Breaking a Resolution

Message preached on December 18, 2016
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Matthew 1:18-25

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            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.

©2016 (revised and reused from 2001)  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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