The way of love (not good-person-ness)
On this third week of Advent, on the very threshold of Christmas, we are about to be reminded that we’ve made something sweet, tame and mild out of what is really a very messy, scandalous, painful and strange story. We’ve soaked it in sentiment and preserved it in tinsel and wrapped and smothered it in hefty layer of consumerism, and now it barely resembles what it was, or rather, we’re no longer able to hear or see it for what it still is.
But we’re going to try. For the next few minutes, we’re going to set all of it down, the shopping and baking and relatives and expectations and presents and nit-picky pressure, and everything else, and we are going to listen to the text and let the Holy Spirit show us a thing or two about the alternative narrative, the Kingdom of God reality that shines through our scriptures today.
Joseph. A good person, a righteous man, the text says. He was minding his own business. He didn’t ask for any of this; he did not volunteer. He didn’t even have a chance to refuse, like Mary did. He just found himself suddenly in this place, where everything he had planned for his life was over, and instead he was handed something, let’s face it, awful.
Because he was a good person, he had decided to divorce Mary quietly. Because, apart from living together, they were actually lawfully bound – that is what “betrothed” means, not so much engaged as legally wed and just waiting for the party to make it official.
So it turns out, Mary is pregnant.
Oh Joseph. This is nothing if not a world-crashing down upon you moment.
Joseph is betrayed. How could she do this to him? Who even is she? He will be pathetic and dubious in the eyes of his community. Humiliation, anguish, shock, confusion, anger, you name it, he’s got it rolling over him in waves. And here is what he’s left with: Clearly it’s all over. If he brings charges of adultery against Mary, she could theoretically be stoned to death; that is what the law prescribes, anyway. But being a righteous man, the text says, being a good person, he decides to divorce her quietly instead.
It is big of him to take the quiet divorce route. He is choosing to take on the shame and degradation of being cheated on, and move on quietly on without reprisal, to spare Mary from harm.
This marriage is dead on arrival. One way or another, it’s not going forward from here.
Who in their right mind would proceed under these circumstances?
But God stops him. There is another way he is to take.
This marriage is over. It is dead.
And then it is resurrected.
Remember our text last week? I am about to do a new thing. Before it springs forth, I will tell you of it!
In this moment, everything Joseph knows of himself and of God and of the world in which he is living, must crumble away and die, so that a new thing can be born.
Matthew is telling the story of Jesus in a very different way than Luke does. No stable or manger, no shepherds or angels. In fact, you’ve heard his entire birth narrative, which boils down to the last part of the last line, the awkward: but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
That’s it. What matters to Matthew is something different than Luke, he’s wanting us to see the big picture in a particular way: that what continues here is the whole story of God, the covenant of God is finding fulfillment.
So, first Matthew gives us the genealogy – here is who went before, here is where Jesus came from – from the very beginning, here is the unfolding of what God is doing throughout the ages leading up to this point, but it’s not neat and clean. Certainly, there are lots of impressive figures on it, but also some very surprising ones.
Four women appear in the genealogy – it’s not typical for genealogies of that day to include any women, and here are four. All four of them are outsiders, from other peoples than the Hebrews, not people of the covenant, not the first you’d put into an impressive pedigree.
There is Tamar, who ensured she was impregnated by her father in law in order to carry on the line of Judah after her husbands died and left her childless. Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who saved the spies who climbed the wall of Jericho, and became the mother of Boaz. Ruth, the Moabite and daughter in law of Naomi, who married Boaz. And the wife of Uriah, namely, Bathsheba, whom King David took, and who became the mother of Solomon.
All of these women, unlikely suspects indeed, made choices toward God in ways the men, the Hebrews-the covenant people, the assumed good guys in the stories, did not. In other words, they were all righteous, following the way of God, so much so that they included in the covenant and the genealogy of the Messiah. These are people who would clearly have been considered unworthy by the dominant script, but God chose them as part of God’s plan to bring salvation, and names them in the lineage of the Messiah. Because, in case we forget this between the Old and the New Testament, let’s be reminded right off the bat: God’s always works through the unexpected, the unusual, and the, frankly, impossible.
And then we come to Joseph. He too is righteous, the text says. He seems a good candidate for all of this. Impressive pedigree, and a person who follows God’s ways. Someone we might even think worthy of such a calling. But that is not allowed to stand. Instead of allowing Joseph, his worthiness or his lineage, be the source of the Messiah, God goes off script again. And takes Joseph along.
Have you noticed on our journey through the Bible so far, that nobody is ever chosen because they are good? Think back on the folks we’ve met – Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, Solomon, – none of them were inherently good people, all of them were deeply flawed. And even if they started out “good,” they didn’t stay like that. In fact, nobody is ever allowed to remain good in the bible, and thanks be to God for that. Because if they were, if they continued to appear worthy, upright, noble people, then it would seem that their own merit or strength is what’s important to the story, that it was their goodness that made them part of God’s plan. We may tell the biblical narrative that way, but the scriptures themselves most certainly do not.
Good is part of the way of fear, the dominant script that tells us who we are is measured by how we are perceived by others, and that God’s favor can be earned and lost, and that our worth, and that of others, is being continually ranked and judged, so we had better not slip up.
