Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)
18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.
20-23 While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:
Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).
24-25 Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking. People: Thanks be to God.
Life rarely happens like we expect it to, does it?
I don’t think there’s a single one of us who can look back on however long we’ve lived and expected to find ourselves right here, having done or accomplished all that we have up to this point, having experienced all that has come our way, both the highs and the lows, having navigated all the twists and turns that have brought us to wherever we find ourselves at this point in our lives. Even if our younger selves had somehow enough forethought to think and plan our way to where we are, there’s bound to be events and circumstances that throw a wrench or two into the works.
I never expected myself to end up living on an island off the coast of Maine - an island I had never heard of even though I grew up just outside of Portland. I never expected the health crises that our family has navigated together, how becoming a parent would change priorities for my life, or how a global pandemic would bring a lot of perspective and clarity for how God was inviting and challenging me to live as a Jesus follower in this world where many of the foundational systems many of us have relied upon seem to be unraveling before our eyes.
As I look at this part of the Christmas story - one that gives us a bit of insight into Joseph’s experience - we certainly see unexpected circumstances throwing a curve ball into Joseph’s life-trajectory. After all, to find out that your soon-to-be wife is pregnant with a child that isn’t yours isn’t usually in the cards when you’ve set about to plan your wedding.
There isn’t much we know about the relationship between Mary and Joseph - whether their union was prearranged or whether they were in love or how much they really knew each other; we don’t know how old they were relative to each other - but the text says that Joseph didn’t want to bring shame and disgrace upon Mary, so he resolved to divorce her quietly - and I don’t know about you, but I don’t really understand how Joseph breaking off the marriage, even if he did it quietly as noted in the story, would be a way to save Mary from public humiliation because as we all know from living in a small community, news has a way of getting around.
Before he has a chance to act, Joseph receives his own divine visitor in a dream. The angel basically tells Joseph that “it’s OK, Mary really wasn’t unfaithful to you, the kid belongs to the Holy Spirit, so you don’t have to be afraid to take her as your wife - here, look, this is what the prophets have said about it.” So he marries Mary, Jesus is born, and we have the happy Holy Family that we see depicted in all of our Christmas greeting cards - and this is the image that many of us are left with, never really thinking about how disruptive this actually was for the two of them - and how disruptive and difficult it would continue to be.
The whole story of Jesus’ birth is a messy, complicated, and unexpected situation; not one that Joseph had envisioned when he thought about his future family life. He could have chosen so many different ways to respond to this - including one that I’m sure would have afforded him a relatively stable, comfortable existence - maybe a bit twinged with a few “what ifs” - in leaving Mary behind. In divorcing her, this righteous man would have followed Jewish law, kept the status quo, and no one would have faulted him. He would have even been well within his rights to make it super public in accusing Mary of adultery. I mean, Joseph, this man who is devoted to God, seems like one who wants an orderly life, who works hard and follows the rules, who wants to stay out of the limelight, and who doesn’t want to take risks. He doesn’t want to make a fuss…he doesn’t want to make waves.
But Joseph, instead of doing what is expected, instead of finding a different way out, decides to go along with God’s command and steps into the story that would change the world. He chooses to embrace the unexpected; he decides to enter into the mess along with Mary, and to trust the promise of God’s presence even in the most scandalous of circumstances. This moment of disruption turned into an intimate awareness of God’s hopes and dreams for the world - and how he could play a part in the unfolding of that kingdom.
But it wasn’t easy.
Debie Thomas writes, “God's call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness, and purity. It required him to become the talk of the town — and not in a good way. It required him to embrace a mess he had not created. To love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son.
In other words, God’s messy plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most. The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable. So much for living a well-ordered life.”
Life is rarely well-ordered. It never goes as we expect. In these moments, we can choose whether to respond in ways that help us blend in with cultural expectations and norms, or respond in ways that lead us along different paths, that defy expectation, and that witness to God’s dream for us and for the world.
Damon Garcia, writing at enfleshed, notes this: “When we experience these moments that cause rupture in our lives, we are given the opportunity to tune into the Divine, pointing us in a new direction. Jesus as Emmanuel — as God with us — comforts us through divine presence, but this presence is simultaneously a disruption that calls for courage. Emmanuel calls us to be courageously curious, open to risk, and open to new life.”
He continues to say, “God abides in trouble though. God is in the disruptions. God is in the anomalies. Are you courageous enough to find God in the ruptures of your life? Will you participate in the new thing God is doing in the world? Will you go on the adventure that God is calling us to?”
Each of us has the opportunity to step into that same reality - to embrace the disruptions - not as quaint life lessons to consume, not to make lemonade out of lemons, not to lift up or celebrate suffering or hardship - but as opportunities to discover God already there in the depths, offering life and growth and healing for those courageous enough to step onto the path. It’s true for us as individuals, and it’s true for you as a Church. God speaks in the moments that catch us off guard, that throw us for a loop, that leave us wondering “what do we do now? What happens next?” God points us in directions that subvert expectations, that circumvent conventional norms, that force us to reevaluate everything we’ve previously thought about what success looks like or what abundance looks like or what life and love and healing look like…and all of it leads us deeper into the witness of love and hope that lies at the center of our faith - that in all things and through all things, God is with us….and because of that, we do not need to be afraid…when change happens, when the unexpected happens, when life gets disrupted…we can dare to dream God’s dream and live into that boldly and without fear if we are faithful to what God asks of us and we don’t let our status quo expectations get in the way.
It’s a risk, to step out in new directions with God.
To be sure, I feel that sense of risk as I take this new journey, preparing to parent three children, feeling a call to nurture the land on Fire House Road we’ve been gifted to steward, and thinking about what it looks like to cultivate a life-giving environment for my children and our household and friends and neighbors in the midst of this unsettling time as our planet grapples with climate devastation - among other things.
This is the call and dream I’ve discerned from God, an unexpected twist in life certainly, from the one I had thought when we moved here just about seven and a half years ago, and I know God will be present in this - just as God will be present whenever the next bend in the road comes my way.
The last seven years together has certainly seen us through many twists and bends in the road and events none of us expected to happen - as we navigated community tragedy together time after time, as we stepped away from the denomination that can trace its roots back on this island to the early 19th century, as we adapted and readapted ministry in a global pandemic, and now as you are at this new moment in your history, you have a choice, just as Joseph did, to trust that this is a moment to embrace the messiness of this reality and seek God’s dream within.
God will be present with you all in the journey you have before you. Trust that God is with you - and let that trust give you courage. In this time, sit and listen for God’s dream in the midst of it all - and when God’s invitation beckons, as that call for you becomes clear, don’t let conventionality or respectability or church norms bind your decisions. God’s words to Joseph led him away from the status quo and “business as usual” into the heart of a risky adventure that blessed the world. There was very little that was smart or sensible in what God wanted Joseph to do - God constantly takes our conventional wisdom and flips it on its head - so seek God outside the norms. Find God’s dream in unlikely places. Experiment and discover practices that will keep you grounded in God’s dream for you and for this island community and for our neighbors near and far.
When Joseph heard God’s call - even after he’d resolved to do something else - he said yes to the risk of God’s dream, even though it meant leaving behind conventional norms and expectations. In his choice, he helped Love Incarnate be birthed into the world. It is my hope and prayer for you that you will have the courage to say yes to the call that defies your expectation, to seek God beyond the norms, and to live a bold faith that witnesses to a radically different way of being in this world, so that you can midwife Love being birthed on this island as well. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.