Lessons from the Manger: Err on the Side of Love

Matthew 1:18-20

Some of you, I am sure, will remember the name Anthony Bourdain who died tragically last year when he took his own life while working in France. For many years, Bourdain traveled the world while helping television audiences to learn about different cultures through their unique food. Bourdain was a huge advocate for the human need to get to know one another and he expressed himself on this topic famously once when he said, “the extent to which we can walk in another’s shoes and at least eat their food is a plus for everyone”.

I could not agree with Bourdain more (except maybe for the part about trying all of those exotic foods!) Indeed, the act of walking in another’s shoes changes how we see things in a major way and so I want to invite us for the next two Sundays to do just that – to walk around for a little bit in the shoes of Mary and Joseph starting with Jesus’ earthly father today and moving on to his earthly mother next week. In them both and in getting to know them more fully, we learn clearly about their inspiring individual responses to God’s invitation on their lives and we find some profound examples of what we are capable of being as Christ followers today.

Even though Joseph ultimately fades to the background as the gospel story progresses, the way he handles Mary’s pregnancy provides us with a remarkable insight into who he was and the faith that he evidently possessed. To appreciate his response fully, it is helpful to refresh our memories on the way that marriage unfolded in the New Testament world.

In that day and time, the movement toward one’s wedding day was a life long journey. Often, when Israelite children were very young, they were matched up with a member of the opposite sex and through family arrangements it was understood that eventually they would marry. When the time came, matched couples entered into a year of betrothal in which they were legally now married and yet in which they did not yet live with each other. The betrothal was a heightened version of our idea of engagements today. The big difference was that betrothed couples, which is the state of the relationship that Joseph and Mary had reached in our text, were legally bound and to break off the relationship at this point would be to divorce.
During the betrothal, the groom and his family also prepared to make two very hefty financial commitments to the bride and her family. One was a larger payment and it both compensated the bride’s family for the loss of her role in the family’s work and it served as a type of insurance policy for her should her husband die in that it provided money for her and her well-being. The other gift was also a financial gift but smaller and further served a similar function of providing the bride some level of financial peace of mind should something happen. (The work of Adam Hamilton in Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph is very helpful here.)

All of this is to say that for a long time – years in all likelihood – Joseph and Mary had been moving toward their wedding day. Again, they had entered the final stretch, the year of betrothal, before the final and full consummation of their marriage. Further, our assumption is that Joseph’s family had prepared the financial gifts for Mary which was a sign of their commitment to her and her well being.

As we might say today, the invitations had been mailed, the caterer had been booked, the church had been reserved, the honeymoon had been paid for and a twenty-five percent down payment had already been made on a first house. To say the least, they were committed and a lot had been done to further emphasize the level of this commitment.

This is the moment at which Joseph learns that Mary is expecting a child. Can you imagine the level of hurt and devastation that he felt? Yet, before God told Joseph anything at all about what was really going on, Joseph makes an incredible decision. He decides to end the relationship with Mary quietly.

Now, we read this and it really doesn’t fully register with us what Joseph does. Israelite law suggested that divorce should end either in a public dismissal of the relationship or worse through the stoning of the bride if it was discovered that she had been unfaithful. Joseph chooses neither of these options.
Instead, he chooses to end the relationship quietly. Even though he feels certain that Mary has betrayed him, he doesn’t want to harm her. He doesn’t want to embarrass her. And, even further, apparently he didn’t even want to ruin her financially for most scholars think that the other reason for Joseph’s choice of a quite path to ending the relationship was so that he could preserve for Mary the financial payments coming her way in order to provide stability for she and this child. All of that would have immediately gone away had Jospeh chosen the more expected, public method of divorce.

We can conclude two things from this I think. First, without question, we can say that Joseph loved Mary. Everything about what he does here suggests that his feelings for her remained even in spite of what he perceived had happened. Second, we can also say that Joseph chooses the most loving way possible to end their relationship. In a world where we all are tempted to give each other what we feel is deserved, Joseph provides an inspiring example. He reminds us that while we can never control what others say or do that we always have within us the capacity to control what we say and do. We can doing the loving thing even when others do not.

