Sunday, December 18, 2016

"The Scandal of Faith" (Matthew 1:11-25)

Scandal does not fit the Christmas story we know so well . . . the Christmas story we celebrate.  In the story of Christmas we remember the birth in a stable . . . a babe laid in a manger . . . angels singing gloriously . . . shepherd gathering to worship . . . the wise men appearing . . . a star brightly shining.  We sing beautiful hymns to commemorate this holy event.  We worship . . . we rejoice.  There is no scandal in the story of Christmas we know . . . and, yet, it is there.

It is there in the words we heard from Matthew in our scripture reading: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child . . .”   Mary was pregnant with the child of another man.  True, the scriptures tell us that the “other man” was the Holy Spirit; but, at first Joseph does not know this.  All Joseph knows is that Mary is pregnant and it is not his child . . . it is the child of someone else . . . Mary has been unfaithful.  This was a scandal . . . a scandal punishable by death.

In Deuteronomy 22:23-24 it is written: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.  So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

This was one of the options that Joseph had at his disposal for dealing with this scandal . . . have Mary stoned to death.  But Joseph was a good man, a righteous man the writer of Matthew tells us; and, because of this he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace.  Nor did he want to have her killed even though it was allowable by his faith.  No, he decided to take a different route . . . he would quietly divorce her and be done with her . . . let fate have its way with her and this child she carried.

Of course, we remember, that God sends angels to Joseph in a dream to tell him that it is “okay.”  Tells him it is okay because the father of the child is none other than God through the Holy Spirit, and that this child would save the people from their sins.  The angel tells Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife . . . it’s “okay.”  And, we remember that Joseph wakes from his dream and took Mary as his wife.

Buried beneath all of the beauty and wonder of the birth of Jesus on Christmas . . . of what we celebrate . . . is this scandal.  This is not quite the stuff one wants when entering into any relationship, especially a marriage and starting a family.  There is distress, the sense of betrayal, and a whole host of other emotions and feelings Joseph must have been experiencing.  It was a messy situation.  These are real people--like you and me . . . with ups and downs, with bumps in the road, with moments of frustration and confusion, going through all kinds of things, some that are quite damaging, some that hint at scandal . . . and, yet God uses them nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.

The Christmas story is not a typical story . . . not a fairy tale or myth.  It does not start with some romantic vision . . . with some stylize success story from rags to riches.  No this story starts with normal people . . . people like you and me . . . people living in the real world, dealing with real problems, and hoping to make the best of it each and every day.  This is not some Disney story where everything seemingly ends “happily ever after.”  No, this is a story that grows out of a scandal to become the greatest story ever told.

Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary.

The scriptures do not tell us much about Joseph.  He was a carpenter . . . a hard-working man we assume.  He was a righteous man . . . a person of deep faith we are told.  From what we little we know we assume that he is not much different than any other person . . . maybe a little bit, or a lot, like us.  And, we know that he is human . . . with hopes and dreams.  In this story we have to wonder about Joseph’s hopes and dreams.  I seriously doubt that this is the way that he envisioned his marriage to Mary . . . the birth of his first child . . . the life that he hoped it would be.  

Nothing seemed to work out as he probably hoped or dreamed it would.  The whole birth was not how he imagined it . . . God the father of his son.  No room in the inn . . . the birth of his child in a stable with livestock milling about . . . a bunch of strangers showing up--rough shepherds and a whole bunch of wise men from foreign countries.  Things weren’t supposed to be like this.  It was pretty messy.

And, yet, this is the way that God chooses to do business.

Out of this mess comes salvation.

Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary.

Through it all, in the corner of our Christmas story, the plot is exposed.  The Holy is revealed . . . and it is not in the big time production, but in the simple everyday mess of life through normal people . . . through common people.  Common people like you and me.  Because we are not much different than Mary and Joseph . . . everyday people just trying to make it to another day.  

Through the ordinary, God creates and expects the extraordinary.  Therein lies the scandal of faith.  It is there in the story, the whole Christmas story . . . not the romanticized story of Christmas, but in the real story.  The story of two ordinary people who are chosen to carry the salvation of the world in the relationship they have together . . . in the birth of a child . . . in the marriage they share . . . in the lives that they live . . . in the ups and downs of daily life . . . in the frustration, disappointments, and sinfulness of living life.  It is messy . . . and it does not fit into any of the romantic, Disney-like ideas we celebrate on Christmas Day.

So, let us find hope in the whole story.  Let us embrace its message.  Let us receive this gift . . . this gift of grace.  It is a gift that none of us deserve, but is given to us freely.  And, let us live it each and every day of our lives in such a way that we, too, embody Jesus . . . Immanuel--God with us.  That is the scandal of faith . . . that God would choose us . . . common, everyday people to be in a relationship with the Holy . . . to be one of the children . . . to live within the Kingdom.

Out of the scandal the story of Christmas is lived.  Out of the scandal we are desired . . . we are wanted . . . and, we are God’s.  As we enter into the last few days of the season of Advent, may we discover this gift and receive it into our lives.  It is amazing how God works.  Amen