The Gospel today is a very familiar one, Joseph is getting ready to quietly dump his girlfriend because she is pregnant and he isn’t the father, but before he does it he has a dream in which an angel tells him it’s God’s baby who is going to be the promised savior and he needs to raise it. I can tell you that scholars have a field day with this passage, but I will not bore you with the details of that because there is a far more important message in this story that I believe are worth spending some time on, namely, God’s work often upsets comfortable social conventions.
Under 1st century Jewish law, Joseph had every right to kick Mary to the side in a very public and shameful way, but he didn’t plan to do that, he planned to quietly dissolve their relationship and move on, which speaks volumes about Joseph’s humility and gentleness as a person and as a son of God. As nothing with God is an accident, it should not be a surprise that God would choose such a person to be the caretaker of the messiah. Joseph, who was clearly a faithful man, was ready and able to provide a good home for Mary, but the fact that she was pregnant had the potential to ruin him socially, which doesn’t just mean his status, it could mean his livelihood. Their community would not have batted an eye at them parting ways over Mary’s pregnancy, but Joseph didn’t do that. Instead, because God asked him to, Joseph stayed with Mary and he adopted Jesus as his own, and he turned his world upside down to love and protect a tiny little baby. Joseph’s actions were not typical, they were rooted in a quiet trust in God, who had asked Joseph to upset his social norms and the amazing thing is that he did it, he trusted that God would have his back and based on that he stayed with Mary and together they raised their family.
As we move towards Christmas, we are going to be tempted to proclaim that the savior has come, but before we do so we should be asking ourselves a very important question, which is why do we need a savior? When Isaiah foretold of the virgin birth of Emmanuel the Israelites were in the midst of their captivity in Babylon; when Mary and Joseph were upsetting social norms their home was under the control of the Roman Empire and a Jewish monarch who was more concerned with his own power than protecting his own people from the Romans; and when Matthew reminded his readers of Isaiah’s words he did so approximately 70 years after the birth of Jesus when the Israelites were under the direct control of a Roman governor. There is a very clear need for the hope that someone will save them in all these situations, but what do we need saving from? We do not live in captivity, we are not slaves to a foreign power, we are not forced to live under the rule of a foreign governor; so why then are we getting ready to shout for joy that the savior, the messiah, that Emmanuel has come? I think that if we dig deep and if we ask ourselves some tough questions; questions that will be difficult to answer, questions that may lead to a need for change in our lives, then we will understand why we need a savior.
The most profound and difficult question I was ever asked was asked within the context of a discernment group. Everyone at the daylong seminar was trying to figure out what God was calling them to do with their lives. So, we sat in groups of three and within our group we each took turns doing one of three jobs, timekeeper, question asker and responder. When it was my turn to be the responder, I was asked the same question as everyone else and after I answered it, the same question was asked again and again, and again, and again, until the time had expired. Every time the question was asked, I found myself digging deeper and deeper for my responses. My initial response was superficial and rehearsed; my second response was less rehearsed, and by the 4th or 5th time responding my responses were beginning to become genuine and far more God centered. The experience was profound and even though it was more than four years ago I can still recall the joy and sense of relief I realized what God was asking of me. The question that changed my life was, what do you want? There was no other context given, just what do you want? By the time you answer this question for the 4th time within three minutes you will find that the thing that you want most in life may not actually be what you initially thought, that was certainly true for me.
The question for today is, why do we need a savior? Well, I needed a savior to help me figure out my purpose and with the help of The Trinity, to make the changes in my life that are necessary to fulfill that purpose, which is to treat every human being with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This is a lofty goal, it goes against the social conventions of our time, which pressures us to compete to be the best at everything and is probably an impossible goal to achieve; but I believe it is the goal that my savior came to give me, so when Christmas arrives I will praise God for giving me the gift of Jesus, who has taught me that no matter how much pressure I may feel to focus my energy on my own desires, there is only one desire that truly matters and that is the desire to share Gods love with the entire world, which does not come from out there, it comes from the Holy Spirit, who resides in here. Joseph chose to follow the path God put before him, instead of what society expected of him, he chose God over self, and that is the key to understanding why we need a savior. Jesus, Emmanuel, represents a way of being that changes lives, but that change will only come if we willingly and consciously participate in the process and put God first. Amen.