Opening thought: "When you see a Nativity scene, what do you look for? Is there a certain individual you are drawn to? Do you want to see how the wise men, shepherds, or angels are portrayed?

The scene at the Nativity - (a pastiche of the many events, a homogenization of the various perspectives - and these days anyone can be a part of the Nativity! Santa, Frosty, Rudolph - even Looney Tunes!)

The Feeling of Shame and Scandal
Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. It is supposed to be a blessed time as the two prepare for life together. There is already a sacred covenant between them and before the community they have promised themselves only to one another. They are not yet married and the rules about their interaction are guided by the community. Joseph is soon to begin his career with his father's approval and begin a family with his wife. Joseph and Mary are bound to one another, but Joseph will not take her home to live with him until after the wedding.

However, this time of ordinary happiness is spoiled by scandal. Mary is pregnant. It would be bad enough if Joseph were the father and they had shamed the expectations of marriage, but all Joseph knows at this point is that he is not the father. He is in turmoil. If he ignores what has happened, he will be ignoring God's law, and the law is very clear -
If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Joseph is a righteous man, but he is also a compassionate man. He loves God and God's law, but he also loves Mary. He does not want to humiliate and expose her as a sinful woman, she would be rejected by the village and it would shame her and her father and she is so young. But worst of all it could lead to the death penalty. If the people were outraged, they could be brutal.

But he cannot marry her either. Joseph cannot simply forgive her and marry her anyway - that's very storybook and soap opera romantic, but it is not reality in first-century Palestine - certainly not for Joseph. The law demands that he annul the marriage. This is how he shows his love of God and the people of Israel.

Joseph is seeking a way through his dilemma. Since he learned of the pregnancy he has been trying to figure a way out. He is righteous, but he is merciful. His best option - to fulfill his obligations to God and to Mary - is to give her a "quiet divorce." He can send her away to her relatives down in the hill country of Judea. She can go down there until the child is born and Joseph will prepare the divorce with a few trusted officials. It's not a perfect solution, but it is the best that he can do - nothing else is possible.

The Dream of a New Possibility
While Joseph is trying to figure it all out, he has a dream. This dream is gospel - that is, good news.

Now Joseph has a possibility that wasn't there when he was trying to figure it out on his own. Matthew says that this fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 7) that the virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and he will be named Immanuel - God is with us.

For Joseph, the dream is truly a gospel - good news. It means that more is possible than he would have ever imagined. It means the burden of the law has been lifted.

A New Possibility - "God is With Us"

O, how we need Immanuel - God is with us. How we need Jesus! He will save! Joseph receives the word of God in this dream as good news. He welcomes the possibility that this child is the Messiah - the Son of God. Yes, there will be scandal - not because of Joseph and Mary's sinfulness but because of the sinfulness of humankind - but the possibility of the gospel that Joseph receives means that he and Mary and all their people will be saved.

Joseph did all of that. He relied on God and trusted in God even when it seemed difficult or questionable. Unlike King Ahaz, Joseph sets aside his very logical, pious, and reasonable solution and pledges himself to God's risky, but amazing, solution.

The gospel according to Joseph is the good news that God's works are greater than our limitations. We are sinful and the law is often not on our side, and even when it is it is a burden God is with us!

So when you see Joseph in a nativity scene look for a man who trusts in God, look for a man who's been saved from a dilemma between righteousness and mercy. Look for a man whose dream came true - God is with us! He will save us!

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 26 December 2004

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