As you all remember, we are taking a special Journey this Advent season, we are traveling the road to Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and others, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, and open our hearts to welcome Christ into our lives in a new and special way this Christmas. Last week, we spent some time with Mary, and we talked about Mary’s willingness to follow God’s will, even though it would take her through what would certainly be many trying circumstances. Mary was a humble servant who willingly said to God, “Here I am, use me. May it be with me according to your will.”
To a great degree, the same is true of Joseph. Here is a man who was prepared to marry this woman, who as we see, had just revealed that she was pregnant, and not by him. Joseph had decided to dismiss young Mary and move on with his life, but as Matthew tells the story, he didn’t. After the angel visited Joseph in his dreams, Joseph changed his plans. He set aside his bad feelings against Mary and he disregarded the future struggles that might come because of this unplanned path that had now been laid out before them, and he, like Mary, submitted himself to the will of the Father, and God’s new plans for their lives. We see that Joseph, too, was a humble servant of the Lord. But there is something more at work here with Joseph, and that is the mercy and compassion that he shows in the face of Mary’s unexpected news.
We heard again this morning the story of Joseph and Mary’s engagement, their pledge to be married. Among Jews at this time, the marriage vows were made at something called a betrothal, and the law required that only death or divorce could end them. The normal interval of time between this pledge to get married and the time that the husband and wife would live together and have a physical union was a year. But during this interval Mary became pregnant. And according to the law, this is a situation that could be punishable by death. Imagine what a difficult problem this must have caused! We talked last week about the challenges Mary would have faced, so let us think now about what this news means for Joseph. Mary was pregnant, but Joseph knew that he had nothing to do with it.
Can you imagine how Joseph would have felt? I mean, think of a time in your life when you felt you had been betrayed by someone you loved and trusted. You feel angry, frustrated, hurt, let down, wounded, heart-broken, sad, hopeless, perhaps jealous. I imagine that Joseph probably felt all those emotions, and maybe many more. Matthew tells us, “[Mary] was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Period) “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.” It seems like it was all so simple doesn’t it? Mary was pregnant. (Period) So Joseph decided to divorce her. But think of all that is not said. There is a whole lot that happens where that period is. Joseph has to sort through all those emotions. He may even think about what he’d like to do to that guy who got Mary pregnant. He has to think about the implications of this news, and his own actions related to it. If he turns Mary in for adultery, she could be put to death. If he claims the child as his own, they could both be punished for their failure to follow the marital laws. It’s not just that Mary was pregnant and so Joseph decided to divorce her. There was a lot to sort through, I’m sure Joseph lost some sleep over the decision, but finally, he decides what to do.
Matthew tells us, “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.” And here’s where we get the first glimpse of Joseph’s deep level of mercy and compassion. Joseph could have decided to publicly accuse Mary—making a spectacle of her, and thus causing her to be stoned to death. He could have gotten his revenge! After all, the law was on his side. Joseph already had a career as a carpenter, and there were probably plenty of other fish in the sea. These thoughts must have crossed his mind. It would have made perfect sense, and the townspeople might have been more than happy to participate in a public stoning. Joseph could have been a hero in the eyes of the people. Joseph could have decided to do things the way most people would have done them, but instead, Joseph decided he would dismiss Mary quietly. This would allow him to save face, but it would also save Mary’s life. Joseph chose mercy over the law of retribution.
During his ministry, Jesus taught that God "desires mercy, not sacrifice." Any righteous Jew, like Joseph, would understand that righteousness comes through obedience to the law. Emphasis was on following ritual, obeying regulations, and making sacrifices of burnt offerings. But even before Jesus is born, God teaches us about a new kind of righteousness; righteousness that is borne out of the mercy and compassion that we show to others. The way that we begin to learn about this new righteousness is through Jesus' earthly father, Joseph, in his actions toward Mary. And look what happened!
When that spark of compassion ignited in Joseph, his desperate situation was completely turned around by the entrance of God. God’s will literally led Joseph in a direction that he did not expect to take! Once Joseph had made the decision to do the ‘right’ thing, we see that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph 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.” What a shocker that must have been!
We only need to open the door of love and mercy just the wee tiniest bit, and God will take that opportunity to come marching through in a big way! Have you ever been beset with a moral dilemma? I think most of us have. What happened when you chose mercy and compassion over judgment and anger? Did you experience God coming through the door of your life once the decision was made, once the deal was sealed in your heart, mind and soul? Is this not how lives are re-created?
Miss Thompson taught Teddy Stallard in the fourth grade. He was a slow, unkempt student, a loner shunned by his classmates. The previous year his mother died, and what little motivation for school he may have once had was now gone. Miss Thompson didn’t particularly care for Teddy either, but at Christmas time he brought her a small present. Her desk was covered with well-wrapped presents from the other children, but Teddy’s came in a brown sack. When she opened it there was a gaudy rhinestone bracelet with half the stones missing and a bottle of cheap perfume. The children began to snicker but Miss Thompson saw the importance of the moment. She quickly splashed on some perfume and put on the bracelet, pretending Teddy had given her something special. At the end of the day Teddy worked up enough courage to softly say, "Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother . . . and her bracelet looks real pretty on you too. I’m glad you like my presents."
After Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and prayed for God’s forgiveness. She prayed for God to use her as she sought to not only teach these children but to love them as well. She became a new teacher. She lovingly helped students like Teddy, and by the end of the year he had caught up with most of the students. Miss Thompson didn’t hear from Teddy for a long time. Then she began receiving notes with news from Teddy; he was graduating from high school second in his class, and then first in his class from college. Many years after Teddy had left Miss Thompson's fourth grade classroom, she received this note, "Dear Miss Thompson, As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year. Love, Teddy Stallard." Miss Thompson went to the wedding and sat where Teddy’s mother would have sat, and she was able to celebrate with Teddy because she let God use her as an instrument of mercy and compassion. And when she did, God went to work in a big way, not only in her life, but in Teddy's life too!
The same was true for Joseph. Joseph’s life was changed when Mary told him that she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit. No matter how he responded to the news, his future was going to be radically different. He could have chosen to cast judgment upon Mary and sent her away to be ridiculed and ostracized, maybe even stoned. And that would have been a pretty miserable future, not only for Mary, but for Joseph as well. Instead, Joseph decided he would handle the news with as much compassion as possible, he would dismiss Mary quietly so no one would know of the scandal, and Mary’s life would be spared. That, too, would have led to a pretty miserable future; he would have to separate from his wife, this woman he loved and to whom he had devoted himself. And he probably would have worried regularly about the baby’s health and well-being without a Father to care for it.
But because Joseph opened a window of mercy, God’s work carried forward in the best possible way. He showed Joseph his plan, and before long, Mary and Joseph were the happy parents of the most important person who has ever been born. They were the parents of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. And because of their devotion; because of Mary's willingness and Joseph's mercy, we are all offered hope for the future through our Savior, Jesus Christ!
Jesus Christ is a sign that we are not alone, that God himself is with us. Who needs to know that this Christmas? With whom do we need to share God's mercy and compassion so that they too can have hope?