Sermon for December 22, 2019

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16 • Psalm 80:1-7 • Romans 1:1-7 • Matthew 1:18-25

This week’s theme is the intervention of God. As God’s people, we believe that he not only makes sense of history, he also intervened in it. Isaiah 7:10-16 discusses the intervention of God in the strange, multi-meaning words about a virgin that will one day bear a child. Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 is a lament asking for God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf. In Romans 1:1-7, Paul introduces the gospel as God’s great narrative history throughout history that culminated in God Himself entering history. Matthew 1:18-25 tells the story of God’s intervention in the lives of two young people to change history forever. The sermon is based on this Matthew passage and tells how God used an uneducated tradesman to be the stepfather to his Son at the grand intervention of the incarnation.

Joseph, the Stepfather of God

Luke 19:1-10 NRSV

One of the greatest novels ever written tells the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Valjean is released from prison and wanders the French countryside looking for work or a place to stay. But he finds nowhere because of his ex-convict status, and he is rejected over and over.

He finally finds an old country priest who takes him in. He gives Valjean a meal and a bed. In an act of desperation, believing he can only act like a criminal, Valjean steals the old man’s silver and flees into the night.

The police catch Valjean quickly and drag him back to the priest. The priest can crush him like the thief he is. He has every right to put Valjean away forever.

But the old priest takes the ex-con by the shoulders and tells the police he gave Valjean the silver as a gift. He says, “My friend, you forgot the best part.” And he hands him the silver candlesticks.

Valjean goes on to live a life of forgiveness, beauty, and grace because of this act of love. He carries the candlesticks with him wherever he goes, and eventually dies as they flicker on the bedside table. When the priest could have sent him to his death, he showed grace, and it changed the life of a bitter ex-convict forever.

Caught in the act. The offender has no other way to explain their actions. The enforcer has every right to crush that person. There is no question about how this should play out.

Have you ever been caught like this? Some of those stories are funny: having your hand in the cookie jar or joyriding in your parents’ car as a teenager. The light flicks on or the door opens and there you are—busted.

Some of the stories are not as funny. You get caught in the middle of a lie or talking behind someone’s back. Or someone calls you out for being unkind or spreading a hateful rumor. They have you red-handed, in their crosshairs.

We’ve all been on the other side, too. Cornered that rival or busted a family member and suddenly the long arm of what seems like justice is on our side. It can be a wickedly delicious moment to bring the hammer down. We like it more than we think we do.

By rights, the old priest should have put Valjean away forever.

Joseph had Mary caught in a corner. His fiancé suddenly tells him she’s pregnant. This is basically a death sentence at that time in that culture. By rights, he can drag her out to the street by her hair.

We don’t know much about Joseph, the stepfather of God. Even in Greek, there is only about a solid paragraph or two on him in Scripture. He was a tradesman—the word [teknon] means some kind of trade work with his hands. Whether he was a carpenter, stone mason, or worked with metals, we don’t know. But he was blue-collar, and Jesus was born on the side of town where all you had was what you built and work wasn’t just a means of income, but a lifestyle. Work was probably unpredictable and rudimentary. Joseph—the stepfather of God himself—might have been missing a few fingernails and may have said some choice words when he dropped lumber or a stone on his toe.

But we do not even hear him speak. Ultimately, his actions speak to who is, and that seems like the way he wants it. Three lessons we can take from this gentle shadow in Scripture, lessons every man would hope to pass on: grace, wisdom, and love.

Grace…

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)

It was Joseph’s “right” as a fiancé to drag Mary into the street by her hair and put her on public display for execution. As far as anyone could tell, he had been duped. She’d been fooling around on him and now he was embarrassed in front of the community. It only makes sense—it’s only logical that he would punish her to the full extent of the law.

So often we are faced with what’s “only logical.” You hurt me, so I hurt you. You insulted me, so I undermine you. You stepped on my petunias, so I take you to court. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

But Joseph’s first reaction is grace. This is a small picture of the gospel that was to come. Pre-emptive grace. To divorce her quietly means that he didn’t take his “rights” in this situation.

Is our first reaction grace? Especially when we have all the cards? A quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but actually written by Robert Ingersoll about Lincoln, said: “Nearly anyone can withstand adversity. But, if you want to know the true test of someone’s character, give them power.” This is true grace: to show grace even when you’re in the right, hands down.

Of course, the situation was a little more complex, but Joseph didn’t know that yet. He didn’t have to, though, because grace was who he is.

Grace by every right. Grace that shows mercy when there’s nothing in it for him.

Wisdom

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20 NRSV)

In Joseph, we also see wisdom. I don’t mean wisdom by educational standards—he was probably illiterate and from a backwater town. His hands were rough, and his world was very small.

But Joseph has this tenacity about him, this ability to know when he doesn’t know. He also knows his Bible—he knows the story of his people and what it looks like when God is on the move.

Luke tells this same story, but from the point of view of Mary. While both narratives tell the same story from different perspectives, the one moment they parallel exactly is the phrase “do not be afraid.”

