ mother,
Mary, Joseph fades in and out of the story. When we think of his past,
we go way back. Not to his adolescence or childhood, his birth or
growth to manhood. No, we think of his roots. A great deal is made of
who his ancestors were. If you go back far enough in the family tree,
there is King David. And then his great-grandparents, Boaz and Ruth.
Further still, and you run into Abraham. That’s as far as gospel
storyteller Matthew goes. Luke, on the other hand, shoves it back even
further, all the way to Adam (3:23-38).
Gee, if we all pulled hard enough on the roots of our family tree,
wouldn’t we be able to do the same? In theory, maybe.
We know Joseph by his roots. Which always presents a bit of a
problem when we come to this beginning story of the New Testament.
When telling about the birth of Jesus, why go to all the trouble of
figuring out the family tree of Joseph, when Joseph isn’t really the
father of Jesus? He is, but he isn’t. It’s sort of confusing.
Something else we’re told about Joseph, other than who is
ancestors were, is that he was a “righteous man.” He wanted to do what
was right. His sense of what was “right” went beyond the strict letter
of the law. This brings us back to a resolution he made long ago, a
decision arrived at after a great deal of thought.
You know the story. He was betrothed to Mary, a form of
engagement that was more binding back then than it is today. Nowadays,
a man and a woman decide to get married (in many cases while living
together- much has changed in the last 20 years, hasn’t it?), and they
start planning a wedding of some sort. Family is involved in the
process, but in nowhere near the same capacity as once was the case.
In the days of Joseph and Mary, family was very important, perhaps
even the reason behind these two persons connecting up. It could be
that for Mary and Joseph this was an arranged marriage, the two of
them having little say in the matter. Such affairs were most often
determined by others back then.
In hearing this story, we almost have to back up and jettison
our modern sensitivities, our sometimes out-of-proportion belief in
the right of each individual to be in total control of his or her own
destiny. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, it usually doesn’t work
out that way today, in spite of our romance with the idea. Of course,
there always have been, and still are, moments when we are forced - as
individuals - to make big decisions that affect our lives, as well as
the lives of others. This was very true for Joseph, and Matthew gives
us a glimpse of that moment.
You see, things didn’t work out according to plan, no matter
whether it was the family’s plan or Joseph and Mary’s. Simply put -
Mary was pregnant, and Joseph wasn’t the father. Again, let’s drop our
modern mindset, which either says, “no big deal !” or tries to somehow
discount the idea of an “immaculate” conception - the idea that there
wasn’t some man involved. The story as we have received it places the
issue front and center with a reason. And that reason is that
something new is happening here. It “ain’t the same old, same old.”
That’s why this story begins what we call the “New” Testament.
And it starts with a dilemma.
What to do? That is Joseph’s question. Mary, his betrothed, is
pregnant. What is the right thing to do? If you think he should sit
down and have a good talk with Mary and together come up with a plan,
that’s fine and is probably a wise route to take ... today. But,
remember, this couple was only in the initial stages (probably) of
getting to know each other. Family on both sides, no doubt, were
pushing these two together. There were more people involved than just
one star-struck couple. There usually are - even today. Marriage is a
“package deal,” no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise.
What to do? If Joseph broadened the circle of decision, asking
the opinion of others, he risked exposing Mary to a serious charge in
that society. According to a strict interpretation of God’s Law, Mary
could have been stoned ... killed if it had been revealed that the
child growing within her was not Joseph’s. Adultery was a capital
offense, punishable by death. Mary was in a very vulnerable position.
Her life was literally in Joseph’s hands.
The Christmas story is not some romantic tale of a young couple
who have a baby. It is a life or death matter. Not just for Joseph and
Mary, but for all the descendants of Abraham ... for the entire world.
