[Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached on Dec. 14, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]
This morning we’re in the third week of our Advent series, where we’re looking at a different character each week from the birth narratives of the Gospels — in the Christmas story. And this Sunday we come to the character of Joseph. And as we’ve been asking for some time now, we’ll continue to raise this central series of questions: What do we see for our lives in this story, particular in what it tells us about God and about ourselves? So that’s where we’re headed.
I’m sure many of you since Thanksgiving have already purchased and decorated a Christmas tree. Well, Whitney and I did this about two weeks ago, and after decorating it – after she mostly decorated it – we were sitting in our living room, and out of the corner of my eye I look over and noticed that the tree was beginning to fall over, and before I can even do anything to get over there and catch it or something, which probably would have been a disaster anyway — it had already just crashed into our coffee table, and it sounded like all of our more fragile ornaments had broken. It didn’t catch on fire or anything, but for a moment it did kind of feel like I was in the Griswald family living room from the Christmas vacation movie.
Thankfully, we actually only lost a few ornaments, but the reason the tree fell over was because we had propped it on this box that we thought made it look better, and put a skirt around it — just the way we liked. But the box was just not giving it the support or the surface area that it needed into order to be balanced, so we had to abandon that plan, and now it just doesn’t look as good.
And I don’t want to take the Christmas decoration example too far, but obviously it’s appropriate given the season and how much in our culture that we love to decorate for the holidays.
One of the beloved Christmas stories of our time that highlights some of the superficiality of our decorating habits during this time of the year — I’m not talking about anyone at Saint Peter’s, only everybody else in Mt. Pleasant — Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” No doubt you all know it. And probably most of you have seen the movie that came out staring Jim Carey as the Grinch in the year 2000. This was actually the movie that Whitney and I saw on our first date about 15 years ago – so for the longest time we watched it every year on that day. I will admit I eventually got kind of tired of it, but we still love to quote it, and it’s just full of satire about the consumer experience of Christmas.
One of the most memorable moments from the movie, as it relates to decorating for Christmas, is when Betty-Lou Who, is competing with her neighbor, Martha May, to win the prize for the best decorated home in Whoville. Martha May pulls out a Christmas-light machine gun to decorate her house [picture], and of course she wins. This scene in the movie is an exaggeration, of course, of what we do on Christmas to make everything look good and feel good, but it also pin-points exactly what TJ was talking about last Sunday with the look-good, feel-good culture that we live in.
This can be missed sometimes in the Grinch, because of the humor, but throughout the movie there’s actually this fairly strong critique of our society’s obsession with self-image and self-presentation.
We make plans, and we make ourselves presentable. But these plans and the way we try to present ourselves often get in the way of what God is trying to do in our lives. And one thing the Joseph story seems to be teaching us, is that ultimately, God doesn’t care very much about our plans or image.
Now, it’s one of the stories in the Bible that doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to appreciate. Those of us who are men, especially, can pretty easily put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes to think about what it would have been like, socially, to agree to marry someone, who’s already pregnant claiming that the pregnancy had divine rather than human origin. (Of course, Mary’s circumstances were probably even more terrifying, but we’re looking at her story next week.)
It sounds totally scandalous though, that’s she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit – it sounds like she’s completely making it up. And of course Joseph is made to look like a total fool if he claims to believe her and not divorce her.
In the First Century, even when two people weren’t officially married yet, if they were engaged, for the Hebrew people this was still a legally binding agreement, unlike it is today. And so after finding out that she’s pregnant, it would have been within Joseph’s right, certainly his interest, and even his obligation, legally, for him to publicly expose and shame Mary.
So this is the situation that Joseph finds himself in. But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, that he was just – not unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth – and that he because of this, he was willing to divorce her quietly when he learned about the pregnancy, and to take the significant social risk of not making a big fuss about it. People would still eventually find out, and that would really be embarrassing. But he’s willing to face that.
So at this point in the story, before the angel speaks to him in his dream, Joseph is already portrayed as a upstanding, God-honoring man, who’s merciful and compassionate toward Mary – even though he has good reason not to be. He spares her from disgrace. This might remind you of other moments later in the gospel when Jesus steps in and spares people from disgrace. So Joseph is not far from the Kingdom of God, even before Jesus or John the Baptist has announced it. He knows the law not merely at the external level but at its very heart. Much like King David, and as descendant of the house of David, Joseph is a man after God’s own heart.
And I think this is important for helping us understand the relationship better between the Old Testament and New Testament a little better. Joseph is standing right in the middle, between the old and the new — his story is part of a key turning point. Joseph is a bridge figure, because he anticipates the new thing that God is going to do in Jesus. He sees beyond the conventional understanding of the Law and God’s commandments. He has an intuition into Christian love, which, though implicit in the Old Testament, has not yet been fully demonstrated and made explicit until the person of Jesus comes on the scene.
This is why Jesus says later on in Matthew, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, “You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” — This is Jesus quoting Exodus 21:24, and it’s the “let the punishment fit the crime” mentality, which many of us naturally default to — but, Jesus says, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (5:38-39a). And this raises all kinds of complicated questions for us today, in the age of terrorism and mass shootings. But I think the point about the movement from the Old to the New, is that justice is not served by simply letting the punishment fit the crime. The gospel is telling us something different.. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves before God or before others. And if we can’t justify ourselves, neither can we justly condemn anyone else. Even if what they do is evil.
