I have been left in awe this Advent here at Grace. We have spent a lot of time listening to stories of darkness. We have looked for, and sometimes found, glimmers of light. We all have these stories, don’t we? In deep places, we can name them as dark. In lighter spaces, we can call them curveballs.
When life throws you curveballs that you have no control over, how do you respond?
What if someone steals your stuff?
What if someone in the drive through at Tim Horton’s pays for your coffee?
What if someone says something quite hurtful?
What is someone out of the blue writes you a wonderful note saying how great you are?
What if your health takes a turn for the worse?
What if you kid unexpectedly gets engaged? (And you don’t know what to think about their partner yet…)
What if one of your kids refuses to go to bed early and the other wakes up ridiculously early?
What if friendships fade?
What if your teenager backs the one car into the other car because they didn’t check the mirrors
What if someone isn’t coming home for Christmas?
What if someone, at your family gathering today after church, burns the turkey dinner?
What if your fiancé has a baby growing inside of her, and you’re not the daddy?
We all have these parts of our lives, don’t we? Maybe not the “Getting pregnant through the Holy Spirit” part, but stories that we have no control over, that shape us and change us and dictate how we live our lives. Some of them are small things. Others are big. Some are positive. Others are negative. These are our stories. These are our lives. All of us.
Joseph’s in a bit of a conundrum, isn’t he? His fiancé’s pregnant, and he’s not the daddy.
Their families had come together to arrange this marriage. They were supposed to get married and live happily ever after. Like most families 2000 years ago, he was supposed to be a carpenter and bring home the bacon, and she was supposed to have babies and keep the home running smoothly. That was the plan. But now the plan has started a few months earlier than it was supposed to. And he doesn’t know who the baby’s daddy is. What’s he supposed to do?
One my favourite parts here is the beginning of verse 20.
“But after he had considered this…” (Matthew 1:20)
We often remember the verse about Mary pondering who this kid really is, but that pondering happened after the shepherds showed up babbling in excitement about a choir of angels singing about this new born baby. (Luke 2:19)
But here, Joseph also was pondering what to do with this unexpected pregnancy.
Should he follow the letter of the law?
Well, if you follow the letter of the law, Mary could have been stoned for her transgressions. The law was clear (Deuteronomy 22). Single parenting wasn’t a thing that happened 2000 years ago.
But Joseph was better than this, and so he chose to follow the Spirit of the Law. He decided that he was going to leave her quietly. They would each go back to their families and live their lives as normally as they could. It was probably the best way for everyone to save face.
Now, I’m sure he didn’t make this decision lightly. He probably wrestled with it, lost a lot of sleep over it, prayed about it… He probably was pretty angry about how Mary had messed up his life. Life handed him some lemons, but he was going to do his best to make lemonade. He was going to try to find some light in the middle of this darkness.
And then, when he’s finally made up his mind and decided to do the honourable, righteous, yet still lawful thing, an angel appeared to him. Dang those angels, always coming and mucking up our plans.
The angel showed up, saying, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife. It’s the Holy Spirit. She’ll give birth to a son, and you’ll call him Jesus, and he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
Joseph was probably thinking, “Whhaaatt…. really? Like, really? Come on. I am already trying to find the light in this darkness, and you want me to do that? What will our families think? What will people say about us? “Oh look! There goes Joseph with his “virgin born” kid. Phht…””
But he does, doesn’t he? He takes Mary home and names the kid Jesus. And I think that in the end, he probably didn’t regret that decision. Being the earthly father of the Son of God is probably one worthy of those “World’s Best Dad” mugs or something.
In this story, Joseph was open. He was open to God doing something that Joseph couldn’t imagine. This was waaaay outside of his comfort zone, this was waaaay outside of anything anyone else had experienced, he had not control over it, yet he was open to it. He was living in anticipation of God doing something big.
