Everyone loves a love story. Whether it’s a book, a movie, a play, or a TV show, fictional or real life, successful, unrequited, or denied, we love love stories. Maybe it’s because each of us has one. The author Julian Barnes wrote in one of his many books, “Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. Sometimes, it makes it more real. Everyone [has their love story]. It’s the only story.”
Love stories that entertain follow a typical pattern. Two people meet. They fall in love, sometimes in spite of significant obstacles or differences between them. Just as they realize that they are made for each other, some crisis arises that threatens to keep them apart. The problem is resolved, the lovers are reunited, and everyone lives happily ever after. These love stories are packed with emotion—sometimes too much and too predictably.
The story in our passage for today is a love story, too, but it’s not that kind of love story. There’s no emotion. There are no details. We don’t know anything about how Mary and Joseph met or how they felt about each other or about what was happening. Matthew’s account reads more like a police report than the kind of love story we enjoy reading or watching. That may explain why so many books and songs and movies try to fill in gaps. They take great liberties with Scripture, of course, because they have to imagine the details the Gospel writers left out. But they can be a lot more satisfying than Matthew’s bare-bones report.
The novel Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes is a lovely example of this. Holmes introduces us to Mary as a girl and her friend Joseph, as they grow from childhood friendship to teenage attraction to full-grown love. We learn in detail how Mary and Joseph reacted to Mary’s pregnancy and how their family and friends took the news—news that threatened to derail their romance, and even put Mary’s life in jeopardy. It explains how the tragedy was averted and Mary and Joseph were married after all.
The novel follows the love story pattern pretty well, except for the end. The story ends with Mary and Joseph facing the truth that their infant son’s life will not be easy and will likely end with a violent execution. Their loving marriage will go on, but the happily-ever-after ending is replaced by the heart-rending knowledge of what the future will hold. The author imagines all the details Matthew leaves out and, as poignant as the novel is, offers a very good love story.
Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded a song about how Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy and how he reacted. “The Cherry Tree Carol” is a traditional carol written in the 1500s, and it got Peyton into trouble when she played it for her 5th-grade class during Show-and-Tell. It goes like this:
When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
he married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.
One day as they went walking, all in the garden green,
there were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen.
Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.”
Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he:
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”
Then up spoke baby Jesus, from out of Mary’s womb,
“Bow down, ye tallest tree, that my mother might have some.”
So bent down the tallest tree to touch Mary’s hand;
said she, “Oh, look now, Joseph, I have cherries at command.”
Apparently, Peyton’s teacher thought the song added a few details that weren’t appropriate for 10-year-olds, even if it was about Jesus.
Matthew’s love story is entirely different. His account may not be the stuff of Harlequin romances and Hallmark movies, but it is a love story nonetheless. It’s a love story that sets the stage for the much greater love story he will tell in his Gospel—the story of about what it means to love God and to love other, and about our God who loves us.
Matthew begins with a report about what has already happened, kind of like the recap we see at the beginning of a TV episode. Mary had been engaged to Joseph, and before they had lived together as husband and wife, Mary had become pregnant. Then, Matthew lets us in on something Joseph doesn’t know yet: Mary has become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.
At this point, Joseph only knows that his fiancé is pregnant, and he’s not the father. We don’t know how he came by this information, or how he reacted to it. Did Mary tell him, as we sing in the Cherry Tree carol? Did Mary’s father plead for Mary’s life, as the novel describes? Was Joseph angry, outraged, disbelieving, hurt? We don’t know these things. All we know is that, in any scenario Joseph can imagine, Mary’s no longer a virgin, either by choice or by force, she’s pregnant, and her child has been fathered by another man.
Joseph’s engagement to Mary was as binding as marriage, and the evidence all points to adultery. That leaves Joseph with a decision to make. There were laws in Deuteronomy that applied to this situation, and the consequences were severe. The letter of the law specified that, in all but one scenario, a woman found to have been with a man before marriage was to be stoned to death. By Matthew’s time, the rabbis had softened this somewhat, but the punishment was still severe and humiliating.
Joseph could go ahead with the marriage, but that would have called Joseph’s own integrity into question. It would suggest that he had disobeyed the law and taken advantage of Mary before their wedding. His last option was to divorce her. The law allowed for a man to divorce his wife simply because he found something objectionable about her. A written notice signed by two witnesses ended the marriage, and the woman was free to remarry.
But Joseph had a problem—a love problem. In our translation, Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man. Other translations say he was a just man, a noble man, a man who always did what was right, or even a kind-hearted man. But the righteousness Matthew ascribes to Joseph had nothing to do with kindness or compassion. It meant that Joseph was someone who closely followed the Law of Moses.
The problem arises because Joseph apparently is kind and compassionate. He doesn’t want Mary to be harmed or disgraced. But, his kindness is at odds with his righteousness. He knows what the law says, but his heart is telling him to do something different. Righteousness demands that he shape his actions according to God’s will. But, is God’s will reflected in these harsh laws?
This is where we first learn that Joseph’s story is a love story. It may be that he loves Mary, but Matthew doesn’t tell us that. What Matthew does tell us is that Joseph loves God, and he shows it by his righteousness—by faithfully following God’s law. The guiding principle of his life is to wholly conform his thinking, feeling, and acting to the will of the God he loves. But what do you do when the law you have treasured your whole life conflicts with a feeling that God’s will may be larger than the letter of the law?
