Author's Note: As we close out Advent, when we so quickly determine what’s our legal right or what we’re owed or what “the Bible really says” when, after all, we’re just simply too quick to judge. In these days where we must affirm #BlackLivesMatter, where we must stand up for victims of rape and abuse, and where we must struggle with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers for full inclusion, sermons like this are humbly offered.
We know the Christmas story well.
Those of us that have grown up with regular, annual, church-going rhythms — we essentially hear this story once a year.
Even so, those with no regular church commitments — people from all walks of life, people of faith or no particular faith, people from varied faiths — if you asked your friend, your neighbor, your cousin, a stranger on the street, I bet at least 50 percent of the time they’d be able to share the gist of the story:
Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.
Mary was married to a guy (named Joseph).
There were angels, and wise men, and shepherds.
And I think there was a manger.
We know this story well.
But we hear it so often it becomes rote — literally a mechanically, automatically, mindlessly routine on repetition in our brains.
Yeah, yeah, yeah — 6lb 8oz baby Jesus, in a manger, Virgin Mary, Adopted Dad Joseph, sheep, shepherds, angels, stars at night, wise men, white Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer …
You get my point.
So, let’s hear the story one more time and lean in a bit to this wild world of dreams, angels, and ancient Jewish marriage contracts:
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, verses 18-25:
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 fulfil 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.
I want to talk about Joseph’s two decisions.
I want to talk about angels.
I want to talk about dreams.
And I want to talk about how we might today dream that God is with us (Emmanuel).
So, back when Jesus was literally not a speck in his mother Mary’s eye, but a real, live human baby in his mother’s womb, there were certain marital rules for what happens when moms are found pregnant out of wedlock. And there were certain rights and privileges the scorned husbands had at the ready according to the legal code. But before we get to those, let’s talk about ancient Hebrew marriage customs, the kind that were all well and commonly held and enforced in Joseph and Mary’s day.
Marriage in their culture, in their tradition, was not a religious ritual as we would understand it if someone at Christ Church were seeking holy matrimony, nor was it sacramental, like our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers understand it.
Marriage was more like a civil contract — or a civil union, as we would perhaps call it today. Something that held legal connotations and civil rights above and beyond anything else. Being that the ancient Hebraic / Jewish tradition was not simply a national identity with civic codes, but an all encompassing religious tradition with spiritual depth and divine meaning, I don’t want to just call their marriage contract a binding legal union — it was more than that. But it was definitely extremely more legal oriented than any kind of marriage ceremony we may understand in the church today.
So, again: for young kids like Joseph and Mary back in ancient Palestine (remember they were possibly 14 and 13 years old, respectfully), marriage was a civil contract.
And it took place over three very important events: the betrothal, the marriage ceremony, and the wedding ceremony itself.
The betrothal ceremony: essentially, this was a sort of coming together of two families, often sorted out and arranged by the husband-and-wife-to-be’s elders. Like exchanging goods or property, there were massive economic connections to any betrothal in Joseph and Mary’s day.
The betrothal took place at the bride’s father’s home. At the betrothal ceremony itself, the husband and his family presented the father of the bride and the bride herself with the marriage contract and three gifts exchanged.
The husband’s family or the husband himself would give the father of the bride a bride-price, significant enough to not just be a sign of respect between families but to “pay” for the cost of raising his wife to be. A second gift would be given by the bride’s father — what we would understand as a dowry: something to help the young couple get started in their life together. And a third gift would be given: the husband would give his bride a gift symbolizing his commitment and fidelity to her. We mark this today in the exchange of wedding rings.
After those gifts and that marriage contract were exchanged at the betrothal ceremony, husband and wife would be married. But it could be up to a year or more before husband and wife would live together. The young bride would remain at her father’s home until the marriage ceremony itself — when the bride would move out to then move in with the husband, marked in festivity with a wedding ceremony.
It’s after this betrothal ceremony, where Joseph is legally, bindingly married to Mary, that Joseph first discovers that Mary is pregnant, and not by his own participation.
We know that Mary is pregnant, in some mysterious way, by God’s spirit. But Joseph does not. As Holly Hearon, professor of New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis writes: “At this moment, Joseph must respond to Mary from the place of his partial knowing.”
Did you catch that? We know by hearing and reading the Scriptures that Mary is pregnant miraculously and mysteriously with the Christ-child by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18) but Joseph does not (Matthew 1:19,20)
According to Jewish custom and law, Joseph had the full right to have Mary stoned to death.
Deuteronomy 22:23-25, part and parcel of the ancient legal code, says this:
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.
