Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
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Responding to God's Invitation

Matthew 1:18-25

 Along with some of you, I recently read through the Experiencing God Bible Study.  And I have to say it has changed how I read this story.  I understood it in ways that I had not before, and I think it’s given me a new appreciation of a very familiar story.  If you haven’t already read the book Experiencing God or done the Bible Study, I recommend you do so.

 The story begins with Mary and Joseph, soon to be Jesus’ parents.  They are engaged to be married.  Now this is one of those places where you have to understand the practice of marriage in that first century Jewish culture to appreciate the full impact of the story.  

 Marriage in that culture had three steps.  First, there was an arrangement.  This was usually done by the parents while the children were still young.  Occasionally it was done by professional match-makers, but that was usually only in upper class society, not in a little town in Galilee.  

 When the couple reached marriageable age, they would enter into a time of engagement or betrothal.  Marriageable age was typically about 14 years old for young women and about 18-20 for young men.  Men had to be older because they had to have time to learn a job skill and become financially independent.  In that culture, there was really no such thing as a financially independent woman.  

 The betrothal, HARUSIN in Greek, was a much more binding situation than an engagement in our society.  It did require mutual consent.  Both the bride and groom had to agree to the marriage.  It also required two witnesses and a public declaration.  And it was a financial arrangement.  To marry a young woman, a man had to pay a brideprice to her father.  But once all this was done, the betrothal became legally binding.  Legally, they were husband and wife in every way except one:  They couldn’t “be together” in the way of a husband and wife.  In fact, they were often not even allowed to be left alone together.  Because this arrangement was legally binding, it could only be ended with a divorce.  You couldn’t just “change your mind.”  

After the year was over, there was a wedding.  Or if the couple didn’t have the money for a wedding, which was a week-long party in that culture, then they would just establish a home together.

 Now the purpose of the year-long betrothal was to demonstrate the purity of the bride.  So it was a problem for Mary to “be found to be pregnant” during this time.  And for her part, she knew that she was taking a real risk in obeying God and becoming a part of his plan, much more a risk than Joseph was taking.  

 But she knew the truth of this child, that it was a miracle of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, today, such miraculous elements of the Bible are frequently met with resistance.  After all, that’s not possible, so some say, there must be another explanation.  Just recently someone published a scientific review of the nativity story, saying the virgin birth is scientifically impossible.  Well, duh?  I think the question is:  What is our fundamental view of the world?  Do we believe that the world is created by an all-powerful God who is free to intervene in the world in ways we would call miraculous?  If so, then the thought of a virgin birth shouldn’t be out of place for us, even if it is for the world.  And it fulfills the very first prophecy of Jesus that we find in the Bible.  Genesis 3 told of a savior, “born of a woman,” who would crush the power of Satan.

 The Holy Spirit is the creative power of God and the one who brings the truth of God to human beings.  In this case, that’s just what he does.  He creates a human life in a miraculous way and he brings Jesus, who is the Truth to humanity.

 But while we understand it to be the work of God, it still creates a dilemma for Joseph.  What should he do about this scandal?

 The expectation of his society is that he should divorce Mary and denounce her publicly as an immoral woman.  After all, if he doesn’t do that, then all the other young women might be tempted to follow a bad example.  And then her father is expected to disown her and cast her out of the community.  If someone wanted to press the matter, they could demand that she be stoned, but that rarely happened.  

 We are told that Joseph is a “just” or “righteous” man.  So the option that he doesn’t seem to be able to consider is to marry her.  If he did that, then everyone would assume the unborn child is his, and his reputation would be damaged, and reputation was very important in that society.  

 But Joseph was also a compassionate man.  He did not want to harm Mary, as he genuinely cared about her.  So he resolved to divorce her quietly.  Divorce only required two witnesses and a “writ of divorce,” a signed document.  There was no need for a public declaration of divorce.  So he can spare her the worst of the shame.  

