Scripture: Matthew 1:18–25
You will remember that Abram and Sarai fell asleep under the shadow of a sea of stars, and under the promise that their descendants would be as numerous as those stars. They were free and open and ready to go to a land that God would show them. But they knew a freedom that God’s people very often have not known.
Miriam and Aaron and Moses fell asleep under a very different shadow…the shadow of oppression by the Empire of the Egyptians. Every decision they made and step they took was dictated by the imperial presence of the Pharaohs and those they deemed worthy.
David fell asleep under the shadow of the injustice of the King named Saul. As he held the memory of the old prophet pouring oil over his young head, he wondered if there was a better way.
Hezekiah and Habakkuk each fell asleep under the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, dictated by the power and force of military might that had felled nation after nation after nation and now threatened their own.
A prophet named Isaiah fell asleep under the shadow of the Babylonians, exiled from his land and his temple and—some even wondered—from his God.
Esther and her cousin Mordecai fell asleep under the shadow of the Persians, threatened by ignorance and jealousy and violence.
Then, for over 300 years, God’s people fell asleep under the shadow of the Greek Empire, straining to hear a word from God, wondering if all they would know was the shadow of silence.
And then, one night, a man named Joseph fell asleep under the shadow of Rome. The power of the Caesars. The violence of the governor Herod. And, personally, he knew the shame and confusion and anger of knowing that the woman whom he had pledged to marry was pregnant, but not by him. As he drifted off to sleep, two thousand years of shadows troubled his mind.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
My wife Kimberly and I have a new obsession: the television show Manifest. It started on NBC, and then was moved to Netflix where we started watching, and have become hooked! The executive producer is Robert Zemeckis, known for the Back to the Future movies, and Manifest has that vibe. It is kind of science fiction, but really fiction with a bit of science thrown in for good measure. The basic plot—and this is not a spoiler but can be figured out from the preview on Netflix—is that a plane full of passengers disappears and then reappears five years later. The passengers look exactly the same as the day that they left, but now they receive these mysterious visions, what they name “callings.” In these callings, they receive some information about something bigger than themselves, which they have to figure out, and decide what to do about it. Over and over again, the show poses an interesting question: “if you were given special information that almost no one else in the world had, how would you respond?”
You see where I am going with this, right? In today’s passage, Joseph finds himself in exactly that situation. He goes to sleep one night and receives a vision—one might even name it a calling—in which an angel gives him this incredibly special information, that very few other people know about, and it is up to him to figure out what happens next.
The short version of the story is this: Joseph has been betrothed to a girl named Mary. In that context, it was common for young or middle-aged men to be arranged in marriage with even younger women, or even girls. More than likely, this means that there has been a religious and legal ceremony joining Joseph and Mary, but she has not matured enough to be ready to move in with him and is still living in her parents’ household. The day is coming when she will join him and complete the marriage vows, but even in this betrothal, a vow has been made.
Somewhere along the way, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant. We have to be careful not to read the Gospel of Luke into the Gospel of Matthew here…according to Matthew’s story, all we know is that Joseph finds out that she is pregnant, and knows it is not his baby. We have no idea what Mary knows or how she knows it or if she has talked to him or he has found out another way. The story begins in this situation, and tells us that because Joseph is “righteous,” he plans to divorce her quietly. This is significant, because to be unwed and pregnant is a dangerous proposition. Even with Joseph’s decision to divorce her quietly, the best case scenario is that she will stay with her family in disgrace, and never be married. But in the worst case, her family and or community as a whole will reject her and both she and the baby might be killed. Mary and her baby are living under the shadow of danger and death.
And then he falls asleep one night, and everything changes. He wakes up the next morning, a sudden possessor of this special information, and the burden of figuring out what to do next with it.
“Living with Jesus is messy.”
Diana Butler Bass writes this in her book Freeing Jesus. It is part theology, part Bible study, and part memoir, as she writes about her journey through the messiness of living with Jesus. Throughout much of her life, she writes, she has sought after clarity and certainty. But that is not often the way of faith, she writes. She expands this idea in her chapter titled “Presence”:
“Living with Jesus is where it gets messy. This is why, I suppose, I became a historian and not a theologian. I prefer fluidity to precision, how we actually live rather than what we should believe. Whatever theological definitions Christians use for Jesus, life typically uproots them.”
