Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
"Restore us O God, let your face shine, and we will be saved."
A young woman pregnant. That was the sign. For both of them. It was the same sign for both of them—for Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, and for King Ahaz, who was Joseph’s great-great-great-plus-ten-more-greats grandfather. King Ahaz was unrighteous, engaging in pagan practices and ungodly alliances. King Ahaz did not want a sign from God, because he wanted autonomy from God, to govern as he pleased and make his choices as he saw fit. Joseph was a righteous man, but he was not expecting any sign from God. When he found out his fiancé was pregnant, he didn’t know it was a sign from God. He thought it was a sign of Mary’s adultery.
We are not told how he found out that Mary was pregnant. From the social patterns of the day, I doubt that Mary told him, and he certainly hadn’t heard her side of the story. It’s possible her father told him, seeing as she still lived at home. We are not told how much it troubled him to learn of it, how aggrieved he was at Mary. Mary? "I thought I knew her, I never imagined she’d do something like this." And who’s the lousy guy she did it with? Who did it to her? What does it matter?
So what’s the righteous thing for him to do? According to Deuteronomy 22:20, he could demand that she be stoned to death. It still happens in Pakistan and Somalia. According to later rabbinic rules, he could demand a public divorce, which would protect his reputation and get his bride price refunded from her father. He could divorce her privately and quietly, and spare her the public shame, but then he will forfeit his refund from her father. What would Joseph do? He decides to do the merciful thing for her, which is costly for himself. That kind of righteousness. Joseph is a sign of the kind of righteousness by which the Savior will save the world. Not bad.
Then Joseph has this dream. Should he believe it? Don’t think it was easy. People did not believe their dreams back then any more than we do today. And with their understanding of the biology of conception, it was even harder for them to imagine a virgin birth then it is for us today. (They did not know about the female zygote. They believed the full "seed" came from the father, and the mother was like the earth in which it was planted.) So how long did he sit there pondering his dream. Can he take it as a sign from God? It is impossible, but it least it fits with what he thought he knew of Mary. But what will it mean for his own reputation. Everyone will count the months between the marriage and the birth, and they’ll figure that Joseph had had his way with her ahead of time, and so much for Joseph's reputation as righteous man.
He chooses to believe the dream, he chooses to believe that the young woman pregnant is actually the sign of a virgin with child, he chooses to believe that her condition is a sign from God, a sign that he can believe in Mary again, and a sign that Jesus, even before his birth, is already the savior of Joseph’s marriage and the savior of his love for his betrothed, no matter what the public might say of him. All that Joseph does here is a sign of salvation, of the sacrifice and of the reconciliation and the love. So Joseph is a very good father for Jesus, in terms of how to be a savior. When Jesus grows up he can ask himself, what would Joseph do?
I want to imagine how Joseph acted on his dream. It’s just my imagination, but this is the season that inspires imagination. First he went to Mary’s father, and he said, I still want to take your daughter Mary as my wife, it actually is my privilege, for I believe that your daughter is chaste, and that what is in her is of the Spirit of God. His face was shining when he said it. Now, whether her father thought Joseph was deceptive or a fool or telling the truth, I imagine he was grateful it would all work out, and that their respective families would be on good terms.
And then he went to Mary. I wish I knew better how men and women spoke to each other back then, but I can imagine that Joseph’s face was shining when he said, "I know you are with child but I will take you as my wife, for I believe that it is in you of the Holy Spirit, and we will call him Jesus, for he will save us from our sins." And when he said, "I take you Mary, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part," then her face was shining too. I imagine she felt believed-in, she felt trusted, she felt restored, she was being saved from shame and loneliness. It wasn’t mercy that she felt, it was more like love and joy. That’s what salvation is. Reconciliation and restoration which is based on mercy and some sacrifice but which feels like love and joy. The two of them together were a sign of that kind of salvation.
And the birth of their child was the greatest sign of all. A sign that was neither down in Sheol nor up in heaven, but right in the middle of human life, the sign of childbirth. That night, in the stable. Their poverty and isolation, the painful cries of Mary’s labor, the suffering of the servants of salvation. Joseph was the midwife, the first to hold the baby, and as he slowly wiped clean the baby’s skin, he could hope that in the face of this child the face of God would shine again on Israel. The child is the sign that God is with us. God-with-us.
The reason we do Christmas pageants (and not Easter pageants) is because the Christmas story is all about childhood. The pageant was a sign for you today; how much you could read in it was up to you, and the desire of your hearts, but your faces were shining, all of you. You welcomed that story once again, as every year, the story of God with us. You can believe the sign: God with us.
This congregation is a sign. This ancient institution, if ancient only for America, the young community of Jesus which inhabits this institution, so full of infantile vitality, so fresh and so fragile, so rough and ready, so raw and needy, these other people here with you, with the dreams they have, the hopes and fears of all their years, your mutual desire to believe and to blessed, your mutual desire to love and be loved, your mutual desire for the shining face of God.
So I call on you this next week to let your faces shine. Go with your desire and your belief. Do what Joseph did. Believe what’s hard to believe, what’s hard to believe about God and what’s hard to believe about the world and what’s hard to believe about the other people in your life. Let your face shine on some person with whom your relationship is broken or at risk, like Joseph to Mary. Their son has saved us from our sins, so live beyond the hindering power of sin. It is your privilege to love that person, a privilege from God for you to sacrifice your own rights and reputation for that person. Let your face shine on others and you will see their faces shining back on you. Let this week be your final Advent preparation for the song the angels sand to the shepherds on the hillsides, "peace on earth, good will towards humankind." Many people doubt that it ever could be true. Let the shining of your face be a sign of it.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.