Marrying a Scandal
Advent 3 2021
Anyone here ever played the role of Joseph in your school’s Christmas play?
If so, then you may have become disillusioned with the role.
It hardly is a career maker.
In fact, when you read the gospel narratives you can’t help but notice that Joseph gets little more than a passing mention; the Shepherds, the Wisemen, even Herod get more press than he does.
But we shouldn’t feel sorry for Joseph because he didn’t want a starring role in the first place.
All Joseph wanted was a normal life.
He wanted to marry the young woman his parents had chosen for him, raise a family and earn a living as a carpenter.
As hard as you might struggle to make sense of the virgin birth, I assure you that no one had a harder time with it than Mary and Joseph.
Mary’s life was thrown into turmoil.
I’ve never come across a passage where God asked permission to use her womb – He just sent Gabriel to announce it was happening.
Initially, Mary was upset by this intrusion, but she eventually realized that no matter how uncertain the future looked, if God was involved it somehow was for her blessing.
Getting married in 1st Century Palestine was quite different from what we think of today.
To begin with, the families of the bride and groom negotiated a marriage contract, after which they made a public announcement and exchanged gifts.
Then came a year-long period of betrothal when the woman was called “wife”, but the couple did not live together or have intimate relations.
This custom insured that the groom would be marrying a virgin, and it guaranteed the bride her promised husband because the marriage could only be called off by a formal process of divorce.
It was during the period of betrothal that Mary had to tell Joseph the news that she was pregnant.
Can you imagine that conversation?
Was Mary blunt and matter of fact with Joseph?
Did she cry in frustration – even hysterically – as she tried to get him to understand?
The Bible doesn’t tell us, but we do know that it was all too much for Joseph.
Being a “righteous man”, he did not want to publicly humiliate Mary – a disgrace that would have shamed her and her family for her entire life – so he planned to simply dissolve the marriage without fanfare.
That was the best plan he could come up with, but he must have been heartbroken and humiliated.
Did you notice that Joseph, soon to be the man of the house, wasn’t consulted about any of this?
By the time he’d heard the story from Mary the whole plan had already been set in motion and all the decisions had been made.
Joseph just learned that the Holy Spirit had been at work, that his fiancée was bearing a child … even that the child had already been named.
So, all his responsible planning had been tossed out the window.
Looking back, we can see that when God broke into Mary’s life it was for the grand purpose of bringing salvation to humankind.
But in the moment, this interruption of her ordinary, predictable life must have felt like a disaster.
She belonged to a family and to a village; people needed her, were counting on her, and had made plans with her.
When God intervenes in your life, it may not make any sense in the moment.
In retrospect it will, but in the moment when your life is turned upside down by a divine interruption it may just feel chaotic and out of control.
We need to understand this: Part of the Christmas message is that we are not in total control.
When God breaks into your life, your job is to respond with faith and openness that allows creative relationship with you and the Divine.
Our job is to make open hearts and open minds, so we allow space for the Holy Spirit to be at work within our souls, so that like Mary, we can say, “I may not understand this, but if God is involved then I am blessed.”
Even though we praise Mary’s response to God’s intervention, as a result Joseph’s life was also turned upside down.
Faithful, patient Joseph thus teaches us one more thing: in the continuing drama of God’s work, not everyone can be a central cast member like Mary.
God is still breaking into people’s lives – but sometimes you are not given the starring role in the drama.
Sometimes God calls us to be like Joseph, a person in a supporting role – and that is not always easy.
Someone once asked Leonard Bernstein what the most difficult instrument in the orchestra is to play.
He replied, “Second fiddle.”
To be Joseph means that your life is dramatically changed by the work of God in the life of someone you stand beside and support.
It was interesting to watch the spouses of people in seminary.
Every student felt they had a call from God to enter ministry.
We were excited, energized, and eager to learn.
Some of our spouses shared our enthusiasm, but many became alienated by the experience.
Some had left fulfilling careers, some came with babies in tow, and some came grudgingly.
Being a fulltime seminarian was demanding – we were absorbed in reading and research papers, and of course between classes there were always engrossing discussions about theological topics … all of which excluded our long-suffering husbands and wives.
