I don’t know if you remember but this morning’s problem is even present in the most Christmassy Bible account there is – Luke chapter 2. It’s this little sentence, “[Joseph] went [to Bethlehem] to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” I always read that in the sweeping joy of a children’s Christmas service recitation – but it’s actually a significant statement about how things were in Joseph’s story. Would definitely have been significant in his day – still would be even today in some circles: it says Joseph had a fiance, they weren’t yet consummated, but she was carrying a baby. Matthew 1 brings us Joseph right in the midst of that stomach-churning circumstance when the woman you love is found to be pregnant before you marry her – and the baby’s not yours. It’s the kind of situation more fitting for Dr. Phil than Phil’s sermon, right? It’s embarrassing, scandalous, shameful – makes you think about what must be the sin behind it, the betrayal, salacious things…horrible. But I would argue that the problem with situations like that is less often the situation itself, and more deciding what to do after. Here’s the question Joseph was dealing with, “What do the righteous do?”
Aren’t you familiar with this complication? If not this specific promising pledge turned pregnancy plight, there’s something else surely. Some other situation in which you’re asking “What’s right?” What’s right for me – here where I feel so alone? Here, where I’ve learned these new and troubling things? Now, that I’ve been very much wronged? Now, what’s the thing to do to save some face – set things back on course? “What do the righteous do?” And, if you feel that you’ve very clearly been wronged, that your story’s really been shifted inappropriately, you might conclude that it’s right to do any number of things.
I suppose from Joseph we could gather up this morning what the righteous do when their personal story goes south. Matthew clearly calls Joseph a “righteous man”, one who does what is good and right. And we could conclude in a situation like his that this is what to do… In v.20 we learn that he took time for much consideration – time to carefully think through what to do, to really let things steep a bit in his brain, not to be rash or hotheaded. In v. 19, his conclusion, because he was one who would do what’s right he didn’t wish ill or harm or shame on Mary – though he might have concluded she deserved it for whatever he guessed had happened to bring an unexpected baby. And he planned, carefully we presume, to set her aside, render their marriage null and void, and to move on quietly – their stories to resume separately, this little pledge pit-stop just a passing point, now on to more promising things. Takeaways? 1. Consider your trouble carefully; 2. Take others’ good into account; 3. Plan and proceed… This is what the righteous do… Isn’t it? I don’t know…maybe you’d disagree. Maybe you’d be tempted to do lots of other things that wouldn’t be right but might feel right. And it probably would be a complex thing to conclude exactly what the righteous do…
You know, when we’re considering in so many different situations what’s right to do, I wonder if this is most often the thing that brings us trouble – this tempting perspective. If you’re on Facebook this little thing surely is coming if it hasn’t happened already. There’ll be this notification that brings you your Year in Review 2016. And it is pretty cool. Facebook manufactures a little video with all your posts and pics and highlights cool stuff – so that, if you didn’t know you had one, it tells your story. Which is probably just a reflection of reality: in a way that’s what you’re doing day by day – this event, that purchase, this relationship, these goals, that situation – you’re telling your story. And you want your story, your life, the stuff to come out the other end all photo-shopped and produced – a neatly packaged little video with smiley selfies and successes and likes – the story of you. And naturally you’d think, in the doing, about what you have to do to make your story pretty good.
But what if things, as complicated as they seem, were just really a lot simpler than all that, because it isn’t your story? You know, Matthew 1 gives us a glorious Advent perspective for thinking about what the righteous do by placing it all inside another story. If you started at the beginning of Matthew 1, you’d find, “This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah…” his family tree, not Joseph’s. And at the beginning of our section, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…” – not how the marital relationship of Joseph and Mary was going. And if that’s off-putting – to be all caught up in someone else’s story, consider what kind of things God’s telling:
- “Do not be afraid Joseph.” Don’t be afraid to do what God is about to tell here…don’t worry, don’t doubt, don’t fear. It’s not your story…it’s mine and it’s meant to make you safe…
- “What is conceived in [Mary] is from the Holy Spirit…” Something unexpected and glorious that happens because history is made to fulfill what God has promised. This promise reaches 700 years back to when Isaiah had to speak God’s Word to a king, Ahaz, who thought Israel’s story was his story and enemies and all manner of other things were things he had to take care of so that he wouldn’t even invite God in for help… To that king Isaiah promised this unexpected thing: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.”
- Interesting, isn’t it? The fix for Ahaz wasn’t some new war-machine to protect Jerusalem. It wasn’t better knowledge about the right treaties to make. It’s not the 10 points of self-improvement that help you deal with crisis. It’s also not the saving face we might wish for or the comfort that everything will go smoothly. The fix, the promise, the real story: it’s that God will be with us…
- And that should be scary – because we’ve all along been tempted to tell our story like Ahaz, to believe that the world is ours unlike the Psalm for this day would have said, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it…” But it’s not scary – God with us. It’s comforting because the main character is Jesus – a name that means “he will save his people from their sins.” A name that recognizes there are sins with us. And yet from every sin that would make being with God totally impossible, God saves us in Jesus. So that it’s totally right that God is with us.
- And then it gives us something to do in our stories – things like Joseph – “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded…”
I like how St. Paul reflected all that in our epistle this morning. Where he said about you that, through this Jesus Savior of the world, you have been called to the obedience of faith, where your lives are not your own but belong to Christ Jesus – where you do what he commands now; where you are saints of God, no matter how you feel or what sins you know, he’s forgiven them; where you have undeserved love from him so that, though your whole life should be a mess, you have peace. What a story! What a year in review for you in 2016! In this year you got a new job or bought a new car or had a new baby or lost a friend or were divorced or suffered from guilt, but in God’s book, you are saved by Jesus Christ. You are saints – holy – the righteous.
With Joseph this morning take this away: what do the righteous, people like you, do? They trust what God has said and they do what he commands. Everything and anything that tells the real story – His Story – that Jesus saves you to belong to him.