10Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
18Now 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 fulfill 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.
Raise your hand if you can basically tell this story from memory.
This is a very familiar part of a very familiar story for many of us. It’s so familiar that we can slide right over how incredible it is. This whole Christmas story can easily slide into sentimentality and hallmark card sweetness if we’re not careful. There’s a baby and animals and a young couple facing the world together; it’s so tempting to make this a cute image. The classic Christmas carols tell the story, but sometimes we’ve heard them so many times in Target and the supermarket by this time of year that even those words loose their power and become a fuzzy cloud of good feelings.
God, the Lord of heaven and earth, became a human being for our sake. God didn’t even become a strong, powerful man like Hercules or Samson. God became a vulnerable, weak, speechless baby. God became a baby in a small town during tax season. God chose to be born in a stable because there wasn’t a place for him at the inn. God took on a body so weak, in a situation so powerless that he couldn’t even get a motel room.
It’s a scandal really. It doesn’t make any sense in the world we know, and it didn’t make any sense in the world Christ entered as a baby. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s sometimes how God does things.
I’m getting a bit ahead of the story by talking about the birth of Jesus. Our chunk of the story for this morning starts back a little further but it still doesn’t make any sense. Our chunk of the story starts when Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant.
We don’t know much about Joseph. We know that he was a carpenter engaged to a woman named Mary. We know he was a righteous man, which means he took his faith seriously and tried to follow the commandments of God. For the rest of the story we have to use our imagination.
Imagine a young man with his life ahead of him. He’s starting a career as a carpenter, one that is respectable but not glamorous. He’s worked hard to learn his trade and to build up enough security to get married. He’s good at his work and enjoys the satisfaction of a job well done and the full-body fatigue at the end of a long day.
He’s engaged to a girl named Mary. They’ve spent their childhood in the same village and their mothers have been friends for years. He looks forward to starting a life with Mary. He pictures coming home to her at the end of the day. He knows that together they will make their house into a home full of warmth and peace. He looks forward to raising children together with this woman. He looks forward to teaching his children the faith that is such an important part of his life and Mary’s life. He knows she’ll make a great mother and wife and looks forward to their wedding day. In a fragile world, Joseph has a plan and the future was bright.
Then everything changes. His beloved bride is pregnant and he has nothing to do with it. His plan is shattered. His good reputation is at risk because his fiancé has been unfaithful. The woman he had come to love and to look forward to spending his life with made a fool of him and betrayed his trust.
Joseph is distraught. On the one hand he’s angry and hurt about what Mary has done to him. How could she do this? He had always tried to do the right thing and now he would be the laughingstock of the town. He was a good man who treated her well and would provide for her. He had loved and trusted her and they had planned a life together. How could she?
Besides, the Law of God demands that he divorce her because she’d been unfaithful. Even if Joseph still wanted to marry her he would be going against his faith.
But on the other hand, Joseph doesn’t want to hurt Mary, even though she’s hurt him. He still loves her and doesn’t want her to have to face the disgrace of divorce in a culture that had little tolerance for such things. In spite of what she’s done the tenderness Joseph feels for Mary and for the life together he had imagined takes hold of him and won’t let go.
He’s torn up. Anger and love, faithfulness to the law and tenderness for his bride struggle inside him. He’s anxious and confused and he doesn’t know what to do. He cries out in pain and anger to God, “Lord, why have you done this to me? Why do you torture me like this? I’ve done everything right and it doesn’t even matter!”
Joseph tosses and turns in bed. He struggles and prays and tries to figure a way out. What should he do? What can he do?
Finally, he makes up his mind. He cannot marry her; that’s out of the question. His tradition forbids it and he can’t handle the thought of spending his life with a woman he can’t trust. But he doesn’t want to disgrace her in public so he decides to divorce her quietly. It’s not a plan he’s happy with, but is it all he can do. His plans for the future are ruined and this is the only way he can salvage some dignity and move on with his life. He resigns himself to making the best of a bad situation.
