My wife loves Christmas movies. And not the cool, 80’s one where Bruce Willis runs around barefoot with guns. Not most often either the classic ones like It’s A Wonderful Life or even A Christmas Carol. No…I’m talking about the cheesy, corny, Christmas romance movies. If I work into the evening and come home, very often I’ll find that she’s commandeered that comfy spot on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, and watching a movie. And, as I hear the sleigh bells or talk of Christmas trees or the spirit of Christmas or someone’s Christmas wish, I’ll give her that look that says, “Again?” And she’ll give me that look that says, “You know I love cheesy Christmas…now sit down and watch this…” And if I asked her why, she’d say something like, “Because on December 26, everything goes back to normal…” Implying that Christmas – at least as Netflix or Amazon Prime produces it – is special and uplifting and out of the ordinary.
In that sense, it’s not Christmas yet, so I suppose this thing with Joseph tonight rightly falls in the category of normal. I mean one of those everyday, normal, depressing situations. Like where upstanding guy – engaged to be married – finds out his beloved is pregnant… And they haven’t been living under the same roof and he can do the math: with people often “one plus one makes three” and he hadn’t been part of any equation like that and so someone else must have, right? And she’d calmly explained it with tears in her eyes, something about God’s Holy Spirit and a promised baby. And though he knew her – gentle, kind, truthful (her true beauty that he’d prized) – that kind of thing’s statistically scarce – outside the norm. Which is more likely: God intervenes in history to give a baby to a backwater Nazareth girl or girl gets herself into some trouble and needs an explanation?
So his mind had run through all sorts of dark pathways until he’d finally broken through into the clear: he had to divorce her. And that’s normal too, yes? Happens all the time, unfortunately. Often with animosity. But Joseph knew that the normal outcome was sometimes death in a situation like this. If not, small-town life would become definitely devastating. So he’d planned to do it quietly. Maybe because he loved his wife to be; at least because he Christian-loved his wife to be; he wanted no harm or shame to come to her if he could help it. Though this was distressing, though he felt betrayed, though deeply disappointed, he was an upstanding guy, righteous even…just caught in one of those everyday, normal, depressing situations.
And it was hard for Mary surely too. But this is good for us to see. We’re accustomed to thinking of Christmas and Jesus’ birth all wrapped in beauty and wonder with promise. But Mary and Joseph aren’t merely characters from a stained-glass window. They’re flesh and blood people. They come from a line of people that Matthew relates in ch.1 – a family tree that includes prostitutes and liars and murderers and foreigners – people with troubles. They’re people like us and we, people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, some depressing, most often very normal.
What do you say about the normal, every day like this? This one where friends are inconstant and family members betray you, and where circumstances are often at best just so/so and at worst are terrifying, and where substance abuse and infectious disease reign? It’s quite tempting to say often this normal, everyday life is depressing or disappointing. That things shouldn’t be this way but that way. Tempting to speak back to the people and situations the same kind of filthy epithets and damaging characterizations you’re experiencing. It’s quite tempting too to make a spiritual characterization; one that asks where God is in all this mess or judges that he hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain. There’s a lot we could say, isn’t there?
I wonder about “what to say” because, conspicuously, Joseph never says a thing. Have you observed that about the Christmas story before? Mary replied last week to her angelic annunciation. Mary even composed a song. But there’s no Song of Joseph. In fact, there’s not a single word in all of Scripture from Joseph, step-father of Jesus. Not. A. Single. Word. I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s because, this moment especially, isn’t most about what Joseph or I would say, but about what God has to say about all our normal, everyday experience…
The angel breaks into Joseph’s dreams and says, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” — take her home, live with her, support her, care for her, love her, trust her, in sickness and health as long as you both shall live — “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” — just what she told you is exactly true – her baby is God’s baby and that baby will be born and you are to name him the name that tells his story – what God has to say about all this normal, terrible life: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
How important! What a thing to say! Notice: God doesn’t say that Joseph’s crazy situation will change. No, just that as crazy as it sounded it was true. So there’d probably still be disgrace when people judged him and Mary because they’d always wonder about that baby that wasn’t Joseph’s. And it would still be normal, and difficult, and tiring. But the baby would be Jesus – not a rescuer from discomfort, not a guarantor of special days, but the one who rescues from sins.
And Matthew, the writer, says more to make sure we understand along with Joseph. This is what God says about all this normal, this every day – that this thing, this way, this was exactly God’s plan – just as prophesied by Isaiah long before. A virgin – a young lady who hadn’t done the things necessary to make babies would have one. And the import of his arrival into the normal, sinful world would be Emmanuel. Not that God will change all this for you, not that God will take away discomfort or embarrassment, not that God will make it rain money and satisfaction — but that God is with us in all this normal life with rescue from sins.
Because we need rescue. Like Ahaz of old did. The virgin-birth promise came to a king who heard what God said, “Ask for a sign, Ahaz, and I’ll give it – to say that you’re my people and I’m with you!” But Ahaz wouldn’t do it… And that’s probably our worst temptation. With Joseph, it’s not that he shouldn’t have divorced Mary – except that God said so. And with us, it’s not that you need to find the right actions to do in any given situation, the hidden thing that will make God happy. Instead, it’s that we hear how God says things are but we want to call it something else; we hear what God promises to do but we don’t always believe; we understand what God clearly wants but we like to do what we wish instead. That’s the real issue – in sin we live and speak and do.
So God says everything there is to say in this angelic annunciation – that God will come in the flesh and be born and he will be with us in all this sinful life, for his part, to do God’s will every day and even into the most normal human thing: a God-demanded death. And with a special revelation of power, he will rise to life as no human can on his own. And he will continue to be with us in might and power to save us from our sins. To provide rescue from death. To give forgiveness and peace.
The real question for us to ask perhaps, the consideration to make, is found in Joseph. Not a single word in all of Scripture from Joseph. But he does provide us with this: God spoke to Joseph in a dream and “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” And later the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take his baby and wife and flee, “So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left…” And later still, when it was safe again, the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream and told him to go back home and, “So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went…” Joseph may not have ever said much, but God certainly shows us what Joseph did whenever God said something to him.
Tonight, God brings to you An Angelic Announcement of the Savior to be born. And it’s filled with promise: the promise that God is with us in our experiences in this sinful world, the promise that there is a rescue from the real trouble, the sins that would separate us from him. It fills our hearts with confidence and joy and peace – whatever happens, God is with us! As Pastor Fisher said last week, it changes our celebration! This week, with Joseph, that Announcement Changes Our Operation. It spills over our hearts and out into our lives so that we do… All the everyday normal kinds of things, and the special extraordinary kinds of things; every kind of thing by faith is a pleasing to God kind of thing. So that, in all, you gasp and sigh and see and pray; we sing and shout and thrill and praise: “Immanuel!” God is with me – when I drive; God is with me – at my work; God is with me – in my bed; God is with me – when I die. So that we’re changed to say, “If God is with us like this, is there really anything more or better to say?” And, with Joseph, to do: can we really do anything else than exactly what God commands and everything God loves? And, even to this extent to know: whether it’s Christmas or some other normal day, for us in Jesus, isn’t this how it normally is?