Love that Transcends Law & Custom

Matthew 1:18-21, 24

Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son

18 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.19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 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. 21 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.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Members of Salem Lutheran, Family & Friends of the Congregation,

Joseph was in a bind!  What should he do with Mary?  The love of his life, his sweetheart, the woman to whom he was engaged was pregnant.  She was showing.  Joseph could have broken off his engagement to become her husband.  It would have brought shame to Mary.  He could even have charged her with unfaithfulness, which meant that she could have been stoned to death.  Jewish law and custom were on his side.  All of Joseph’s customers would have understood.  No one in the village of Nazareth would have argued with him.  Just like us, Joseph would have wanted to be on the right side of the law before he made a decision.  He could have saved face and slipped out of an embarrassing situation.

But more important to Joseph than having the law on his side and dealing with the embarrassment of a pregnant woman with whom he had not gone to bed, was his faith in God and his compassion for Mary.  The Gospel reading simply states, “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” (Mt. 1:19).  Joseph: “had in mind.”    That’s a loaded phrase.  It’s almost like, “he was leaning in that direction.” 

And then it happened!  He had a vision, an appearance, in a dream – an angel of the Lord spoke to him: “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.” (Mt. 1:20b-21).  That vision, that appearance, that conversation changed his mind.

When he woke up, “He did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”  There’s the proof that Joseph was ‘a righteous man.’  He believed the angel.  He did what God told him to do.  He didn’t take the easy way out.  Instead of putting distance between Mary and himself, Joseph took Mary home and cared for her.  For Joseph doing the right thing was more important than doing what people would expect him to do.  God’s way was more important than what other people thought and said.  Compassion was more important than his rights.  A sense of responsibility to God and Mary was more important than the laws and customs.

We can learn a lot from Joseph for our own lives.  There are times when it’s not popular to be someone’s friend or to care for them, because of something that they have said or done wrong.  From society’s perspective Mary had done wrong.  Joseph should avoid her.  How many times have we been in his shoes?  We have been tempted to sever a relationship, because it wasn’t good business, it didn’t look good, people would talk.  Besides all that, it’s just downright hard to control our feelings when someone has wronged us.  We want to let them have it, to get back at them, for hurting our feelings.

29 years ago there was a man who acted like Joseph.  The December, 1987, issue of The New York Times carried the story of a man in North Ireland, where the killing of one Irish person b another is a routine part f life.  People usually don’t stop the vendettas and grievances that have been passed down from one generation to the next.  They continue to carry them.

On Nov. 8, 1987 11 Irish civilians were killed in North Ireland.  Among those killed was 21 year old Marie Wilson, a student nurse crushed by a wall in which the Irish Republican Army had hidden a bomb.  The I.R.A. later explained that they intended for the bomb to kill security forces at a memorial service, not civilians.  The citizens of Ireland talked about her tragic death for days, even weeks.

As Marie Wilson lay dying under the rubble, she held the hand of her father, Gordon, who had also been buried beneath the pile of debris.  “She had been screaming at times, then reassuring me,”  her dad recalled, His right arm in a sling, his hand groping uselessly as he talked.  She said: “Daddy, I love you very much.”  Those were her last words.  How would you respond to such a tragedy – equal perhaps to Joseph’s predicament with his fiance’s pregnancy?  Anger, frustration, hurt.  All those would be justifiable feelings.

Gordon Wilson stunned the British Isles when he said: “I bear no ill will at all.”  In the first angry hours after the bombing, Mr. Wilson’s response was to pray for his daughter’s killers.  Yes, pray for them!  He was not interested in trying to fit his daughter into the long list of political atrocities.  “Marie’s last words were about life,” he said.  “It would be no way for me to remember her by having words of hatred in my mouth.”  Recently, I heard of someone on the news who wanted the death sentence for someone found guilty of killing her husband and their father.  Afterwards, one of them was asked, if it helped them in their grief to have had the judge give the death sentence to his father’s killer.  He answered, “No.”  Anger and revenge never bring peace.  Only forgiveness and compassion as Joseph and Gordon demonstrated.

Gordon saw good come out of his daughter’s tragic death.  He explained, “A woman, someone I would call a sharp-edged Protestant, came to my door sobbing after Marie died.  The woman said the tragedy had ‘softened her heart.’ Now that has to be good,” said Gordon, pondering the value of Marie’s life and death.    

“That has to be good.”  That Gordon forgave his daughter’s murderers, accepting the comfort of another grieving soul with a changed heart.  That Joseph listened to God’s messenger and “…took Mary home as his wife…he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.”  Both mirrored the forgiveness of Jesus, that brought Him to this earth of sin and suffering; and, took Him to Calvary’s cross in our place.  More important than our instinctive anger and revenge, when someone has wronged us; more important than the voice of an angry, bitter society, when we’ve been hurt physically or inwardly is the voice of compassion and forgiveness.

Joseph understood the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ life and name.  The Greek word, “Jesus,” in Hebrew means, “Joshua,” “He shall save.”  As God led people to save Israel from their foreign oppressors, so Jesus saves His people from those who seek to hurt and destroy them.  The name Jesus means literally, “salvation.”  The New Testament is full of examples of how God comes to the rescue of His people.  John’s Gospel states: “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name He gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).  And, yet another blessing recorded in Mat. 18:20, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”  As the Holy Spirit was with Gordon, Mary, and Joseph, He is with us, this morning, to accomplish the goal of forgiveness, acceptance, and renewal, despite what awful circumstances we may have gone through.

What makes Christmas, Christmas?  Some would say customs like buying just the right gifts at shopping centers, eating Christmas food, watching Christmas programs, singing Christmas carols, and of course, opening Christmas presents.  Others might say it’s more about family traditions like sentimental ornaments on a tree, special foods/recipes which have been passed down for generations, or visiting family and friends on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, or at other times.  All of these are important to the meaning of Christmas.

But the best answer to “What makes Christmas, Christmas” is found in human history.  What made Christmas, Christmas for Joseph and Mary is that they listened to God.  If they had not believed the angel’s words, the birth of Jesus would have been quite different.  Their witness calls us to be led by God in today’s world. They call us to respond to God’s work and ways among us.

Joseph, coming to a bend in the road and not having all of the facts available, decided to do more than law and custom required.  He decided to do more than was expected of him by society.  He let compassion guide his decision to take Mary home to live with him.  How about us?

We will hear people say, “Do they really deserve it?”  “Are they really hungry?”  “How did they get their lives so messed up?”  It’s so easy to justify doing nothing.  It would have been for Joseph, too.  But Mary & Joseph’s obedience to God and Jesus’ birth, teaches us another way: the love of God that transcends law and custom.  Believe the Words of God in Scripture for your lives as Mary and Joseph believed the words of the angel for their lives.  Reach out to others with God’s words about life to change hearts, minds, and spirits.  After all, you are not doing this on your own.  Emmanuel, “God is with you and me.”  As no one and nothing else will ever be with us, by us, and for us – never to leave us.  Jesus, our Savior and Friend “to the very end of the kosmos” – the universe, the world, time!