As he lies in the dark his new plan takes shape. As he lies there it becomes clearer that this is the only way out, and he feels a strange sense of comfort from knowing what to do. He’s still anxious because it won’t be easy or pleasant. He’s sad because it still means the death of the future he had dreamed of with Mary. But he knows what he has to do; he knows it is the right thing to do. Slowly his eyes close and his mind winds down. The worst day of his life is over at last. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new plan, not as hopeful as the first, but one he can settle for. He can live with the future.
But God has other plans for Joseph. An angel appears and tells him that Mary hasn’t betrayed him. Things are not as they seem. She is pregnant, yes, but by God’s spirit. Joseph feels relieve, of course, that his bride is not the unfaithful woman he had been forced to imagine her as, but he also feels confused. It’s hard to switch gears so quickly. It’s hard to believe the angel’s words. He’d built himself up to divorce Mary and had already started to plan a life without her. In marrying this woman now he would be going against tradition. Who will understand?
Certainly no one else would believe the story the angel told him. Joseph knew he would face a lifetime of whispering and rumors. He knew people would loose respect for him and that many people would never forgive his wife. It will be a hard road ahead for both of them.
And what did the angel mean, “He will save his people from their sins?” This was a strange dream to say the least and the angel’s message raised more questions than it answered. It’s amazing how a few words can upset the firmest plan.
But Joseph knew that this wasn’t just a dream. He knew God was speaking to him, calling him to a new future, a new plan. Instead of his plan for a quiet, predictable life, Joseph was called to play father to the Son of God.
When Joseph woke up from the dream he felt strangely calm. The day before had seen his plans shattered and this angelic vision had blown away his back-up plan too. There was no going back to the old way; dreams of a simple life weren’t possible anymore. The only plan now was to marry his beloved and follow wherever God would lead them next.
Joseph was scared; there was no getting around it. Instead of a plan he had mysterious words from an angel. Instead of certainty he knew nothing more than his next step.
But he knew that God was with him; he knew God was calling and leading him and he could trust that. As uncertain as the new future was, God’s love was certain. God was calling him to an adventure and was promising salvation for Israel through this yet-to-be-born child. Whatever that meant, it was sure that God’s grace was breaking into the world in a new way and Joseph would be a part of that. Still nervous, Joseph walked to his bride’s house to take the next step in God’s new plan for them.
God has a way of messing up our plans, of turning things upside down. From Joseph and Mary to the first disciples, to our life today, God comes to earth to be with us, and everything changes. A young woman has a child and names him Malik. She wraps him in a warm blanket and lays him in her bed. God is with them in that room as the two of them begin a new life together.
A middle-aged police officer retires from her job. She leaves her gun in the station for the last time and comes home to her house and her dog. She wonders what’s next now that one phase of her life is finished. God is with her in the space between finishing and beginning again.
A graying man wakes up and drives to work the same way he always does. Along the way, on the side of the road he sees a sign that says: “Help wanted; mentor a child.” God is with him as the thought of touching a young life with care and direction turns his thoughts about the new week upside down.
You’re pouring your second cup of coffee in the office kitchen when you notice a coworker you barely know absent-mindedly washing a mug. There’s something in his face that calls out to you, something in your gut that nudges you over to him. You gently, nervously put your hand on his shoulder and silent tears slide down his face. God is with you as you listen to his story and start healing his pain.
God comes to be with us, to stir up our lives, to shape and change us. Our plans fall apart or shift directions or shine with new light as God guides our steps. Like Joseph listening to the angel, the story doesn’t make sense, but it’s clear we have a role to play. Maybe we feel out of our depth; maybe we feel inadequate and unprepared for the ministry God is calling us to. God’s touch on our life is disturbing, but it’s comforting as well. We don’t know where we are going, but we know we aren’t alone. By God’s power we can do anything, especially together.
God is with us; nothing will ever be the same. Where is God calling you in this last week of Advent? Where is God trying to be born in a new way this winter? How will you answer the call and welcome Emmanuel into your life?
Thanks be to God.