But God is doing something utterly subversive, backwards and upside down, not respecting even the tiniest bit the dominant script, or whatever false gods we set up – both outside and within our religion- that tell us who is important and who is worthy and who can be disregarded or overlooked or dismissed. God could’ve easily waited a few months until Mary and Joseph were properly married, and all then all this would’ve been kosher, not a bit unsavory or disreputable, a complete non-issue. But it’s important that God shatter again our belief in what is right and true, and earned and lost, and bring us into the realm of trust and wonder and mercy, where God is God and we are not.
The way of God is the way of impossibility, of barren and virgin wombs, of youngest sons and foreign women and weak and messed up leaders, who find in their brokenness a new identity as representatives and servants of the living God. The bible will not allow anyone to stay a “good person”. To be part of God’s plan of salvation, you have to get stripped of your goodperson-ness and receive instead the grace of God who claims you nevertheless.
If you are going to participate in God’s way you have to see yourself anew, as sinner in need of salvation, broken in need of healing, lost, in need of finding. Because this story is not for the strong and the competent (as though those even exist), this story is for the broken, the sinner, and the lost. So that is precisely who God uses to bring it about.
Joseph must let go of who he thought he was, and in the process, who he thought God was too. He thought God would want him to dismiss Mary quietly, cause as little embarrassment for her as possible, but preserve his own dignity, honor, and standing as a faithful follower of God. So of course that is what he will do.
But No. It’s not, an angel tells him. He must do something completely unexpected. God redefines faithful for Joseph. It doesn’t mean good. It means getting your hands and your reputation dirty. It means living in impossibility. This is not your child. And yet he will be. You are to name him and raise him and love him. And you will walk in the shadow of the whispers your whole life. For who could ever believe her cockamamie story? A virgin pregnant? Hogwash. You’ve been betrayed. There is, or was, another man. You’ve been made to look a fool.
So up against your doubt, inside of this foolishness, you will live, right there against your own fear and questions and inability to even to control your own life or narrative, you will be asked to be faithful. To accept what God is giving you and follow where God is leading you. And you will take on guilt. You will appear to be something that you are not – this child’s father, and in so doing, you will become his father after all.
Joseph goes from upstanding, ethical guy, good person, to one who must constantly have faith up against his doubt, must trust again and again that there is more going on than we can see, and must be willing to live into the unknown where the rules that made sense yesterday no longer hold sway.
And the upheaval doesn’t end here- this is just the beginning.
What goes through Joseph’s mind later on, in the dark moments when they are living in exile in Egypt? He was supposed to be a carpenter. In his home town. That and nothing more. Instead he finds himself at the center of this universe-altering event that feels really just like ordinary life but harder, and less in control, and often lonelier than had he stayed in the village like everybody else and lived and died as a good person.
So, in order to be ready for what is to come, in order to be able to participate in what God is doing, Joseph first needs to let go of what was. That ship has sailed.
When he gets up from that dream, and does what the angel tells him to do, he enters into a conspiracy with God that undermines the whole system by which the world operates, and so he will forever be outside it, judged and misunderstood, but also set free.
Before he proceeds, he needs to decide who will be God- the god who he thought god was? The one that called him to be a decent human being, a good person who minds his own business and is worthy of admiration and respect, in a world of competition and scarcity and judgment and fear and earning God and human favor, where women get stoned for adultery and the “right” thing to do is to dismiss her quietly and go about your business?
Or the God who comes to him in angel and dream telling him that there is something beyond what we can see and hear and touch that is impossible but real, and inviting him to step into a different reality from here on out, one defined by love and standing-with-you-ness, and grace unearned and forgiveness unmerited, where everybody has enough and nobody is dismissed, quietly or otherwise, into a future that God is unfolding right before him in foolish and backwards and extraordinary ways?
The old way is dead for Joseph. And he has no choice about that. The new way opens up before him and he gets to say yes to that. To join Mary in this place of bearing this secret, this absurd glory, that nothing is impossible with God, that the creator of the universe, the god of the covenant, of Abraham and David, is coming into this world, alongside us, to be Emmanuel, God is with us, and you, Joseph!, will be the first to hold him in your arms, and it will be your job to name him and raise him, not as a good person, who is respected in society and honored in the community, but as a vagabond and a subversive, who dines with outcasts and sinners and operates by a different script altogether- the one that’s about redemption and forgiveness and freedom and connection to God and each other and abundance and gift and wholeness for all.
So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Love her.
Name the child Jesus. Love him. That is your calling.
And so Joseph wakes in the world a different person than he lies down to sleep. His old life dead, he rises to live into a different script – to walk in the way of God instead of the way of fear.
Perfect love casts out fear. God’s love has no opposite. A love vast and bottomless, it is what we all come from and all return to and in the middle are invited to share in. It is the reason God created, the reason God came in. That nothing might keep us from this love. Not even our efforts to be good, and worthy of such love.
To participate in the way of Christ is to take away good person-ness, and instead to live broken, honest and real, with faith up right up against our doubt. And sometimes it will feel really just like ordinary life but harder, and less in control, and little bit lonelier than just going along with the dominant script.
But it’s also what sets us free to truly receive the love of God that has no opposite, the love that comes spilling out in forgiveness and mercy and peace, hope, and joy, and moves through us into the world.
Come, let us welcome the messy and scandalous way of God in Jesus Christ that is turning the world on its end.