“Breaking the Rules at Christmas”

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.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ ”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

‘Tis the season for Christmas cards.  Either religious or secular, many of them include the word “peace.”  It’s the second candle we light at Advent.  Whether celebrating the “Prince of Peace,” or “Peace on Earth,” this desire for peace is paramount.  At this time of year, when so many of us are caught up in the distractions of the season, “peace” is often longed for, but perhaps more in terms like “give me some peace and quiet please!”

If we’re really looking at our Gospel reading for today – the revelation that a young woman, unmarried, and a virgin, is going to have a baby – the response that comes to mind isn’t exactly “peaceful.”   Reactions were more likely “uh-oh,” or “not what we were planning on,” or any number of three-letter acronyms that are commonly used today.  What’s going on?  What does this mean? 

In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the angel’s first words to Joseph are “do not be afraid.”  In Luke’s Gospel, there’s also an angel who says the same thing to Zechariah, and another who says to Mary: “Do not be afraid.”  Then again to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.”   If all the angels of Christmas are meant to reflect calmness, or “peace” as we commonly refer to it, why is there all this need for reassurance? 

Why are so many voices proclaiming, essentially, “stay calm and carry on,” if we’re supposed to be welcoming the Prince of Peace? 

We love the wonderful notion of “peace” extolled during this season.  But as we celebrate Christ’s birth, perhaps more appropriate words would be “up-ending,” “disorderly,” or “rule-breaking.”

Joseph was someone who experienced these sentiments profoundly.  So let’s look at his perspective.

Mary, to whom he’s engaged (not married), is pregnant.  He hasn’t even slept with her!  Joseph realizes that maybe the prospective mother of his progeny isn’t quite the woman he thinks she is.  As a “righteous man” – meaning that he was an observer of God’s law, someone who followed the rules – Joseph couldn’t tolerate adultery.  The law he observed gave him two options.  The first, a public divorce from Mary, which while keeping his name clean, would condemn her to death by stoning.  Or second, a private divorce, in which he would call off the engagement.  He chooses the second option, consenting to divorce quietly, rather than drag Mary into court and press charges.  The matter is settled, and he goes to bed. 

But he’s restless – tossing and turning.  Even though he’s decided on the righteous course, he’s still having a hard time trying to reconcile the woman he knows with the bizarre news he’s been given.  “I have no doubt she’s been faithful to me!  So how could this happen?!”   

After he finally drifts off to sleep, he’s visited by an angel, who tells him:  “Don’t hesitate to take Mary as your wife!  For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Listen, the virgin shall conceive a child!  She shall give birth to a Son and he shall be called ‘Emmanuel’ meaning ‘God with us.’” 

That’s when he gets it.  In his sleeping state, Joseph’s eyes are opened, and he allows God to speak to the depths of his heart.  Joseph realizes that this whole scandalous scenario is part of God’s plan.  God offers an outcome that Joseph’s human reason hadn’t even seen as a possibility.   

Joseph really thought he was doing the right thing.  He believed he was taking the correct and admirable action in quietly sending Mary away.  He was following the rules he’d been raised by. 

But because of this dream, this vision, Joseph goes against the rules he’s learned.  He goes against his normal inclinations, and he marries her.  He overcomes his fears.  He follows a risky path because of what he’s been told by an angel.  He ends up reversing the roles of a husband and wife.  Rather than following the dominant pattern of a wife being the servant of her husband’s needs, Joseph is the servant of his wife.  

Joseph casts his lot with Mary, knowing it will be a very bumpy ride.  He lives through months of awkward explanations.  He suffers through a public scandal.  He endures the knowledge that his state of mind is being questioned by everyone in town.  It’s all very disconcerting. Very disrupting. Nothing is being done by the book! 

Ultimately Joseph winds up with Mary far from home, with no doctor, no midwife, no extended family, not even a decent crib for his son to lie in.  Joseph trusts the dream.  He trusts the angel.  He trusts the voice of God. 

And the savior of the world is born.

Amidst all the holiday cards, the Gospel of Matthew proclaims a different sort of Christmas greeting to us on this final Sunday in Advent.  Into this messed-up world, God comes, but in a different way than we expected.  Whatever God wants to fix in this world can’t be fixed without intruding into our nicely laid plans and decisions.  Whatever God wants to change in this world can’t be changed without going against our expectation of how the world is supposed to operate.

We sing of “peace on earth” at Christmas.  And how we do long for peace and quiet!

But peace isn’t simple or easy. Peace often comes only after disruption, difficulty, and breaking some rules. God comes to us in Christ, seeking to set things right, to fix what we’ve messed up.  And that can’t be done without a bumpy ride.

So I pray that you will have a peaceful Christmas.  But not as the world gives peace.  May you have peace in your life, but not before your life is turned upside down by the disruptive presence of God.  Amen.