Sunday Dec 23, 2007 – Mary’s Boy Child
Matthew 1:20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (NIV)
When my mom suddenly died seventeen years ago, our whole family was shocked. She was only 57 years old. Years of smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day finally caught up with her and she took a massive heart attack, which killed her instantly. My dad had just stepped out to go to the library, which was just a five minute walk from our house. He was gone for 20 minutes, choosing books for my mom to read. When he arrived back, he found her slumped to the floor and there was nothing he could do. He called the emergency services and when the paramedics arrived, they just confirmed what he already knew. She was gone.
The effect on our family was a mixture of shock and relief. We were shocked because of the suddenness of her death, but we were relieved that her years of physical pain and mental torment were over. Mom was in a better place, surrounded by loved ones and angels. Her days were over and our lives had to go on.
All my brothers and sisters had their own families and partners to look after, except for my youngest sister Jane. She was fifteen years old when our mother died. She was the only one of six children who was still living in our family home. She missed mom terribly, but the rest of us didn’t realize that. We all reckoned that Jane was old enough to take care of herself. We didn’t know that she felt a great emptiness in her life. We didn’t understand that she had suffered a great loss.
Just after she turned sixteen, Jane dropped a bombshell on our whole family. She announced that she was pregnant. She wasn’t going to marry the father and she would look after the child on her own. She would be a young unmarried mother and she was determined to keep the baby. Having an abortion or putting the baby up for adoption was not something that she was willing to go through. She was pregnant, she wanted the baby, she wanted to love the child unconditionally and fill the emptiness of her heart with the baby in her womb.
My brothers and sisters all wondered how our Dad would react. We could picture some sort of Victorian melodrama occurring with Jane carrying her child in her arms and being forced out into a snowstorm for bringing shame upon our whole family. But my Dad stepped up to the plate and handled the situation beautifully. He accepted Jane’s situation lovingly and never once criticized her for her. He welcomed his grand-daughter Daytona and was proud to hold her in his arms on the day she born. It never crossed his mind to abandon his youngest daughter Jane. And, because of that paternal acceptance, Jane, despite being so young, became a marvelous mother.
Why am I telling you all of this? It’s because I find a parallel with my dad’s response to Jane’s situation and Joseph’s treatment of Mary.
Mary was just a teenager, betrothed but not fully married, who was expecting a baby. She was a child having a child and in her culture it was a recipe for disaster. People still belonged to the Stone Age in Mary’s time – in other words, a young girl in Mary’s condition could be stoned to death for bringing shame to her betrothed husband, and all the families involved. The whole community would be enraged by such a disgrace. She would either become an outcast, destined to live her life as a prostitute on the margins of society, or, she would be cut to pieces, bashed and crushed to death with rock and stones. The outlook for Mary and Mary’s boy child was not wonderful. Whatever happened to her and the baby all depended upon Joseph’s response to the situation.
His initial reaction was to send her away quietly and not bring attention to her situation. Either he was trying to avoid public humiliation or there was something else more powerful than the avoidance of shame. I think that Joseph truly loved Mary and despite receiving bad news about her pregnancy, he did not want any harm to come to her. He may not have been the father of the child she was carrying, but he still loved Mary sufficiently to protect her from the religious zealots who would probably want to kill her. Theological bigots and spiritual fanatics would have demanded that Mary’s impurity be purged from their midst. They would not have listened to any story about angels or the promised messiah. All that they would have seen was a pregnant teenager who sullied the community’s reputation and totally disrespected the laws of God.
Sixty one years ago today in 1946, one year after the end of World War II, the University of Tennessee issued a statement on behalf of their basketball team. They were due to play Duquesne University, but they refused to do so. Why? Because Duquesne had informed UT that they might use a black player in their game. Instead of recognizing that times has changed and that during the war, people of every color across the United States had fought together to rid the world of a fascist monster, our beloved University allowed the bigots and racists to dictate the sports policy of our basketball team. The game was never played because racism had sadly won the day. No one was willing to show acceptance and adopt an attitude of gratitude for the freedom that had been won for all the people in the world. Thankfully today, when our UT basketball team plays there are people of all colors on the team and amongst the crowd. Racists may still exist, but their voices are not adhered to anymore.
