A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, Dec. 20, 2015
Matthew 1:18-25 ESV
Sometimes life is the bearer of unexpected news that tends to turn our world upside down, throwing all of our well-laid plans into disarray. A visit to the doctor brings news that you will have to have major surgery. Or you are given another diagnosis that is hard to bear. Or you are awakened by a late-night telephone call with someone on the other end saying, “I am sorry to have to tell you this . . ..” Or just when you think things are going well at work, your boss calls you into the office and gives you a pink slip. The possible scenarios of unexpected and disruptive twists and turns in the road of life are endless. And most of us have experienced them at one time or another.
Enter the story of Joseph. Joseph, we assume, was going about business as usual as a peasant carpenter. His focus was on making plans for the future. He was happily engaged to a young maiden named Mary. But before they came together, Joseph found out that Mary was already with child. With Mary’s two words—“I’m pregnant”—Joseph’s whole world was turned upside down in an instant. All his relationships were immediately changed—his relationship with Mary, his relationship with his neighbors, his relationship with his religion. His situation changed from one of joy and planning for a happy future with his young bride to one of hurt and anger and confusion about how to deal with a presumably unfaithful and pregnant fiancée. This is the way things are revealed, when we read between the lines of the gospel story.
This put Joseph in a perplexing situation. In that day and time, both by culture and by law, engagement such as that entered into by Joseph and Mary was a binding contract. “Sexual intercourse by a betrothed virgin with another man betrayed the commitment to future marriage and so was [considered] adultery. The law (if enacted) permitted execution after public trial (Deut 22:23-27).”1 Surely Joseph wanted to keep the law of his people; he wanted to do the “right thing.” But was the “right thing” to abide by the ancient scriptures and have his fiancée publicly tried and possibly executed? Or was the right thing something else? What would he do? Joseph decided to dismiss Mary quietly without making a public disgrace of her. He would not exercise his right to call for a trial and punishment as the law prescribed. In short, instead of letting himself be bound by the letter of the written law, he decided to follow the moral law of mercy. At this point, it is said, Joseph had a dream in which it was revealed that the child being carried by Mary was according to the will of God. And Joseph was encouraged to go through with the wedding, taking unto himself a young woman already with child, because this was the Divine will for his life. Such is the way Matthew tells the story.
Biblical commentator M. Eugene Boring notes that Matthew was writing for “Jewish Christians who had always reverenced the Law, [but] they sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah [Law] and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them. . . . Joseph is pictured as ‘righteous,’ even though he had decided to act out of care for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhere to the Law. . . . Joseph stands . . . as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples—indeed for each reader of the Gospel.” That is to live our lives according to the higher law of love for God and neighbor.
It is not difficult to see a similarity between Joseph’s conundrum and our own. “We want to ‘do the right thing’”2 when we are faced with a difficult decision. But what is the right thing? How do we always know? We sometimes find ourselves caught between Law and Grace, do we not? Does doing the right thing always mean taking a literal view of the Law or of scripture? Or, aren’t we in fact sometimes bound by a higher law, the law of divine love, mercy and compassion? There are a lot of people in our country today who are determined to do the right thing because they feel that they find instructions in the Bible or other religious book or teachings telling them to do so. And so they persecute segments of society, taking a few ancient verses as their platform and rationale for believing what they believe and doing what they do, while denying other verses of scripture of even greater importance. Others commit acts of violence or terrorism because they feel their religious book instructs them to do so. As Jesus said, they focus on the minor commandments and neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23). One example is how for centuries many used the Bible to justify the institution of slavery, because a few verses in the Bible talk about how to treat your slaves. And some churches prohibit women from speaking in church or even teaching men in Sunday school, because of a few verses in the Bible. Our church does well in that we are not biblical literalists, but we, as did Joseph, choose to abide by the higher law of Christian love, mercy and compassion. And in that we do well.
But let us return to where we began and how life often deals us the unexpected. How do we deal with those unexpected disruptions that life sometimes sends our way? And how do we cope when we feel we may be called upon to perform a task or serve in the church in a way we had never before considered? One thing we have to do is take the long view—focus on the future and not just the present moment. What if Joseph had selfishly focused on the present moment and refused to be a loving husband to Mary and father to Jesus? But he didn’t. Joseph was able to see the big picture and put things into perspective.
Sometimes we have to change, or adapt, to deal with life’s disruptive crises. At such times, I believe, when we are called to disruptive changes in our lives, it is said to us, as the angel is reported to have said to Joseph, “do not be afraid. . . God is with you.” That is a hope of Christmas, is it not? If the birth of Jesus holds any hope at all for us, it is “Fear not! God is with us!” As I quoted in the Midweek Message this past week, in the words of television journalist Charles Kuralt, “The Christmas message [is] that there is life and hope, even in a rough world.”3
Some more good news of Christmas is that often the unexpected disruptions of life can turn out to be marvelous gifts of grace. By embracing the uninvited disruption that came into Joseph’s life, he was blessed with a marvelous baby boy that would change the course of the whole world.
Now, as already noted, sometimes the unexpected and uninvited disruptions that life throws upon us are tragic; and it is difficult for us to find any good in them at all. I understand that. But often those uninvited disruptions in our lives, those unsought challenges that come our way, those changes in life direction that come unannounced and unwanted—often they can turn out to be the most wonderful blessings in disguise. I have a traveling story to that effect.
Several years ago, when we were traveling on our summer vacation with our kids, we were on Interstate 75 somewhere in the state of Michigan. It was getting to be late in the day. We did not have motel reservations for the night. As dark was approaching, our gas tank got very low. We kept driving and looking for an exit, but there were none. Finally we came upon an exit and got off and proceeded toward some little town in search of gas. Low and behold, as we were looking for gas and lodging, we came upon a state penitentiary and we kept seeing signs that read, “DO NOT pick up hitchhikers.” Well, this made us feel good, with an almost-empty gas tank. But we eventually found gas and we also found a little Mom and Pop motel. Always the inquisitive one, I asked about the local penitentiary, and I was assured that much of the motel’s business were family members who came to visit prison inmates. This made us feel even better.
At any rate, we had a good night, and the next morning I asked the motel owner if there was anything nearby that might be of interest to us. And of course there was! We had happened upon the Frankenmuth exit, a beautiful little Bavarian town that had wonderful Bavarian bakeries, restaurants, candy stores, a covered bridge, and a huge town square Glockenspill. That unexpected, off-the-beaten-path side excursion—that at first appeared uninviting—turned out to be one of the highlights of our vacation.
Life can sometimes be like that. That surprise baby; that loss of a job; that other life disruption; such events can sometimes prove to be wonderful bundles of joy of surprise. That unexpected baby can become the light of your life. That loss of a job can lead to an even better job. I like a common Quaker saying: “Way closes, way opens.” In other words, when one disappointment comes, it makes way for another greater blessing to replace it.
An Advent challenge for us is to take—as did Joseph, the husband of Mary—those uninvited and unexpected disruptions that life sends our way and be open to the wonder that might accompany them. Finding wonder in the unexpected. May it be so for us. Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Study Bible. 2New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. VIII, p. 136. 3On the Road with Charles Kuralt, p. 316