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Expectations of the Messiah: Complications

Matthew 1:18-25

If we know anything about the birth of Jesus, we know that a few standing rules were broken. And they are broken early. In fact, all the problems of Christ’s birth rest in the first verse of our passage: Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. But we can hardly appreciate the cultural and religious complications in this story of Mary’s pregnancy. As much as we appreciate all the traditional expectations on men and women, engagements, marriage, and bearing children, not to mention all the local angles our own families create for family, the story of Jesus upsets most of these expectations. And let’s not miss the obvious: it upsets most of the people in the story of Jesus.

If we could, let’s break this down. Mary was betrothed to Joseph at a time when engagement of marriage was arranged by fathers, seen as a contractual agreement, and taken so seriously that a form of divorce had to end it. Joseph and Mary became “Joseph and Mary” through a very public process for the families and Nazareth the community. That is the perfect set-up for the biggest problem in our story. Mary is pregnant and Joseph is not the father. Were we there as Joseph is there, and we are let in on the pregnancy detail over coffee, we are sitting very quietly.

Consider these. Mary found pregnant without Joseph is subject to stoning as the Mosaic Law sees it and humiliation at a minimum as society sees it. As for Joseph, there is a man out there who is the father of her child. It is his wife but not his child. It is not a stretch to consider what he feels when he sees an unfaithful fiancée and a child who makes the secret not so secret. And even with all of this we see a remarkable turn. As verse 19 reads, And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. This is a way for Joseph to move away from a child not his own. The “secretly” part is for the benefit of Mary. Instead of riding the scandal to protect himself he finds a way for Mary to be released, at least in part, to a man she seems to want over him.

As you would imagine, God expects that Joseph is under some duress. And so verses 20-23: But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins. Now all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they call him Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called his name Jesus.

Now we see the true generosity of Joseph. To follow God’s call toward Mary is to carry her secret with her and welcome Jesus as his son. In a patriarchal society like his, the firstborn son carried the family name and property right, so in taking on Jesus as his own and naming him means to give up the right to father his own firstborn son. This is Joseph at his best, embracing the entire story of Mary and therefore the entire story of Jesus.

All praise for Joseph aside, this story has so many complications. There is on the surface all the traditional turns of engagement, marriage, and children, but behind the curtain are dads looking up and saying, “What?!”; moms looking out and saying, “When?!”; neighbors asking, “Who?”; and Joseph and Mary themselves wondering, “Now what?” The road that led them out of Nazareth on the way to Bethlehem was a long road and a hard road. A fair number of rules were broken to get Jesus into the world, and the world is never an easy place when rules are being broken.

So maybe it is worth noting on our own road with complications should not strike us uncommon. Our Lord Jesus came by unique circumstances, but coming by the Holy Spirit did not spare him or his parents the details of common life. And a common life is a complicated life. It is littered with people and decisions, some we control and some we do not. It is funny, isn’t it, when we try to explain a relationship or event with “It’s complicated,” as if no one would understand us. The truth is, everyone understands us! In fact, how often do you find yourself saying to yourself, “I wish we could just have a simple, uncomplicated family.” There are simple intentions and uncomplicated seasons, but there may not be simple, uncomplicated families. Or marriages. Or acts of forgiveness. Or love. Above all, complications are not the same as nullifications.

But the road out of Nazareth is not how the story ends. It ends in Bethlehem with his birth and begins anew with his name. The birth of Jesus broke no few rules, but I came across this week who illustrated so well an important point: Jesus was breaking the greatest human rule with his birth-- “you reap what you sow.” What sinners should reap is judgment, but what Jesus’ birth tells us is that we are breaking this rule by finding mercy. His name is Jesus because he came to save people from their sins. He is breaking the rule that seems as real as oxygen: sin is powerful, sin runs us down the wrong roads, and sin ultimately ruins us. Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin, the reward of sin, is death. Later in chapter 8 we read that the mind of sinful is death, the sinful mind is hostile to God, and does not submit to God. And those who are controlled by sin and the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8) As I John 1:8 reminds us, if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves. And sin always has a price.

We feel this rule of “reaping what we sow” chasing us with its justice: “Who are you to think that you deserve to be forgiven? Who are you to talk to God and expect him to listen? Who are you to go to church this Sunday? Who are you to think that tomorrow will be any different from today?” Those are the voices of sin and judgment, and we know the rules: we should reap what we sow and wake up punished by God and humiliated for sin.

Since Jesus came to save us from our sins, however, he came to break that rule, too. He came to bring us mercy and hope and a second chance. The church is a gathering of those who broke the important rules, to be sure, but it is also a gathering of the repentant and the forgiven. The church is a gathering of people who have broken the rules in their own lives, but find in Christ a way forward. We are called to forgive others not because they deserve it but because the Lord forgave us. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” is the call from Colossians 3:13.

And this is why life will remain complicated. At the heart of the story is a God who wants to forgive people. He wants to break the rules to forgive the rule-breakers. He is interfering with all of our visions to give us a vision of the cross and forgiveness. A lot of “reap what you sow” rules have to be broken by Him for you, and by you for others, for forgiveness to be the story that transforms your life and the life of others. What else will life be but complicated if forgiveness is the story that must last?




    Bulletin Insert

    Expectations of the Messiah: Complications Matthew 1:18-25

    If we know anything about the birth of Jesus, we know that a few standing rules were broken.

    Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (MT 1:18)

    We can hardly appreciate the cultural and religious complications in this story of Mary’s pregnancy.

    Breaking down the story…

    The first turn: And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly (MT 1:19).

    The second turn: But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins. Now all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they call him Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called his name Jesus. (MT 1:20-25)

    Joseph and the complications…

    The road that led them out of Nazareth on the way to Bethlehem was a long road and a hard road. A fair number of rules were broken to get Jesus into the world, and the world is never an easy place when rules are being broken.

    So maybe it is worth noting on our own road with complications should not strike us uncommon...

    There are simple intentions and uncomplicated seasons, but there may not be simple, uncomplicated families. Or marriages. Or acts of forgiveness. Or love.

    Above all, complications are not nullifications.

    A conclusion.

    The end of the story in Bethlehem is not the end of breaking rules, however. There is a far greater rule to break:

    “YOU REAP WHAT YOU _______” Gal. 6:7

    Romans 6:23

    Romans 8:5-8

    1 John 1:8

    And this is why life will remain complicated.

    At the heart of the story is a God who wants to forgive people. He wants to break the rules to forgive the rule-breakers.

    He is interfering with all of our visions to give us a vision of the cross and forgiveness.




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