Joseph’s love for Mary caused him to do what was morally right rather than being religiously right. He wanted to make sure that Mary and her child would be given a chance to survive. He did not want to cause any fuss or shame; he was disturbed by the situation, but he was perturbed.
And then God did a beautiful thing that shows us how much He loved Joseph. He sent an angel to Joseph in a special dream, who told him not to be afraid and confirmed all that Mary had told him. God loved Joseph so deeply that he didn’t want him to be disturbed by the situation. God took time to reach Joseph in a unique and individual way, where no one could distract or dissuade Joseph – in his dreams. Think about it folks – the most isolated time that we all experience is when we sleep. We are at our most personal time when we dream. I cannot dream for you and you cannot dream for me. We dream alone – it’s that sacred time when our souls are in a holy state where time, space, and matter cannot touch us.
God isolates Joseph in his dreams and helps him to confront his worries. The boy child that Mary is carrying must have a protector. If Mary is cast out, who will keep her and the child safe? And how will Joseph be able to live with himself if he is the agent of their abandonment. This dream, this wonderful, miraculous dream is a life changing moment for Joseph and much more besides. The entire history of the whole world rests upon Joseph accepting guardianship over Mary’s Boy Child.
Way back in 1776, six months into the War of Independence, Thomas Paine wrote those powerfully inspiring words: “these are the times that try men’s souls.” On this very day, Thomas Paine’s words were printed as a pamphlet and distributed throughout the Thirteen Colonies of the newly formed United States. After reading it, General Washington ordered that the pamphlet be read to all of the army under his command. It was a glorious success in rallying the troops. They were in the midst of a dire situation. They need something to give them a reason, a purpose, a vision of why they were fighting.
Close you eyes and listen to the words of the first paragraph. Picture yourself as either a trooper in Washington’s Army fighting for independence, or as a woman struggling to keep her family safe during the uncertainty of war.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us – that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right not only to tax but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then there is no such thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.”
Those words inspired thousands of men to re-enlist in the Continental army and to keep the struggle for independence alive. The new fledged United States would be protected by the individual commitment of patriots all across the country and keep the war going until freedom, which Thomas Paine called a “celestial article” was won.
Joseph’s soul underwent the same kind of trials and tribulation. He either had to enlist into God’s service and become Mary’s protector, or he could freely choose to abandon her completely. Before he decides this, the angel in his dream tells Joseph that the child will be called Jesus which means Savior, Deliverer and Liberator all rolled into one. The stakes are now higher than before. Joseph will no longer be just looking after Mary and her boy child: the whole nation of Israel now depended upon his acceptance of this crucial role.
Now why didn’t God just take over everything, cast Joseph aside and surround Mary and Jesus with thousands of angels to protect them? Why is God giving Joseph the opportunity to do something that He could easily do with His Almighty power? This is where God works in mysterious and poetical ways. It all goes back to the Garden of Eden. Eve causes humankind to fall into sin by firstly yielding to temptation. When Mary accepts God’s child Jesus in her womb, Eve’s sin is eradicated and God redeems woman-kind. Adam’s sin was not so much that he accepted the forbidden fruit from Eve in the garden, but that he failed to protect her from the serpent and morally abandoned her. When Joseph accepts the role of protecting Mary and Jesus, Adam’s sin of forsaking his wife is eradicated and God redeems man-kind. It’s what I call gender redemption. I guess God would call it the balancing of history, and the reconciling of human-kind.
Christmas is less than two days away and when we gather with our friends and families, we will remember Mary’s Boy Child with all of the love and adoration that we can muster. But let’s also take time to remember Christ’s earthly parents and how their decisions to accept God’s will changed the world and changed our lives. Their devotion to one another and their dedication to bring God’s child into the world; their courage in the face of humiliation and shame; their faith in God’s word and His promises are great examples of how simple, lowly people can aspire to overcoming their circumstances, and applying noble characteristics of duty and responsibility, devotion and respectability that make all the difference to their dire situation and to the lives of all those around them.
We thank God for the blessings of our salvation through Jesus Christ, but we are also grateful to Mary and Joseph for accepting the roles as parents to the Boy Child who would restore everlasting hope to the entire world. In Christ’s Name. Amen.