Perhaps Joseph would agree. One day, he was expecting his life to be predictable and controlled and certain, and then everything was turned upside down. In a culture of shame and honor, he has been deeply dishonored. He is a part of the royal lineage of David, and so there is intense pressure for him to value and steward that privilege. For him to become married to a woman carrying someone else’s baby will make him a dishonored laughing-stock, and bring shame to the royal line. His family would look down on him, as will his community. He could tell them that he has had a dream, and an angel told him what to do, but there will be a lot of eye-rolling and skepticism. For a tradesman who counts on a good reputation, he is also at risk of embarrassment and lost livelihood.
Have you ever found yourself facing a hard decision, one where you know the right thing to do, but also know that doing that thing will cost you something dearly? Have you faced a decision where you must make a personal sacrifice in order to help someone else? Have you lived that experience of fear, of shame, of inner conflict? Or the isolation or loneliness of feeling like no one else understands what you are going through? That’s Joseph’s messy reality, that rushes at him the moment he wakes up from his dream.
Living with Jesus is messy.
So like a calling on a science fiction show, Joseph has to decide what to do with this information. Now, the text doesn’t tell us much about his inner monologue, or how long it took him to make up his mind, or how many sleepless nights he had before he made up his mind. What it does tell us is that Joseph chose Mary and her baby. He chose the potential of personal shame, in order to care for the lives of two other people. He gave up his power and privilege, in order to protect someone else.
But let me make another point here. What Joseph did had extraordinary consequences, but it wasn’t really an extraordinary action. He got married. He helped raise his adopted son. People do that kind of stuff every day. He didn’t uproot his whole life and move to a different land, like Sarai and Abram. He didn’t march into the halls of power and demand justice, like Moses or the prophets. He didn’t enter the court of the king and risk death, like Esther. He took pretty ordinary actions, and with those actions, God brought about some extraordinary things.
Perhaps that is the point. That seems to be at least part of the point that Diana Butler Bass makes. In the same chapter about the Presence of God, she points to the Biblical language that is first introduced here in today’s passage: “He shall be called Immanuel: God with us.” For Butler Bass, the extraordinary truth is that God has chosen to be Immanuel, God with us, by joining us in our ordinary-ness.
She uses a word that I probably haven’t read since high school English class vocabulary: “quotidian.” Quotidian simply means ordinary, or routine, or commonplace. But for Butler Bass, it is a beautiful concept to talk about the way that God is with us. She reminds us that God is present in the common experiences of life. Specifically, she remembered a time when her child was young and demanded a lot of attention. She felt like she had fallen into a life of pedantic and useless drudgery. But that is when a friend gave her a book by Kathleen Norris titled The Quotidian Mysteries, which demonstrated how much of her everyday, mundane, ordinary life was truly the God-with-us life. Butler Bass writes,
“The world of washing and housekeeping, of cooking and baking, of building a marriage and caring for children—all this was the stuff of everyday liturgy, the prayer of our hands, and it was all this…that ‘might be revisioned as the very love of God.’…It was a relief to hear these words. The trajectory of my own faith had gone from the vast to the ordinary. I had felt accompanied by Jesus while rocking a sick infant in the middle of the night, while playing with her on the floor, and while pushing her carriage around the neighborhood.”
Sounds a bit like Joseph. His calling was not to stand in the halls of power, but to stand up for his wife when no one else would. Not to lead great armies, but to rock his baby to sleep. Not to part any seas, but to play camel on the floor with his toddler. And in his quotidian life, raise up the Messiah that no one expected.
Sounds a bit like us. In our quotidian errands and projects and baking brownies for the office Christmas party and cleaning the toilets before the houseguests arrive, we too find that our tasks are everyday liturgy, revisioned as the very love of God.
Living with Jesus is messy. But in the mess is a beautiful hope, an everyday peace, and a quotidian joy.
I love the quote from Brene Brown that was at the opening of the service today, and it is a reminder for us on this Sunday of joy.
“Joy comes to us in moments—ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.”
Indeed. Joy comes to us in those ordinary moments, those quotidian moments of life. This season, may we remember not to get too busy chasing down the extraordinary to see that right in front of us, God is showing us grace and love and joy!