This was an important question for Matthew’s community, too. They, too, had to wrestle with their identities as faithful Jews. Judaism itself was changing, as a result of the Temple being destroyed by the Romans. But, more importantly, they also had Jesus’ teachings, which emphasized the spirit of the law, not the letter. Jesus repeatedly says in Matthew, “You have heard it said but I say to you…” as he points his followers to the heart of God’s law, which is justice, and compassion, and love. Matthew’s community was trying to figure out how to balance the law of the God they loved with the teachings of the Son of the God they loved.
We often find ourselves in the same position as Matthew’s community. In a world that calls all the comfortable old rules into question, we find ourselves wondering, “How can we live faithfully? How can we abide by Jesus’ teachings when we’re confronted with so many questions and situations that were unimaginable in the 1st century? When is it more righteous to look beyond the letter of the law to the love which is at its heart?” This is our love story, too: we love God and, like Joseph, we struggle to discern the will of the God and to conform our thinking, feeling, and acting to God’s will, as it was revealed in Jesus.
Matthew tells us what Joseph decides. He decides to divorce Mary, sparing her public disgrace. But, just when he makes the decision, a divine messenger appears in a dream. I always feel a little sorry for Joseph about this. I imagine him wrestling and struggling and agonizing over what he should do. Finally, he makes up his mind, and I picture him falling exhausted into a restless sleep. And then the angel appears with instructions. I’ve always wondered why God didn’t just save Joseph all the worry and send the angel earlier.
I don’t think Matthew includes this as a random detail. Instead, there’s a lesson that’s part of Joseph’s love story—and ours. The lesson is that there is blessing in the struggle itself. The struggle forces us to confront our assumptions about what God wants. It moves us to ponder God’s desires, and so helps us to know God better. It would be easy to fall back on our usual habits and defaults. But when we love someone, our love is deepened when we make an ongoing effort to know them, to know what they desire, and to do it. We may not always come up with the right answer, but the struggle alone is worth the effort.
So, the heavenly messenger appears to Joseph with instructions. Instead of divorcing Mary, the angel says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” When the angel appeared to Mary, the angel told her to not be afraid. But the fear that the angel addresses in Joseph is different. It’s the fear of displeasing God by his actions. Joseph, who has been known as a righteous man, was about to make himself a formerly-righteous man by not following the law. But the angel reassures him. He need not be afraid of this, because the angel’s instructions will lead him into a righteousness he never could have imagined.
The angel continues, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” This baby is not the result of a sinful encounter. He’s not even the product of a union between a human and God, as Greek gods were often reported to be. This baby is from the Holy Spirit. In other words, the power of the Spirit caused this pregnancy to miraculously occur. Mary is still the virgin she was when she was betrothed to Joseph. Legally there is nothing for Joseph to fear.
But still, there is this baby to contend with. The angel goes on, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.” Joseph will name him Jesus. Either the father or mother could name a child, but when the man did the naming, the act carried extra weight. It meant that the man formally accepted the child as his own—either as his biological offspring or as his adopted child. The angel has instructed Joseph to treat this baby as his own—to protect him, raise him, teach him, and love him.
The angel has one last thing to add: the meaning of Jesus’ name. “You, Joseph, are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” His name would connect him to the mission for which he was sent. The name Jesus was a form of the name Joshua, which literally meant “God helps,” but had also come to mean “God saves.” Jesus’ mission was to save his people—all people, including us—from our sins. He would save us by his forgiveness in our repentance and help us move toward our perfection in love.
There was another connection embedded in Jesus’ name. The name Jesus was very common among boys at the time, like Jim or John or Bob is for us. This was important. Joseph’s adopted son wouldn’t have a name that set him apart—a name that advertised his Messiahship, royalty, or divinity. He would bear a common name that connected him to the common people he was born to serve and save and love.
After reporting the angel’s words, Matthew adds some commentary of his own. He explains how Jesus is part of the God’s entire love story, as told in the whole of Scripture. Matthew reminds his readers of a story in the history of Israel, when King Ahaz was fearful of the enemy armies at his doorstep. Isaiah spoke of a sign that God would give to reassure Ahaz that all would be well: a young woman who was already pregnant would give birth to a son, who would be named “Immanuel,” and by the time he was eating solid food, the threat would be gone. Like that earlier Immanuel, Jesus would be the ultimate sign of God’s presence and love. For Matthew and his community, who were so concerned about living according to God’s will as it was told in Scripture, the birth of Jesus was entirely consistent with God’s overarching love story.
The Chrismon on our bulletin today is called the Calvary Cross, and it’s a fitting emblem of the love story we are part of. It’s formed with the familiar Latin cross sitting atop three steps. The steps represent faith, hope, and love.
God loves us so much that God has provided us with a path to the righteousness which we desire but can’t achieve on our own. God so loved the world that the Holy Spirit caused a child to be conceived, a child who would be called Jesus and who would save us from our sins. When we place our lives in the hands of Jesus, we are given the gift of faith—a gift of trust in him. Our faith points us toward the hope he offers—the hope we have because we know that we have been redeemed and made righteous in him. Our righteousness is made possible by Jesus’ love for us—a love so great that it led him to the cross. That love comes full circle as we love God and others in response.
Matthew’s story of Joseph is a love story. Or, rather, it is the continuation of a love story—God’s love story. God created everything and everyone out of God’s gracious love, and because of that love, Jesus was born to be our salvation. This great love story will continue until Christ comes again. We are part of that love story, as both lovers and beloved. This is the story that guides every other story in our lives. As Julian Barnes said, “Everyone [has their love story].” For us, who love Jesus, God’s love story is our only story. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young