18 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
There must have been a lot of sleepless nights—for Mary and Joseph, I mean. Most of our focus this time of year is on the night of the birth, and we know how difficult that was, traveling to Bethlehem, getting turned away from every inn. But what about all the nights leading up to that one? The fourth Sunday of Advent this year reminds us that it was a pregnancy fraught with worry from the very beginning.
The other Christmas Gospel writer, Luke, tells it mostly from Mary’s point-of-view. After the angel’s announcement of the child to be born, Mary goes to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. She needs advice and some courage. Perhaps she just needed to get away from the shaming glare of her neighbors, too, as rumors about her and her pregnancy circulated.
Matthew tells it differently. Matthew gives us Joseph’s perspective, primarily. It begins, “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.”
“Found to be with child” we can understand, though it might make us wonder about how the news came to light. The second part about the Holy Spirit may provoke even more questions. Clearly, there wouldn’t have been any evidence available to Joseph or anyone else that it happened through divine intervention. Joseph had to assume it was the result of natural human biology. It was a scandal, a shock to Joseph, leaving him with what must have been the most difficult decision he would ever have to make. How many days, I wonder, did it take him to make up his mind? How many sleepless nights?
I imagine that most of us here know the feeling of staring at the ceiling and working a problem over again and again. I heard a therapist say that no problem gets resolved in the middle of the night. The middle of the night exacerbates our problems, and we don’t bring our best reasoning at that hour, so you’re better off getting up and doing something else. Leave the worries for the morning.
Maybe Joseph tried his best to do that, but he couldn’t avoid it for long. Being betrothed, or engaged, in that time of place was a contractual agreement that was just as binding as marriage. It just meant that they didn’t live together yet, but they were nonetheless a family unit. Joseph had to do something. The official rule in such a situation was that there should be punishment, even stoning, both for the mother and the father, if he was known. Joseph had to assume there was a father, so he must have felt the pain of betrayal that anyone in his situation would feel and paced his room in anger late into the night. Maybe he lay awake wondering who the other guy was. Maybe he wondered if Mary really loved him or if he would be a good father to this child and that the three of them would be happy.
Whatever the reasons, we’re told Joseph chose not to publicly accuse Mary. Instead, he made up his mind to quietly divorce her. “Dismiss her” is what it says in our Bibles, but again, their betrothal was a legal contract that required a legal certificate of dissolution. If Joseph gave her one, then she would be able to marry another. His responsibility and connection to her would be over, and she would be free to start a new life.
Joseph settled on his plan. He made up his mind. And then he was able to get some sleep.
And that’s when a third option came to him. Maybe it was because he was asleep that night, with a mind at rest, that God’s messenger got the idea through to him. In any case, the angel interrupted Joseph’s plan, righteous though it seemed to be. “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. You and Mary will have this child together. And you will name him Jesus, one who saves.”
A seminary teacher of mine, Paul Sponheim, used to say that we may most often meet God in the interruptions. In one of his books he says that it is in the moments that are not routine and seem to get in the way of what we think we know where God is often most present for transformation. An interruption may encourage you to think differently; it may open up new possibilities.
Here was an interruption like no other, and I don’t mean just getting woken up by an angel. A baby will always interrupt life as you know it, but a baby whose birth is surrounded by controversy and shame will drastically change one’s course of life. Through a dream, Joseph was able to recognize that God was present in the new dilemma which occupied his thoughts, and it changed everything.
What do you do when meeting God in an interruption? Professor Sponheim has a suggestion: “consider silence.” Don’t start trying to make sense of it, in other words. When you’re brought up short by God in an interruption, keep silent. And if not silence, well, then try laughter. That could be an appropriate response, too, because joy can interrupt us as much as awe. The point is there needs to be a change: “silence for the infernally chatty among us. Laughter for the deadly serious,” Sponheim writes. In any case, an interruption has a way of shaking us up and getting us to listen to God in a whole new way. It is a pretty powerful thing when we can be interrupted enough to get us to listen.
I doubt that many of us have been awakened by angels, but could there be a message from God in the midst of other interruptions of life? Maybe God doesn’t cause the interruptions, but could God be present in them to get us thinking beyond our own plans, good and righteous as they might be, into a new way of thinking or living? Perhaps God is present in the interruptions most of all to help us imagine new possibilities.
On this last week before Christmas we are reminded that Jesus was born into the real world with all of its complexity. He lived his whole life with people in impossible situations who faced difficult decisions. He sought out people who knew shame and what it’s like to be ostracized from their communities. This is who Jesus was, and it was true from the beginning.
The pageants and artwork and carols of Christmas are all an important part of the season, but we can’t let them sentimentalize the story of Christ’s birth. Christmas is not just about God’s feelings toward humanity. It is, as John Nunes has put it, “a story of restorative love investing itself at the level of flesh.” This is a love that meets you where you are and jumps down into the pit with you when you’re there. This is the kind of love that is so powerful it can transform you and disrupt your life. It’s the kind of love that is real and tangible and now. God is truly with us now and always.