It’s finally the fourth Sunday in Advent. We get to light all of the blue candles, we get to sing all the verses of “Light One Candle,” and we are finally in the week of Christmas. And so it seems fitting that we finally get a story that starts to talk about how the birth of Jesus came to be. This is the stuff we want, right? We want the lovely, awesome, Hallmark-y version of the Christmas story. We want to hear about a young woman chosen, her husband lovingly coming to terms with it, a reminder that God is with us, and then we want to hear the lovely soft cooing of the baby Jesus. If that is what you hear in today’s reading, I am not about to tell you that you’re wrong. I am, however, going to challenge you. The text calls me to wrestle with it and I don’t wrestle alone!
Let’s have a brief history lesson. Marriages in the time of Jesus were nothing like they are now. There was no fancy dresses, no wedding showers, no “save the date” cards, and certainly no cake. Marriages were not for love; they were for necessity. They were often arranged and often included a dowry and/or agreements between the woman’s father and the groom. The marriage was made “official” when it was consummated. So, can you imagine Joseph’s surprise when he found out that Mary, the woman he was to marry, was already with child? This is certainly not the way Joseph thought things would turn out.
Again, in Jesus’ time, a woman was (most likely) a virgin until marriage. So for Mary to be with child before marriage leads Joseph to fear that Mary has been unfaithful. Under Jewish law, Joseph had a few options. Mary could have easily been sentenced to death. For a woman to be unfaithful in marriage was a sin punishable by death. (And yes, a man could be with more than one woman, but that’s another sermon for another time). Or, she could be divorced. During this time, divorce was seen as a stain on a woman because no matter the circumstances, divorce was always a woman’s fault. (We tend to get a bad rap, biblically speaking). But, Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” was going to try his best to kind of sweep this whole thing under the rug. He didn’t want a big dust-up. He kind of wanted to go quietly. If this were a Hollywood style divorce, we’d be reading about irreconcilable differences, thankfulness for the support, and requests to respect the couple’s privacy. But, this wasn’t Hollywood and there certainly was no reason (maybe even no precedent) for Joseph to act as he did.
And in the midst of all of this, Joseph has a dream where an angel of the Lord tells him “do not be afraid!” We’ve all heard this story more than once (or, at least, I am assuming most of us have). And to us, it makes perfect sense. Maybe we’ve gotten ourselves so wrapped up in sentimentality that the ludicrous nature of this story is missed on us. We don’t see Joseph’s anger. We don’t see Mary’s trepidation. We don’t see her family’s or his family’s reaction to this situation. But if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of any of those people (for even just a moment) you might be able to start to see that this amazing and miraculous birth story was not without scandal and even a little disappointment. We’re just supposed to believe that Joseph woke from his dream, took in the words of the angel and then went on his joyful way? I think he probably struggled with this for at least a minute or two.
Joseph is us. We are him. How do we react to life when life doesn’t go as you planned? It seems especially stressful this time of year when things don’t go as planned. Trust me, this comes from a woman who shed a tear or two on Monday because I forgot to take Ellen’s nap-time blanket to preschool. The expectations we set for ourselves and others around us are usually high. But, during the holidays, Christmas especially, they are almost unattainable. There is this misnomer that there is such a thing as a “perfect Christmas.” We desire this: http://www.ifitshipitshere.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Freedom_from_Want_ORIGINAL.jpg but what we end up with is this: http://athenacinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/christmas-vacation-christmas-eve-dinner.jpg
Joseph didn’t do what was expected of him by letting Mary go quietly. He remained faithful to Mary because, thanks to a reminder from an angel, God remained faithful to Joseph. God came to Joseph in an unexpected way: through a dream and through an unplanned pregnancy to a woman he was supposed to impregnate! While we may want to plan and plan and plan, prepare, and anticipate, often, like Joseph, things don’t go the way we would have wanted. And what does the angel of the Lord tell Joseph in his dream? His son, our savior, will be called Emmanuel, God with us. Joseph (and we as well) are assured that through a change in plans, God will continue to work and God will continue to be God with us. And maybe, now more than ever, we need that reminder that God is indeed with us.
We need a reminder that when we think everything around us is going wrong, or that we have failed, or that we were unsuccessful that God is still moving and God is going to surprise us. Joseph wasn’t expecting to hear that Mary was with child. I am certain that he certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that this was to be the savior of the world. When was the last time you allowed yourself to be surprised by God? In order to be surprised by God, in order to be disturbed in a wonderfully Holy way by God, we have to make room for God. This means that we have to be willing to let our plans go in order for something greater. Making room for God means that have to loosen the reigns on our perceived control of life. Making room for God means that we trust that God’s plans and timing are much greater than ours.
Being surprised by God means declaring with joy and trepidation that indeed God is with us. This holiday season, give yourself a break. If you can’t totally let go of your expectations, maybe you can lower them just a tad. It is usually when we expect (and maybe even almost demand) that a situation goes one way that God steps in and everything goes unexpectedly and almost better than we could have imagined. It’s not just Christmas, but life, that often (if not always) full of surprise and failed self-set expectations. And in the midst of this season, in the midst of crises, in the midst of our greatest joys, we are surrounded by a God that not only promises us something even better, but promises accompaniment. We are ushered through life from birth to death by Emmanuel, God with us.
Life often isn’t what we have planned. It’s an unexpected cancer diagnosis, it’s job opportunities, it’s fluctuating markets, it’s death, it’s a pregnancy, it’s a savior born into uncertain circumstances and dying only the way a king could: on a cross. Life isn’t what we had planned. Instead it is full of Holy surprises and God with us.