While I mention books, tv shows and movies from time to time, I rarely, if ever, actually recommend them specifically from the pulpit. I have found that our tastes vary a great deal and thus I need to stick with talking about scripture rather than with attempting to be a movie or book critic. Having said that, I am going to ignore my own advice this morning and encourage you to go and see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood about the life of Mr. Rogers. Not only is it a great movie but it is a great story and one that all of us need these days.

The movie focuses on a real encounter that Fred Rogers had with a reporter for Esquire magazine back in 1998 whose name was Tom Junod. Esquire was doing an issue at the time about real life heroes and they wanted to feature Mr. Rogers as one of those figures. Tom Junod was assigned to do the article on Rogers only because every other person who was to be interviewed for the heroes edition refused to allow him to do their article. In short, Junod had a reputation as a very uncaring, tell it like it is, find all of the dirt, journalist and folks were scared of him. Only Fred Rogers was willing to be interviewed by him. Without spoiling too much of the rest of the story, the film is ultimately about Mr. Rogers’ attempt to befriend, see good in and to love Junod just as he was. Like Joseph, Mr. Rogers had no control over how Tom Junod acted but he had full control over himself and he chose to respond to the reporter in as loving a way as possible no matter what.

Having said that, we must say this about Joseph. To end the story there and to elevate Joseph as this great figure who inspires us to lead with love and to err on the side of love is to make Joseph great fodder for a holiday tweet or as the topic for a Rotary or Kiwanis meeting. It is to render him an inspirational figure. But, you and I are here to ask the deeper question and that has to do with Joseph as an example of who we are capable of being through God’s role in our lives and not just what we can do as a result of the power of positive thinking or acting.

Yes, Joseph had a good foundation and a kind heart, but he also had a soul open to the movement of the God. Ultimately, the turning point of this story is not simply Joseph’s kind heart. But, the turning point is Joseph’s openness to what God said. According to Matthew, in a dream, Joseph is told by an Angel of the Lord the real story and to continue on with his plans to take Mary as his wife.

Joseph errs on the side of love not simply because he had cultivated a good heart. Jospeh errs on the side of love and continues on with his plans to take Mary as his own because he believed it is what God wanted him to do.

Now there are high weeds here. I am not suggesting that God regularly calls us to do things that make no sense, that ignore logic or that go against what everyone else says we should do. But, I would be less than honest and I would be less than biblical if I didn’t also say that sometimes this is exactly what God tells us to do. The story of Mary and Joseph is about love – love for each other, love for God and love for doing what God desired. But, it also about risk taking and a willingness to follow God despite the naysayers and despite our own personal reasons to run in the opposite direction. Not every day, but at times, this is the turning point in our lives and our lives of faith as we courageously listen to the Holy Spirit, trust God and follow what we know God is calling us to do no matter what.

Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke, tells of talking to a student one day. “I am looking forward to meeting your mom at graduation this year,” he said while making conversation. “Oh, you want meet my mom, she’s mad at you. She liked me a whole lot better the way I was before you took me on that mission trip and changed my perspective on things.” Here was a student who was seriously trying to follow Jesus, it was courageous and risky and her mom didn’t like it or the results it created. (Willimon, Accidental Preacher, pg. 209-210)

Sometimes this is our challenge too.

And, honestly, sometimes it is months or years before things work themselves out to the point of our knowing the real outcome of these decisions that we make. Sometimes only with time do know their real value. It is an act of faith.

The name Harry Hopkins has been lost to history. In 1945, he was an assistant to FDR who traveled with the President to the famous Yalta Conference at the end of World War II with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. While there Hopkins took a piece of currency and asked the three world leaders to sign it as a momento. At the time, that piece of foreign currency was worth about 10 US Dollars. Years later, that bill would sell at an auction in Minnesota having multiplied several hundred times in value not only because of the three signatures but also because it was believed to be the only available item in the world that was for sale that contained all three signatures on one document. (From Jack Gulledge, past editor of Mature Living)

By faith we love others as God loves us. By faith, we follow God and the leadership of the Holy Spirit even when it doesn’t make sense. By faith, we trust that these small acts of obedience and discipleship have a future value far greater than we can understand or appreciate in this moment. This is the Joseph way and it can be our way too as we follow his example. Amen.