Wonder at this story! Please! Take it as it is given. To underscore
the vulnerability of it all, Matthew tells of King Herod, who wants
nothing but the death of this child, so much so that he is willing to
sacrifice all the firstborn children in Bethlehem in order to make
sure this one child will not celebrate his first birthday. He tried to
trick those wise men into leaving something more than “gold,
frankincense and myrrh”- something like footprints that could be
followed to this child. But the Magi, and Joseph, were warned to get
out of harm’s way (Matthew 2:7-15).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Joseph has a dilemma. The
birth is still in the future. Will it take place, or will he abort it
by exposing her shame? Joseph wanted to do what was right. Of course,
we who stand in the audience want him to choose to go ahead and marry
the girl and take the baby as his own. That was but one option, I
suppose - one apparently not chosen by Joseph at first.
He wanted to do what was right. Just like most of us want to do
what is right, though we may struggle with knowing what that “right
option” is. Joseph didn’t want any harm to come to Mary, but he
couldn’t see a better answer than quietly ending the relationship.
Now, it doesn’t say exactly how he intended to bring this about but,
apparently, it was possible. Mary would become a single mother, but at
least she and the baby would live. Some today might say that’s not a
bad deal. Do remember, however, that single parenting was a different
matter back then. A one-way trip into poverty?
Joseph resolved to quietly dismiss her, making the best of a
bad situation. Of course, the story as we have received it does not go
into how or even if Mary told Joseph about the angel Gabriel’s visit
and the strange news this messenger of God brought. Actually, gospel
storyteller Matthew makes no mention at all of Gabriel’s chat with
Mary. That’s Luke’s story (1:26-38).
Nowhere do we hear Joseph and Mary even talking about it. How would
you have broached the topic had you been wearing their sandals? Not so
simple a story is it?
Well, having made his decision, something happened. Just as
marriage is not merely about only two persons falling in love, as nice
as that may be, so this story which begins our New Testament is not
just about the decision of one man, as much as he may have wrestled
with it. You know what happened. You heard gospel storyteller Matthew
reveal it. Joseph encountered his own angel. In a dream, God spoke to
him through this heavenly messenger.
“Joseph, son of David,”
he said. Not “son of Jacob,” Joseph’s biological father according to
Matthew, but “son of David.” A reminder of roots that go deeper
than what happens between a man and a woman. Do recall that Matthew's
genealogy runs through Bathsheba, and the aftermath of
David’s adultery… “Joseph,”
the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for
the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a
son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from
their sins” (Matthew 1:20‑21).
“Take Mary as your wife,” the angel said. Break your
resolution and choose a different course. For something altogether
new, yet also something rooted in past promises, is taking place. God
is not just on the sidelines watching to see if you will do the right
thing. The Lord is smack dab in the middle of it all.
Immanuel ... God is with us, at work in this young woman, at
work in this expected Child, at work in this coming marriage, at work
in this larger family, at work in this occupied nation, at work in
this world, at work in the realm that is already on its way - the
Kingdom of God.
“Name him Jesus,” the angel said. That’s the father’s
job - to name the child. In other words, make him your child even
though he is not really yours. In a way, no child belongs to us. Every
child belongs, instead, to God. They are with us for but a short time,
and we pass on what we know, that they may seek to do what is right in
God’s eyes. Apparently, Joseph did a pretty good job as a surrogate
father, once he broke his resolution and did as the angel said. To
this day, Jesus is known as “the son of a carpenter,” even as we look
to him as the “Son of God.”
Very few Christmas carols mention Joseph, the earthly father of
Jesus. The only one in our hymnal, “Angels we have heard on high” (#197),
says in passing, “Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,” before it heads into the
final “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” To remedy this, a classmate of my wife at
Lebanon Valley College, Carolyn
Winfrey Gillette, wrote the text to a new hymn. She’s now a Presbyterian
pastor and gifted writer of hymn texts. “Joseph
heard the troubling News” is sung to the tune we associate with “Good
King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen,” a familiar carol. I
invite you to sing it. As you do, remember - like Joseph, we struggle to
make the right decisions in life, seeking (deep down) to do what is right.
The good news is that we’re not alone in that process. God is here,
sometimes helping us to break resolutions that are too small, in order
that something even better might be born. “Don’t be afraid ” to step out
by faith, God’s messenger said and continues to say - even today. “Don’t
be afraid.” Immanuel - God is with us.