12/22/13 Sermon (December 22, 2013) “A Scandalous Grace”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:31 AM by David Hawkins

12/22/13 Sermon (December 22, 2013)

“A Scandalous Grace”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 1:18-25 (Liturgist)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

         and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Sermon: "A Scandalous Grace"             Rev. David Hawkins

When I was a music director in Grand Junction, I had the pleasure of serving with a great interim pastor, Paul Soderquist. Some of you might even know him, he was the interim down at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lubbock, and was good friends with Sarah Lee Morris.

Anyway Paul was a great pastor, and a mentor for me as I was considering the move toward ordination. And one of the most profound bits of advice he gave me was this: “Never let systems get in the way of people.”

In other words, don’t let your ideas about how the world should work get in the way of dealing with the way the world actually does work, especially when dealing with real people. Because real people don’t always fit neatly into our systems. Real people don’t always fit the way we think the world ought to work. And when you try to fit real people into our own narrow ways of thinking about things, real people can fall through the cracks, and get lost in the machine.

Pastor Paul encouraged me to remember that the best system in the world cannot minister to all people equally, and that sometimes, you have to approach people on a one-to-one basis, and remember that there are exceptions to the rules from time to time. And, sometimes, you have to break your own rules in order to reach everyone.

But, as we all know, it’s easier to have a system, isn’t it? It’s easier to look for a way that accommodates most people, and then call it good. It’s easier politically, it’s easier socially, it’s easier economically, it’s easier religiously. Design a system that covers 90% of all situations, and then let it go to work.

And then, for those for whom it doesn’t work, you can always blame them for not following the rules. It they would just get with the program, everything would work better for them. If they would just fall in line, their problems would go away.

Except that sometimes, the problems don’t go away. Sometimes the problems aren’t fixed by the system. Sometimes people are left out of the system. And sometimes the system fails. Because even the best system, the best political ideology, the best social program, the best religious beliefs cannot cover every situation, every time, for every person. This is the reality of the world we live in.

And when we forget that our systems are imperfect, and we insist on following them, even when they hurt, and bankrupt, and marginalize, and beat down folks who can’t be forced into their neat little pigeonholes, people suffer. And this is what Pastor Paul was talking to me about. Don’t let systems get in the way of people.

We see an example of that philosophy at work here in our scripture today. We see the Joseph, the father of Jesus, struggling with systems. Joseph doesn’t get much ink in the Bible, but he plays a central part in the life of Jesus. And the part he plays reminds us that sometimes, we have to step back from our preconceptions about how the world ought to work, and focus on what is happening to the people right in front of us.

Now, Joseph has no idea what is about to happen to his life. He’s a good man, the Bible calls him a just man, a righteous man. He is an observant Jew, he follows the torah, he observes his religious duties.

He’s engaged to a young woman, and as those of you who were in the history of marriage Sunday School class just a couple of months ago know, marriage was a different thing back then. It’s important to remember that this impending marriage is more of a contract between Joseph and Mary’s father than it is a covenant between Joseph and Mary.

And part of the contract is that Mary has not been married before, and has not had any children before, and is, in fact, a virgin. These things are part of the agreement to which Joseph and Mary’s father have agreed. Financial terms have been discussed, arrangements have been made, dowries have been paid, tribal alliances have been forged.

In other words, Joseph and Mary are not eloping to Las Vegas to get hitched because they just love each other so much. This marriage has been in the works for months, maybe even years. It is not a spur of the moment thing. It is serious, and it carries with it a great deal of complex social, economic, and religious baggage.

But now, Joseph is unpleasantly surprised to find that Mary is pregnant. And this changes everything. All the arrangements have gone up in smoke. In Jesus’ time, property and wealth are passed down through family lines of inheritance. And so the question of this child’s paternity matters a great deal. It’s more than just a moral issue. It’s an economic issue.

And all the contracts regarding Mary and her value as a wife and mother have been called into question as well. Tribal alliances are challenged, the trust between Joseph and her father is jeopardized; in every way, the agreements that were signed and attested are rendered invalid.