And for Matthew, who tells it a little differently than Luke — Luke narrates from Mary’s perspective — for Matthew, Joseph is the person in the story that really signals toward that true justice, the heart of the law which is love. Because when he receives the angel’s message he’s not offended by it — he’s not scandalized by it. There’s no indication that he doubts it. He might have struggled with it before making a decision — it may have been a very difficult decision. But he’s able to make the decision to believe it and respond in faith.
Now, without the angel’s message, he’s not going to stay engaged to marry. He can’t. It would be unthinkable for him. He has to divorce her – it would be viewed as impious not to. This is the difference between the gospel, and the best that religion and morality has to offer. Showing some mercy but finally walking away is the most that human beings in their own strength and wisdom can do without God’s love. Without God’s love, good, honest, ethical people, run out of imagination. Only love would compel someone to marry a crazy, poor, pregnant woman. Only love could see an act like this as God’s will and trust it enough to follow through on it.
This is where God breaks into the story. It’s where God interrupts it, and disrupts it. It’s what moves the story onto a whole new playing field. It becomes a gospel story, a story about radical grace rather than just a story about kindness.
A well-known author by the name of Joseph Campbell has a famous quote that goes like this: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
We can say that in a Christian way: We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to enter the Kingdom of heaven — which is how Jesus describes it in the gospel of Matthew. We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned — we must be willing to let go of the image we’ve protected — if we want to live life in the Kingdom of God.
Joseph completely gives us his plans, which were good plans, but he gives them up. Joseph lets go of the self-image he had, of the reputation he’d kept — and he did this in a culture that would never look at him the same way again. This is the kind of stuff God works through — even though it looks like foolishness to the world sometimes.
When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in one of the dorms at Baylor University. And I was married at the time — yes, Whitney and I lived in a dorm together one year (which was special). And I was leading a Bible study with a group of freshmen one year. One of the most common themes and questions that arises in a college-student Bible study — some of you will appreciate this — is that of God’s will and how to know God’s will for your life. There’s this desire among young adults with a certain kind of Christian background and church experience – to talk about just wanting to stay in God’s will for their life. You know, you think about the big decisions we’re making in life that often come during or soon after those years of young adulthood, and it’s usually stuff like: What should I major in, what do I want to do when I graduate, where do I want to live, who am I going to marry?
And when you’re in college, if you had a traditional college experience, it’s like the only thing that adult ever asks you about, when you’re in this stage of life: what are you studying, what are you going to do with that degree? So you can’t really blame them for being preoccupied with these questions. And then what’s funny is that as we get older, those questions don’t really even change that much – they just kind of morph. They become, what neighborhood should we buy in, should I make a career change, should we move, where are we going to send out kids to school? Are they going to get into a good school? Can we afford to send them there? Adult versions of the same kinds of questions.
So there’s a pattern here with the way we think about God’s will for our life remains at the external and circumstantial level. It’s not that these questions are unimportant — they’re not — God cares about them, and we should pray through them. God’s will does pertain to these questions. They matter.
But if we look back not just to the First Century but also any century since then until now, most of the time, you didn’t even have the luxury of asking most of these questions! Where are you going to live, what a career are you going to choose, even who you’re going to marry — these big life choices, weren’t choices. They were pretty much decided for you.
And so maybe having these choices in the first place is part of the problem. It let us assumes that we’re the ones in control of our lives, and that we get to make our own futures. This freedom becomes an idol, and as an idol, it’s at the root of our culture’s obsession with planning and with self-image. So much so that we take whatever we plan and however we want to present ourselves, and call it God’s will or we trick ourselves into thinking it’s God’s will.
We have to be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, and the self-image we prefer, in order to live in the Kingdom of God.
So just looking at the Joseph story one last time: is the lesson simply that we need to pay attention to our dreams so that we can hear God tell us what we should do? I don’t want to rule that out necessary, and in fact that can happen.
But most of the time, we find ourselves struggling to know what to do because we’re not clear, and because we’re not certain, about what God wants, at the external level.
So why doesn’t Joseph say, oh that was just a dream. Who knows what God wants? The thing that most determines whether we’re living in God’s will for our life is not so much the choices about the external, circumstantial things. But about the kind of people we decide we want to become before we even face those choices. Who are we going to follow? What are we going to trust? How we answer those questions will largely determine everything else.
There are couple places in the New Testament that stand out where this question about God’s will is addressed:
- Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Rom 12:2
- It is God’s will that you should be sanctified… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thess. 4:3a; 5:18
The reason that Josephs responds the way he does, when the angel tells him in his dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, is because he had already chosen what he was going to live for, and who he wanted to be. This made him open and ready for God to move and speak to him in an unexpected way.
Joseph could never have guessed what the angel was about to ask to do, and yet, when he gets the news, he believes it, and when he’s to ask to stay with Mary, he does it. He is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of a deeper and higher understanding of it — one the leads to the kingdom of God, the heart of the law, and that is governed by God’s love. This is what makes the Christmas story a gospel story.
So before closing, here are two questions for us to continue to reflect on:
- Are their plans in your life, they could be good plans, that God might be calling you to give up?
- Is there an image that you’re keeping, that you’re trying to protect, that God is asking you to let go of?
So in our lives, let those words of Paul be your guide: Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world! Rather, with Joseph as our example, do not let your plans and your self-image get in the way of what God wants to do! But be transformed and sanctified by the renewing of our mind, in the light of your love, and by the heart of your law. So that we can live and walk in your kingdom. So that we can know what your will is — your good, pleasing and perfect will. Amen.