He probably had lots of fears. Gosh, I had lots of fears when I first found out I was going to be a dad, and I didn’t have an angel come and tell me that my kid is going to save the world from their sins. He probably also had lots of hope and dreams for both his marriage and his kid, including curling games and fishing trips. But in the midst of these hopes and fears, he was open to saying “Yes” to God, not knowing where it would lead him.
Joseph had the rug pulled out from underneath him, the clearly laid path before him vanished overnight, and certainty was replaced with uncertainty.
We don’t like uncertainty, do we? It’s kind of messy, isn’t it? We often like things in nice and neat categories.
I think, though, I say this as humbly (and not glibly) as possible, that in it’s in this uncertainty, this messiness of life, that we receive the most grace. And that we give the most grace.
Grace is the free and undeserved favour of God, given as a gift. The free and undeserved favour of God, given as a gift.
If our lives were neat and tidy, if everything went according to plan, would we need grace? And would we be able to give it?
I was having a conversation with someone lately, and one of us said: “I just expected more from them.” Yeah. Don’t we all expect more from some people? And the response was:
Even so, how do we be gracious? Because there will be times in our lives where we will need others to be gracious to us…”
This isn’t giving people the right to be jerks, or that we are pushovers, or that there isn’t a place for conflict resolution… But in the midst of all the brokenness in the world, how do we give grace? And maybe, more importantly, in the midst of all the brokenness inside of us, how do we receive grace?
Grace means that we don’t write people off. Ever. We still hope for more. Because God isn’t done with them. People’s lives are worth more than the worst things that they do.
And we can only hope that people give us the same grace and not write us off. Ever. And still hope for more. Because God isn’t done with us, either. Our lives are worth more than the worst things that we do.
Imagine what our lives would be like if we weren’t open to the messiness of giving and receiving grace? Imagine if we all got what we deserved… Imagine we were treated as if we were beyond redemption…
Imagine what the Christmas story would be if Joseph didn’t say yes to God and show grace to Mary? Maybe a shepherd or a wise man would have stepped up to the plate.
It’s kind of messy, isn’t it? Lines end up being blurred. We risk being wrong. We risk being wronged. We might be rejected. We give up control of the outcome. We might even end up fathering children that we didn’t conceive. It’s kind of scandalous, isn’t it?
I read something a few months ago by Deborah Hirsch that has stuck with me. She said this:
“I never lead with theology. I always lead with an embrace.” I never lead with theology. I always lead with an embrace.
I think there’s something beautiful about the image of Joseph giving Mary an embrace and saying: “It’s okay. We’re going to get through this. I don’t really know what God is up to, but I know God is up to something.”
In the summer, I had the chance to go see the new Broadway production of Les Miserables. It was phenomenal. And there’s a scene that will forever haunt me.
Jean Valjean is an ex-convict who ends up stealing some silverware from the bishop in the night. The next morning, the police have captured Jean Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop.
Watch the clip here. (In case you didn’t click the link, or already know the story, the Bishop tells the police officers that he had given Jean Valjean the silverware, and that Jean Valjean had forgotten the candlesticks. And then he gave Jean Valjean the candlesticks and told him to use them to start an honest life. Jean Valjean is dumbstruck. Simply beautiful.)
The best part of this is the Bishop’s Name. Bishop Bienvenu. My mom is probably embarrassed by my Mennonite accent butchering the French. Bishop Bienvenu.
Bishop “Welcome.” Bishop “Welcome Guest.” Bishop “Visitor who has been invited.” Bishop “Welcome.”
In the book, he says this to Jean Valjean: “Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”
Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove, one of my favourite authors, tweeted this a while ago
When a thief is caught red-handed,
Justice says: “You’re going to jail.”
Mercy says: “Maybe you’ll get a second chance.”
But grace says: “Oh. You forgot the candlesticks. Here, take them too.”
Certainty is replaced with uncertainty. And in this darkness of uncertainty, light shines through. And I think that in the messiness of our lives and in the brokenness of our world, God enters. I think this is the Christmas story. Joseph is open to God entering our messy and broken world through the birth of a baby. And beautiful things happen.