 Left to his own wisdom, Joseph shows himself to be a good man.  He balances obedience to the letter of the Law with an understanding that the supreme law of God is to love your neighbor as yourself.  

 That’s where the matter would have ended, if it were not for God intervening and revealing his will to Joseph.  It happens through a dream, as God sometimes chooses to speak to his people.  

 God’s message to Joseph is “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  We know God is at work when we see things happening that only God can do.  And this would certainly be an example of that because it goes against what we “know” to be true of the world around us.  

 And we can also be reasonably sure that a plan, such as marrying her, comes from God when it doesn’t make sense to us.  That was one of the lessons that I took away from the Experiencing God study: If a plan makes sense to you, it’s probably not from God.  Would it make sense for Joseph to take Mary as his wife, when doing so would do permanent damage to his own reputation in a society that thought so highly of status and honor?  Joseph could not even consider that option until God revealed it.  His dilemma had been whether to divorce Mary publicly or divorce her quietly.  God gave him a choice he couldn’t even consider.

 How many of the plans that we see from God in Scripture make sense from the world’s way of thinking?  God told Moses to go down to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be released from slavery.  Does it make sense to tell one of the most powerful men on earth to just give up a valuable commodity; more than half a million slaves?  God told Joshua to walk around Jericho for seven days.  Is that how you capture an enemy stronghold?  God told Gideon to send home most of his 32,000 soldiers before he went to war against Midian, taking only 300 with him.  Obviously, if you’re going to go fight against an enemy that has you vastly outnumbered, you want every warm body you can find.  But that wasn’t God’s plan.  None of these plans from God make any sense from our perspective, and that’s what tells us that they were God’s plans.  So if God asks you to do something that doesn’t make sense, do it.  God’s power is always sufficient.  But if you think God is asking you to do something that makes perfect sense to you, then you might want to stop and be sure it’s really God’s plan.  

 When we obey God, we experience his presence and his power at work in our lives in new ways.  For Joseph, it was the experience of knowing God in the flesh.  He obeyed God’s plan, took Mary home as his wife, and he experienced the presence of God in Jesus, his son.  God lived in his home in human flesh.

 This is a mystery, for certain.  We call it the Incarnation, from the Latin meaning “in the flesh.”  How does God become flesh?  How does the infinite God take on the limitations of a human body?  Philippians chapter two tells us that Christ “emptied himself of his divine privileges,” he laid aside the full power of divinity, in order to become flesh.  He did not cling to his power or his rights but laid them aside.  And in this he become a model to all of us  who are called to lay aside our rights and empty ourselves and serve God and neighbor humbly in love.

 Maybe the more interesting question is “Why?”  Why did God become flesh?  There was a medieval theologian named Anselm that question this way, “God became a human being because human beings owed a debt to God they could never repay.  So God became a human being to pay a debt that he did not owe because we owed a debt that we could not pay.”  

 In Jesus, we see that God is for us, not against us.  As Hebrews says, he knows all of our weaknesses.  He shared them with us.  He was tempted like us in every way, except that he did not sin.  If anyone could condemn us, it’s Jesus.  There’s that old saying, “Don’t condemn someone until you walk a mile in their shoes.”  Well, Jesus walked for 33 years in our shoes, and he doesn’t condemn us.  Instead he loved us so much to die for us, taking our place on the cross.  Can anything separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ?  No, nothing can.

 So Joseph was obedient to the angelic vision.  He took Mary home to be his wife.  And he provides a good example for us of how we should relate to God and to each other.  While it is important to do “what is right,” we often need to balance our obedience to the letter of the law with the supreme law of God; to love our neighbor as ourselves. We should look for God at work around us.  When we see something happening that can only be explained as God at work, we know it’s his doing.  And if God calls us to do something that doesn’t make sense, we should do it.  His power is always sufficient for his calling.  And finally, as we obey God we experience his presence in our lives in new and more significant ways.  God is known through obedience.   

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