Matthew 1: 18 – 25   No Rigid Righteousness December 12, 2021


No Rigid Righteousness

Matthew 1: 18 – 25


(preached December 12, 2021)


Since the earliest days of Christianity, artists have portrayed the birth of Jesus.  Artists have even painted scenes from before his birth, images of the angel Gabriel speaking to Mary about the miracle God has in mind for her.  You can find many paintings of Gabriel, shining with holy light, and Mary, amazed by his news.  But it’s harder to find paintings of another important person in the story of Jesus’ birth.  It’s harder to find paintings of Joseph.  But I know of at least one.  It hangs in the chaplain’s study at Duke University.  The painting shows a man at work in a cramped, rundown workshop.  He is clearly older than Mary.  He sits at a workbench, surrounded by the kind of tools a carpenter might use.  The man is absorbed in the task at hand.  It looks like just another day in a long series of days, as he earns his living by the work of his hands.


It’s an ordinary day for this man.  Hard at work, Joseph doesn’t realize that his world is about to be rocked.  His world is about to be turned upside-down by the news that his fiancé is going to have a baby.  Joseph is engaged to Mary, but our word engaged doesn’t really do justice to the relationship between them.  A better word would be a more old fashioned word, betrothed.  A betrothal describes a relationship closer to marriage than what we might mean by engagement.


In Joseph’s day, a betrothal between a woman and a man was absolutely binding.  It was customary for a betrothal to last one year.  During that year, the man and woman didn’t set up housekeeping together, but they were known in the community as husband and wife.  The betrothal could not be ended, except by divorce.  If the man died, even though no marriage ceremony had taken place, the woman was known as a widow.


The betrothal, the promise to marry, was so strong that Joseph would have been shocked to learn of Mary’s pregnancy.  He would have been more than shocked – he must have thought that life as he knew it was over.  He must have felt horribly betrayed.  He is a righteous man, a hardworking man.  How could she have done this to him?  In Joseph’s world, honor is extremely important.  Now the honor of his name, the honor of his family, is at risk.


It’s a terrible blow.  You and I wouldn’t blame Joseph for being angry.  Anger is something we all feel from time to time.  We might feel angry if a friend lets us down.  We might feel angry if our son or our daughter makes a decision that we know is not a good one.  We might not express our anger.  Instead, we might keep it inside.  We might fret and fume and fuss and work ourselves into a state where we’re convinced that nothing is going to go our way.


Holding anger inside like that can make us bitter.  It can change the way we see the world.  One woman showed a bitterness like that when she and her husband were riding on a train with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a pastor and author.  Dr. Peale had been seated with them at the table in the dining car.  He and the husband got into a conversation, but as they were talking the man’s wife kept interrupting them.

She said, “This grapefruit is so bitter it isn’t fit to eat.”  A few minutes later, she interrupted them again.  “There’s a terrible draft in here,” she said.  Before they knew it, she was complaining about something else.  At this point the husband turned to Peale and said, “You mustn’t let my wife disturb you.  She really is a very fine person.  In fact, she’s very clever.  She’s actually a manufacturer.”


That surprised Peale.  “Really?” he said.  “What does she manufacture?”  “Oh,” the husband replied with a little smile, “She manufactures her own unhappiness.”


When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he could have worked himself into a fierce state of unhappiness.  A pregnancy outside of marriage brought a stigma that would stay with the family for generations.  It could make the difference between being known as a fine upstanding person, and being an outcast, someone with whom no self-respecting person would pass the time of day.  Joseph could have resolved to do whatever it took to salvage his reputation.


But Joseph doesn’t let his anger get the better of him.  He doesn’t let fear of shame and humiliation get the better of him.  He won’t go after Mary and take out his anger on her.  He won’t give in to bitterness, giving her the cold shoulder or the silent treatment.  He won’t blame or accuse or make her beg for forgiveness.


The visit from the angel that night shakes Joseph’s world.  Joseph is a righteous man, and in his world, being righteous means sticking strictly to the law.  Being righteous means following without question the rules that have been laid down for generations.


But from Joseph’s response to the angel, we can see that, for him, being righteous doesn’t mean being rigid.  In his righteousness, Joseph is open to God.  He listens carefully to the angel.  He realizes that Mary has not betrayed him.  Mary has been drawn into the purposes of God, purposes that transcend human rules and laws.  Joseph is willing to soften his righteousness, not to be rigid.  He’s open to the possibility that God is at work, doing something new here.


As he sits up in bed that night, Joseph is in a cold sweat from this shock of this encounter with a messenger from God. But he has a sense about what God might mean by a Savior.  The angel told him to name the child Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.  In that name, Joseph hears the hint of a saving love that is righteous, but not rigid.  He hears of a love that goes beyond rules and regulations.  Joseph is open to the possibility that the righteousness of his ancestors – the righteousness of rules and laws – might now be giving way to a righteousness guided – not by rules and laws, but by the spirit of unconditional love.


Joseph showed a love like that for Mary.  He could have divorced her.  That would have been within his rights.  He could have married her but made the marriage a miserable mess of resentment and blame.  He could have stuck with a rigid righteousness.  But he takes the angel at his word.  Jesus will save.


Joseph makes way for a saving love to be born.  That saving love says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  That saving love says forgive those who offend you: not just seven times, but a whole lot more.  That saving love embraces not just people who are easy to love, but people who are hard to love.  That saving love says love people who push your buttons and pull the rug out from under you.  With a righteousness that is not rigid, Joseph makes way for the birth of a saving love: a love that brings tidings of comfort and joy.













Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Advent 3