(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 11, 2016)
For several weeks, we’ve looked at God’s regular habit of not doing things like we would think God would.
God shows up with the outsiders and the oppressed, and it is God showing up that brings hope for humanity. Let me do a recap by sharing a sentence or two from each message over the last several weeks. On October 30, we looked at Cain and Abel, at Elijah and Naboth, at many in the Old Testament. Here’s the line I’ll pull from that message:
“As dark as the world may get…for all the times we see power winning, might making right…there is this strong thread through the bible that reminds us God is not behind it. God is on the side of those trampled unjustly by power.”
On November 13, we looked at Jeremiah standing up to kings and power, we looked at the day of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples, who received power to immediately speak and reach out to people from all over the world. God’s presence with them, God’s presence with us is what makes a difference. I said:
“Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Jesus Christ. Give us your eyes to see the wounded and oppressed whom you love. Give us your patience when we feel wronged or misunderstood. Give us your boldness to speak your good news. Give us your strength and courage when we suffer.”
Then on the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at Isaiah’s promise to bring hope from a place that was already forsaken and beaten up. God’s action of redemption would begin in Galilee. I said:
“The hope for us all is in God’s love and presence. It is a gift when we are beyond our resources. It is grace. God’s hope isn’t found in the places of power and strength, but rather God’s hope and power and strength are built in us…we are transformed in and through our dark places. Our true faith lies in something outside ourselves…in the real Creator God who shows up in pain and struggle and fear.”
Last week, number 2 of Advent, it was the wonderful hope of Isaiah 40, a reminder of God’s faithfulness over our lives and over the centuries. I said:
“This is our God! The God who comes with power AND who gathers the lambs close, carries them close to God’s heart.
This is our God, the one I’ve trusted most of my life, the God I’ve always wanted everyone to know and love and experience.”
I hope that recap of our journey reminds us all how consistent this theme is throughout the bible.
God does not overwhelm with control and power. Instead, God consistently acts on behalf of humanity by identifying with, drawing close to the people and places where hope is most needed… with the lambs who are vulnerable.
This week, week three of Advent, turns our attention toward the coming of Jesus. We often say that Jesus is God in the flesh; Jesus is what God looks like in our world. So it is not in the least bit surprising that so many details of Jesus’ birth show this consistent God-theme: Jesus is born into difficulty, into the margins.
Turn with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 1. We will look today at Joseph’s side of the Nativity, and see just how unexpected and even subversive God’s salvation work is.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, TNIV)
Here is the beginning of our good news…the beginning of what is God’s biggest act of transforming, redemptive hope.
This was scandalous hope to the world at that time, the scandal of pregnancy before it should have happened according to Jewish law. But this is God doing what God has always done! The Holy Spirit bringing about Mary’s pregnancy is our God joining humanity like never before or since. When God does the decisive act for our salvation, it is consistent with the theme we’ve been tracing: God’s presence shows up in a marginalized situation.
Yet there’s a layer here I haven’t really wrestled with before: God creates a situation of cultural and religious scandal by causing a pregnancy when it would be problematic for righteous Jews. The pledge of marriage, the engagement, was as binding as a marriage was; but Jewish law did not allow sexual contact until the marriage was fully accomplished.
Pregnancy was evidence to Joseph and the world that something had not gone as it was supposed to go. Mary was the one who would bear the brunt of societal pressure because of how God chose to act. The marginalization followed Mary and Jesus throughout their lives. People clearly viewed this pregnancy as out of wedlock, and there are hints throughout the gospels that these whispers followed Jesus his whole life.
In John 8, in one of the many arguments between Jesus and the religious establishment, the teachers reply to Jesus: “WE are not illegitimate children,” as if they are slandering him as the illegitimate one; as if they are picking up on the whispers that are already all around Jesus. In Mark 6, there is a reference to Jesus as “son of Mary”; it’s further evidence that people didn’t view Jesus as having a legitimate father.
This mattered at that time! Craig Evans reminds us of the consequences: “A person of suspect birth was called a mamzer, a status no one wanted.” Then he quotes Deuteronomy 23:2: “Those born of an illicit union [mamzer] shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
God bought hope through something that was excluded by Jewish law.
Look with me at verse 19, because this week I realized I’ve been making a false assumption when I’ve read this verse before.
Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
In essence, before this week, I’ve read my own cultural understanding onto this verse. “Because Joseph was a ‘righteous’ man”…which I interpret through my lens: Joseph is noble, Joseph is honorable, Joseph is caring for Mary’s predicament. THAT is why he didn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace” and wanted to make the divorce quiet; he was noble, he was righteous.
But scholars tell me I’m not understanding “righteous” correctly here. “Righteous” in that culture was solely defined by adherence to Torah, obedience to the Law of Moses. The righteous and just response, the obedient response for Joseph to make is to divorce. Douglas Hare writes:
“It is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. No matter how much he still loves Mary, it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract… Although he must divorce her to demonstrate that his love for God is stronger than his love for Mary, he determines to do it secretly, so as not to cause her public humiliation.”
So it isn’t his righteousness that wants to keep Mary from public disgrace. Quite the opposite. Righteousness seems to demand a disgrace that Joseph’s love wants to lessen by divorcing her quietly. Righteousness isn’t what is leading to the “quietly” part. Righteousness and obedience are demanding the divorce; mercy and love are Joseph’s sort of rebellion against the demands of the law.
Then God intervenes in Joseph’s life with more confusing controversy!
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
I am going to name the scandal that is right here in this text as clearly as I possibly can, because it has rocked my world a bit this week to realize this. I’m still learning things about Jesus’ birth after years of studying the bible. I’ll name it like this:
God had made it clear through the law of Moses that righteousness demanded Joseph divorce in a situation like this. Yet in verse 20, Joseph was given expressed permission by God through an angel to NOT follow God’s law to divorce. Joseph is told: “Don’t be afraid to marry the woman you love; break my righteousness law and stand in scandal and disobedience with your fiancee. Mary looks guilty, but she is not. I did this. My Holy Spirit did this.”
I really have never grasped this before, in all the years of reading the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke.
Joseph wasn’t “righteous” because he desired to help Mary avoid public disgrace and divorce quietly. No, the righteousness of the law demanded the divorce, and Joseph’s mercy and love were fighting against righteousness by trying to divorce quietly.
And then God goes even further and gets more radical by sending an angel to tell Joseph to disobey what righteousness seemed to demand. “Marry the woman you love. Bring Mary home, risk the scandal and choose to be marginalized because this is how I work.” This is God’s love and hope and redemption written into the broken, scandalized margins of the world.
See if your brain starts exploding with this thought like mine has been doing this week!
God didn’t just draw near to marginalized people to bring salvation…God created marginalization and scandal for Mary and Joseph by the Holy Spirit-conceived child. God’s hope for the nations, God’s drawing near to humanity in Immanuel comes outside the proper and prescribed ways, and the angel actually gives explicit permission to break the law of Moses.
God is going to redeem us all by becoming a mamzer, by becoming an excluded human…God’s presence once and for all living among us on the margins!
As we close, look at our hope in these verses!
Jesus is the one who saves us from our sins! God became Immanuel, God’s very presence with us! This is how hope became real, took on flesh and breath in our broken, messy world.
This is how we received redemption! A scandal of a baby born to save us. Thanks be to God.