Not only that, Joseph’s standing in his community is at stake as well. His reputation as a just man, as a righteous man is threatened. This pregnancy calls into question his good name. There will always be gossip, there will always be those looks cast sideways at him, judging him and his family.

Joseph really doesn’t have that many options. In fact, there really is only one option, and that is to get rid of Mary. The only question is how to do it. Joseph could demand that Mary be stoned to death. This is allowable under the religious law, even mandated, according to some folks. Stoning Mary would be understandable, maybe even preferable. It would set a precedent. It would provide a disincentive for other women to follow Mary’s example. It would adhere to the letter of the law.

In other words, it would be a just punishment. And Joseph is a just man. It would be completely within his rights to give the word and put Mary to death.

Or, he could divorce her, loudly, and publicly. He could humiliate her, parade her in front of her family, her friends, her community. He could make her out to be so unworthy that she could never be married again, and sentence her to a lifetime of embarrassment and spinsterhood.

This also would be within Joseph’s rights. And Joseph was a righteous man. No-one would think twice about Joseph making sure that Mary would be miserable for as long as she lived.

But Joseph chooses a different route. He will divorce her quietly. He will take Mary back to her father. He will renounce any financial claims or tribal alliances. He will walk away from the whole deal, and let people think what they will think. He will start over again, somewhere else.

And while this option isn’t nearly as satisfying for those who would rather see blood, or at least some embarrassment, it is, according to the Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, also a just and righteous decision. And Joseph is a just and righteous man.

But as he prepares to divorce Mary, he is visited by an angel, who persuades him to step back for just a moment from what he’s about to do. The angel challenges him to look for another way to think about this situation. An unfamiliar way that is exactly opposite of what he has grown up with. A vulnerable way that sets aside the requirements of the law. A heretical way that ignores the duties of religion. A scandalous way that ignores the the expectations of polite society.

And there is no doubt about it. This pregnancy is a scandal. Nobody’s going to believe this story about the Holy Ghost and all that. People are going to point fingers. They are going to talk.

But Joseph is willing to take that step of faith, and carry the burden of his decision himself. Rather than subject his wife and child to the full weight of the law, he chooses to deal with a scandalous situation with an even more scandalous grace, a grace that cannot be accounted for in the law, or religious beliefs, or tradition.

And as the final gesture of his full ownership of his decision, Joseph names Jesus, claiming this scandalous child as his own. Regardless of how Jesus got there, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his birth, Joseph names Jesus as his own, and at that moment becomes the father of the Messiah.

Now, if we stopped there, this would be a good story. It would a nice story that would, I think, encourage each of us to be more careful about the way we think about the law and rules and such things. It might make as little slower to apply easy answers to complex questions. It might help us to be a little less dogmatic, a little less ideological.

It would, I would hope, help us to put into practice the advice my friend Paul Soderquist gave me to remember to not let systems get in the way of people.

But I wonder if this is where this story is supposed to stop. I wonder if this is all that Matthew was trying to tell us in this scripture passage. We know this story better than we think we do. This is more than a nice story about Joseph. This is our story as well. Because God has done the very same thing with us. Each of us, in our own way, have broken our contract with God. Each of us have sinned, and according to the law, we deserve nothing but eternal separation from God. We, as a people, and as individuals have certainly given reasons for God to divorce us.

But the strange thing is, God doesn’t divorce us. The Good News of the Gospel is that God doesn’t sentence us to death, he doesn't publically condemn us to Hell, he doesn’t even quietly make us move to Oklahoma.

In Jesus Christ, God has set aside the law, and named us as his own children. For no other reason than because he loves the whole world, he sent his son that we might see God face to face, in order that we might know what our father truly looks like.

And the crazy thing is, he looks like an illegitimate baby, born in a rough stall to a teenage mother, in a nowhere town on the fringe of the Roman Empire.

It’s a wild story. An upside-down story. A scandalous story. That God would come into the world in such a fragile, vulnerable way. Dependent on our care, subject to the damp and the cold, protected by a mother’s love, and legitimized by a father’s faith.

Thank be to God for such scandalous grace. Amen.