Joseph heard those words and he knew. He saw the angel in the dream, and he knew. He’s surrounded by a rigid, rule-centered culture but he’s able to bend. He’s able to see beyond the moment to the greater story, and that is wisdom.

Another detail came in the names given to this special baby.

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:21-23 NRSV)

The name Jesus was Joshua in the original language. Joshua—the Old Testament hero who took his people to the promised land. It was the name of the deliverer. It was a name as common as John or Mike in our day.

On the other hand, the name Emmanuel was never given to a child, probably because of the expectation it would put on someone. The Hebrew literally translates “God with us.”

The intersection of the everyday and the eternal, the common name and the name of God. Joseph had the wisdom to see that this was something he’d never seen. Do we have that kind of flexibility? Are we paying attention that closely? Wisdom is about watching to see when God’s plan is deeper than what we see on the surface.

Wisdom moves on God’s frequency. Wisdom knows that things don’t always go as we think they will, and yet it moves accordingly.

Love…

Look at John 8:

They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” (John 8:41 NRSV)

Here Jesus is in a tense discussion with the Pharisees about their lineage from Abraham. Commentators speculate that this may have been a taunt, and perhaps something that Jesus grew up with. “We were not born of sexual immorality”—but Jesus, you were. It was most likely the case that Mary’s untimely weight gain and her quick marriage to Joseph raised some eyebrows.

Jesus likely grew up as someone who was whispered about because of this. And Joseph, his father and Mary’s husband, chose to go into that situation out of faith. Joseph might have been whispered about, too. He married a pregnant girl. Grist for the rumor mill; a butt for the jokes. He joined himself to that because he was a man of faith, he put himself in the line of fire.

This is love. Love has skin in the game. Love walks into a complex situation and stays the course. Like all stepparents in history, Joseph walks into a family where the die is already cast. It’s love that keeps him there in the middle of that complexity, taking some of the shame and confusion of it into his own life.

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:24-25 NRSV)

Here’s another example. In an ancient society like this one, the marriage bed was considered a man’s right. The wife had almost no say in the matter. She was his property. Yet Joseph did not take his rights.

Our society, which claims to be more advanced, has some primitive, dysfunctional ideas of its own. We treat sex like a right as well, but from a different angle. We act like any boundary, any limitation, any moral barrier put up in this area is a violation of our rights, as if we should have unbridled freedom in this area as a matter of rights. We’ve made a basic drive into a basic need.

Here we see Joseph walking away from his rights. Consistently, he put his own desires and drives to the side for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand. This fasting from intimacy was a difficult sacrifice and would have been as foreign in his society as it is in ours.

Love. Love to take someone’s checkered story on as your own. Love to wait and restrain and hold back. Love to put yourself second for the long haul.

We learn from Joseph, the stepfather of God, about:

  • Grace—Joseph’s first reaction was to show grace, even though he was well within his rights not to.
  • Wisdom—He put his own expectations on hold and was flexible and responsive in God’s hands.
  • Love—He came into the strangest family situation in history and stayed there with a quiet, persistent presence.

Joseph, the stepfather of God. No doubt Jesus thought of his stepfather’s quiet strength on his own journey, and we should too. Amen.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life”:

  • Why do you think it’s important that Jesus came from a virgin?
  • Share a time Jesus defied one of your expectations.
  • What does it mean, Jesus puts twists of grace in the plot?

From the sermon:

Prepare ahead of time—Play the clip from “Les Misérables” discussed in the last question, “I give you back to God.”

  • Have you ever thought very much about Joseph? Is he a biblical character you draw example or strength from, or is he more of a background fixture?
  • Said about Abraham Lincoln, “Nearly anyone can withstand adversity. But, if you want to know the true test of someone’s character, give them power.” Joseph had all the power in this situation, and his reaction showed his character. Is our first reaction grace—especially when we hold all the cards?
  • We also talked about Joseph’s wisdom— watching to see when God’s plan is deeper than what we see on the surface. Joseph showed grace and wisdom when he refrained from publicly humiliating Mary when he thought he had her “busted.” Have you ever been in a situation where God’s plan was difficult to follow and you had to trust him for wisdom? How do we grow in wisdom?
  • Joseph was a great example of love—a stepparent who walked into the strangest family dynamic in history! He showed that love has skin in the game—“love hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Have you seen an example of this kind of love in your life? What did it teach you about God? About yourself?
  • In the sermon, we talked about one of the great stories of love in a difficult situation: the saga of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (by Victor Hugo). If possible, watch the beginning of the movie until Valjean is forgiven by the priest. The song “Valjean’s Soliloquy” from the musical also summarizes the story. If none of these are available, the story of Valjean and the priest is summarized in the sermon as well. How does this offbeat story show God’s love? Have you ever, like Joseph, seen love come through in an unlikely situation?

Quote to ponder:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”—the old priest, Les Misérables

 

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