If I could go back, I’d have been way more sensitive to Amy’s complaints of feeling lonely and marginalized while I was in seminary.
During my first two years I watched several marriages dissolve.
Of course, sometimes life intervenes in ways that are not of God’s doing, and we may be called to be Joseph to someone who is experiencing an illness or family tragedy.
Because my wife became so ill during my time in seminary, I also spent a lot of time in oncology waiting rooms, and I was struck by how many patients initially came with their spouses, but within a year or so were alone.
With a little research I learned that the divorce rate among couples over the age of 51 increases by 6% when the woman becomes chronically or terminally ill.
Care giving is stressful, and many husbands don’t stick around as their wives undergo disfiguring treatments or long recoveries.
But, women, don’t get on your high horse quite yet because the opposite is true with young couples when the man suffers an illness or injury that affects his ability to work.
In those cases, the increased divorce rate is from women leaving their men.
When you discover something is happening to someone you love – be it God’s call to a radical new life, or a life tragedy – then just as Joseph initially did, you will be tempted to come up with some new plans for yourself.
Maybe, you will resist or run away from this unwanted interruption.
Maybe, like Joseph’s initial plan, you will try to distance yourself from this person whose out of control life will take you down with them.
But the problem with our little plans is that we give them more attention than we do to what God may be asking of us.
We become so focused on our plans that we fall asleep to God’s work around us.
Joseph planned how to distance himself from the pregnant girl, and then he fell asleep – so it had to be in a dream that the angel of the Lord spoke to him.
Matthew 1:20-21 But after he had considered 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 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.”
Most of us have far too many plans and not nearly enough dreams.
Plans are the reasonable expectations we set for ourselves.
Dreams are the things angels bring us from God.
Dreams brought from God can seem dangerous because they disrupt our lives, and they seldom lead where we think they should.
But what is most dangerous about our plans is their narrow focus – they can be like blinders concealing God’s presence, hiding God’s bigger dreams, and distracting us from God’s call on our lives.
It is natural to mentally divide life into the sunny side we take as God’s blessings, and the dark side we try to avoid.
But God created the night as well as the day, and what is hidden to us is visible to God.
That means we have to be careful about abandoning dark disappointments so quickly.
God’s plan for Joseph to take Mary as his wife meant that Joseph had to share her scandal – a scandal that was not even of his making.
A young man like Joseph would have lived with his extended family – his aging parents, some brothers and sisters, possibly a couple of widowed aunts.
That would have left him with some hard conversations to handle at home, and it would then have left his family with some explaining to do to the neighbors.
So, a lot of lives got disrupted by Gabriel’s interruption of Mary’s life.
But look what happens when we hear what God is up to, but we can’t let go and are not willing to follow God’s lead.
For example, Herod actually believed the angel’s message, but since God’s plan didn’t include him, and since he would never step back to be like Joseph, he launched a campaign to stamp out God’s plan by massacring all the babies.
God seems to have caused so much pain and confusion – can we really say this was all the plan of God?
Yes, we can – and why is that?
It is because within the Christmas message is God’s great dream that we all discover that our lives are connected and interrelated.
As we come to receive the interruption of what God has conceived in the lives of those we love, it is a small step to realize how connected we are to the suffering of those we don’t even know.
We can either be a blessing or a curse to those we love as well as to strangers.
We are connected as God’s children to our family and our church members … but also to the family living in their car near Dearborn Park.
And to the seemingly close-knit family being torn apart by drugs or domestic violence.
And to the woman who spends her days staring at the wall of a nursing home never receiving a visit or a word of compassion.
The Christmas dream of God is that we won’t turn our back on any of them.
God dreams that we will join Joseph by taking on these great scandals of the world as we bring them home, pray for their needs, and give ourselves to their healing.
Gabriel told Mary that this child would save people from their sins … sin being anything that separates us from God, our community, and our highest self.
So, the whole mission of Christ and His church is to bring home anyone who has been pulled from God – whether by the world’s failures or their own.
We cannot hold onto baby Jesus and just receive his comfort as we cradle him to our breast.
No, if you accept the baby Jesus, he takes your heart and calls you into the world of sin and scandals.
Somebody right now needs you to be the Joseph in their life.