It’s plain for everyone to see — it’s written in the Bible. Joseph was in his right to have Mary stoned to death as wrathful punishment for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Thankfully for Mary, for Jesus, and for us, Joseph was considered a righteous, just man — a fair and compassionate man. And having heard this news, he would quietly null and void the marriage contract, as was his legal right, and divorce his wife, Mary — sparing her life and her baby’s life, Jesus.
This was Joseph’s first decision: compassion and quiet divorce.
It’s only at this point of the story — But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream — that Joseph has the opportunity to make a second, more lasting decision.
Dreams and angels and further choices to make
The angel visits Joseph in the dream and, as Matthew records the story:
‘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 fulfil 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.’
Wow. What would you do?
Would you trust this dream? Do you trust your own dreams?
See we think of dreams as ways that help us interpret or understand our past or maybe our present. But in Joseph’s tradition, God spoke through messengers in dreams to show the way of the future.
If you ever want to go deeper on the Bible and dreams, you have to start with Morton Kelsey. You have to check out his book God, Dreams, and Revelation: A Christian Interpretation of Dreams.
Morton Kelsey teaches this:
“Dreams and visions were an avenue of revelation that Yahweh continued to use because from time to time they were the best, or even the only way, he could make connection. Because of the importance of dreams, false prophets and charlatans sometimes manufactured false dreams and false interpretations of dreams in order to meet their own needs or the needs of those who hired them. And so the Bible does not express only reverence for dreams; it also offers critical evaluation of them so that people will not be duped by false religions and false religious leaders.”
Kelsey goes on:
“In Matthew, when Joseph found that Mary was pregnant, he was about to dismiss her quietly when an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream (onar) to tell him the story and inform him that the child's name was to be Jesus (1:20). Here the Annunciation is given in a dream, and thus far the story of the coming of the Christ child has woven together the different experiences of visions of angels with a dream and information by the Spirit.”
God literally shares the good news, the gospel, with Joseph in a dream. In a dream! No tract, no sermon, no street-corner evangelism, no movie, nothing — but a dream.
I don’t know if that concerns or surprises you. I just think it is amazing that Joseph hears God’s message for him in a dream.
And he not only hears the dream, but wakes up and makes another, second, more lasting decision. Joseph decides to not only disregard the biblical mandate to stone Mary to death — as he had decided before the dream — but to follow the angel of the Lord’s direction to take Mary as his wife, name the child Jesus, and raise him as his own, like an adoptive, loving, and compassionate father would.
And the story goes on. Jesus would be born, Emmanuel, God with us — Joseph’s dream would come true.
Choosing to dream that God is truly Emmanuel with Us
How are we to live, this Christmas before us, and every season of our lives, after hearing the example of Joseph with his loving compassion, his wakefulness to dreams, and his simple but profound choices?
We have choices to make as God’s children every day.
And thankfully we are adopted by God, our heavenly parent, not because of anything we’ve done or any family or legal claims we have to being called God’s children, but because God simply first and foremost loved us.
So we can perhaps imagine what it means to experience the loving compassion of an adoptive father like Joseph, to Mary his spouse, and the son, Jesus, he’d raise as his own.
I think we can also lean into our dreams a bit. What is God saying to you, not so much about your past or your present, but about the wide vista of your own future? This is tricky stuff, so I think it is best to always do discernment in community — with trusted loved ones, or professional counseling, spiritual direction, or pastoral help. But, again, like Joseph, how might we awake to God’s dreams for us?
And thirdly, what I want to leave us all with today: Joseph’s faithful, radical choice of loving compassion rather than blind, mindless retribution. Or wrath. Or judgement.
How often could each of us just say — well it’s my right! or, It’s written clearly in the Bible — and choose to make rash decisions out of our own self-righteousness, or lazy theological reflection, rather than a) being centered in compassion like Joseph was in his first choice, and b) being so bold to imagine that God’s spirit continues to move in mysterious ways?
The Holy Spirit, throughout all time, moves us. Guides us. Forms us. Not to be rogue agents for our own ends. But to expand our conscience and enable us to discern together, God’s way for us in these miracle days.
With the God’s word, with Emmanuel God with us, and by the Holy Spirit, and in community, we have so much to help guide us and shape us, in to being the kind of Christ followers Jesus came into this world to be with and save all along.
God’s dream — God’s story for us — is really that great. It’s really that wonderful. God is with us. Try not to forget.
Adam Phillips is pastor of Christ Church: Portland, a new church plant in Portland, Ore.
Image: Nativity scene illustration, Raul Ruano Pavon / Shutterstock.com