“Joseph, her husband, was a man of integrity. Not wanting Mary to be disgraced, he intended to dismiss her quietly. But while he was thinking about these things . . .” — Matthew 1:19-20
Where is God in the midst of life’s unwanted developments, disruptions, crises? When we are confronted with that for which we have not asked, we are left with choices to make about how we respond. The choices are often quite difficult. Where is the good news of God’s love in such circumstances? How is God graciously giving to us at the very time when we are feeling anything but blessed?
The birth narratives explore this territory. Like the initial chapter in Luke’s gospel, Matthew Chapter One is fraught with God’s disturbing, life-giving, saving power. As a result of God’s choosing, Joseph is given a choice to make. It is an unwanted and difficult choice, one in which he initially perceives two limited options. His betrothed, Mary, is pregnant with a child that Joseph has not fathered, scandalizing the husband-to-be, rupturing the social order, and closing off permanently the future as it has been planned.
On one hand, Joseph can protest angrily, declaring himself publicly to be the offended party, with Mary’s possible fate sharpening the distinction between them (see Deuteronomy 22). Or he can “dismiss her quietly,” offering a limited measure of mercy while still cutting her and the unborn child loose. Both choices are violent: the first may be a death sentence for Mary and her child; the second is a bit more sensitive but will still leave Mary to fend for herself and the one she is carrying. Matthew describes Joseph as “righteous,” a man of integrity. It is out of this character, the text intimates, that Joseph decides for the quiet dismissal, not wanting Mary to be “disgraced.” Joining the birth narratives together, we might surmise that Mary’s journey south to Elizabeth is to some degree a result of that decision.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. For Matthew 1:18-25 begins: ““This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. After his mother Mary had become formally engaged to Joseph, but before their union, Mary was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit (1:18).” Quite a finding! Note that God is identified at the outset as the agent of disruption. And God is inclusive: Everyone’s order will be disordered. At a personal level, God has unapologetically interfered in the established script for Joseph’s life, and with the culture’s binding expectations for Joseph and Mary’s future. The heavy burden of applied shame is what Joseph seems left to anticipate during this unwelcome Advent. If he is like most of us,”Why me?” will mark the substance of his prayer life.
There is, of course, a whole other way of understanding the very same event. God is intervening in the crush of dominant history to save God’s people, indeed, to deliver creation. This is taking place at the most human of levels, from the “inside out.” And everything that is happening is being done with giving! This is God’s way. Jesus is pure gift; new life given for all people, while being experienced very personally by Mary and Joseph. Mary’s hospitality to this new life is a response to grace with grace, and promises to multiply the gift. All this is wonderful, but quite at odds with the dominant order in its political, cultural, and religious manifestations. And until now, this dominant order has been giving the lives of Mary and Joseph their primary definition. Thankfully for Joseph there is more “on the way” than he has initially realized.
At this point I’d like us to consider that Joseph’s dilemma is actually a manifestation of God’s grace. The angelic visit (revealed in Joseph’s undefended state) brings this home. According to the angel, there is a third, previously unrecognized, choice being offered. It is the only choice not driven by fear or laden with violence: the offer of God’s gracious direction, and the opportunity to respond in the image of God. This will require Joseph to embrace the “scandal” as the cornerstone of his new life. It is the one path that offers deliverance, not only for Mary and the promise she carries within her, but for Joseph himself. Untangled from collusion with death, he is released to enter the lifestory of Jesus in a primary way.
Please note the stunning level of freedom that God’s choice opens for each character. Mary makes an autonomous decision of faith, the implications of which she fully claims for herself even as she humbly begins to realize its social impact (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior” –Luke 1:46-47). Hers is a liberty to act beyond fear and coercion, even if it means doing it without Joseph. Joseph is blessed by this crisis of salvation because of what God has already done with Mary, and how she has responded. I previously have described sin in terms of distance. Joseph’s future with Mary, if there is to be one, will necessarily be untethered from the tight grip of traditional expectations and demands. Joseph’s deliberate movement toward Mary in the new social/spiritual landscape overcomes the prescribed distance between them, and makes creatively possible an uncommonly new relationship between these prospective mates. Theirs is a beautiful translation of Matthew 1:21: “Mary will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And Joseph, from the angel’s prodding and more so from the example of Mary, discerns the critical difference between reaction and response. What a glorious freedom it is to be set free from re-acting!!
So often we consider our struggles of faith to be primarily about our ability to summon some level of trust in God . Instead, Christmas is about deciding to receive God’s trust in us. Receiving life and freedom, hand-in-hand. The Divine blessedly disrupts routine and assumption, entrusting God’s chosen ones (read: you and me) with the seeds of new life, of peace for this world that God so loves. Their growth is ours to tend and nourish, to bear and to accompany into the world. There’s no limit to the forms and expressions we might engage. God is present in the midst of every dynamic situation, even those God has not authored. The difficult choices will be the most gracious ones; the ones that matter.
Several years ago, while preaching from this text, I asked the men of our congregation how they might behave when facing Joseph’s circumstance. There was uncomfortable shifting and headshaking as they dared to draw closer to the heart of the story. I asked one of the congregation’s elders what he thought he would do in this situation. His eyes widened, his mouth began to open, then he broke into a smile: “I’d go talk to my pastor!” The congregation roared. This delightful release prepared us for deeper examination.
What kind of freedom are you and I given by God as we are entrusted with the life of Jesus?
–the freedom to receive God’s choosing?
–the freedom to forgive someone else?
–the freedom to embrace the “scandal” of repentance rather than repeating the deathly choice between projectively scapegoating someone vs. dismissing their humanity “quietly?”
–the freedom to practice discerning a third choice, the only one not driven by fear or coercion, in every situation?
–the freedom to learn nonviolence?
–the freedom to love another person boldly ,and move toward them, when everything seems to be going wrong?
–the freedom to practice our integrity and publicly do what we believe is right, willingly accepting the consequences?
That’s just a few of many. I will personalize them in future posts. For now, in the spirit of Jesus’coming, let me encourage you to reflect and discern ways that you are being gifted, “freed in choice.” Open yourself to a measure of Christmas promise. Many blessings!