Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 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, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes about difficult decisions and God with us. My children would say this is timely because, well, the world cup is on this morning. Coming to church was a difficult decision. If you happen to see the score, please don’t say anything. I promised we would watch it later. The difficult decision comes from Joseph’s story in Matthew. Joseph was heartbroken and faced an agonizing choice.

How do you face difficult choices? Maybe you prefer to go inward, to quiet other voices and listen for your own deep wisdom. Maybe, like me, you like to talk it out with lots of people, to get as many perspectives as you can. And I bet, like me, your hard decisions show up in strange dreams. Something like a dream where all of your relatives are inside a house, laughing and eating. Meanwhile, you’re trying to sleep on a cot in the parking lot of the mall, and wondering why they’ve locked you out of the house. Was there any sign in that dream, or was it just anxiety?

All of us have tossed and turned over a hard choice. Most of us have eaten, or starved, or worried our way through a heart-rending decision. That is just where we find Joseph.

Our reading from Matthew is a preview of the birth of Jesus, told from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph is a quiet character in the Christmas story. He is virtually absent from the gospels, except here. The Christmas story that we tell almost always focuses on Mary, who is full of wonder and awe. But in the story that Matthew tells, if we listen carefully, we will find a much more human Joseph and Mary, with Joseph wrestling through a heartbreaking decision just as you and I do.

When Joseph learned that Mary was going to have a child, they were engaged, but Joseph knew the child wasn’t his. That would be enough to deeply upset and probably end most any engagement. But for Joseph, in that culture, it was even more complicated. When a couple was engaged, they were in a legally binding arrangement between, not only themselves, but also their parents.

The way the law was written, if a person was unfaithful to the one to whom he or she was engaged, it was the same as adultery. It was a breach of trust as deep and real as what would happen in a marriage – and the consequences were real too. The legal consequences could have meant death for Mary, that she could be stoned. Even if she lived, there were deep social consequences for her and her family: lasting shame and alienation in the small, conservative town of Nazareth.

This is what Joseph had to decide. Did he publicly accuse Mary of being unfaithful, with all the legal and social consequences that would entail, perhaps even her life? Or did he choose to forgive, and try to forget? Marry her and raise a child that was not his own? Like us, Joseph probably worked through his decision with advice from others, listening for his own inner voice, strange dreams through sleepless nights.

Eventually, he decided to do what was both principled and merciful: he would quietly set the marriage contract aside. It would be like a divorce. Mary would not be harmed. Her family would be spared the greater shame. Perhaps she would leave and make a life in another place, and tell a new story. Perhaps Joseph would find another wife. They would both always wonder, what if?

As we sit with Joseph in his heart-rending decision, we may well remember difficult decisions of our own, and sometimes decisions we wish we could make again. I recently came across a book by Daniel Pink called The Power of Regret, based on a large study he conducted a few years ago on the kinds of regrets we have and why. It turns out that regret is the most common human emotion after love, and it’s rooted in decisions that we make to do things, or more often, to not do things.

As part of each chapter in the book, Pink includes quotes from people who filled out the long-form questions, where they described what they regret. Their answers are a window into the decisions that make up our lives, and that, often, we wish we could make again.

A 43-year-old woman in Maryland wrote, “I regret that I let a college counselor convince me that I didn’t have what it takes to be a doctor. I wish I had believed in myself and at least tried.”

A 72-year-old in Florida wrote, “When my husband was hospitalized just before his death, I wanted to climb into bed next to him and cuddle, but I didn’t. How I wish I had done that.”

A 33-year-old in Virginia wrote, “I regret that I didn’t tell my family sooner that I was gay. I lived with the secret for so long.”

And this, from a 52-year-old in South Africa, “My deepest regret of my 52 years of life is having lived it fearfully. I have been afraid of failing and looking foolish, and as a result I did not do so many things I wish I had done.”

Every one of those decisions was difficult in its own way. Sometimes decisions are so big we can see them coming: get married, go to graduate school, have children. And sometimes they take us by surprise: a chance to take a trip, or start a business, or tell the truth. It’s only when we look back that we see what was at stake in what we did or didn’t do.

Joseph knew what was at stake. His decision would change the trajectory of his life and Mary’s. And just when he had settled in his mind what to do, an angel from God appeared in a dream and gave him a promise.

Do not be afraid,” the angel said. The child is from the Holy Spirit, and you name him, Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Then the angel gave the child another name. You might have missed it. It’s a name that was from long ago in Israel’s history, one that the prophet Isaiah had spoken hundreds of years before. “They shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”

God with us. This is when Matthew’s Christmas story comes home. The Savior to be born will be God-with-us. This is the promise the angel gave to Joseph, the promise that gave him the courage to change his mind. Joseph was wrong in the first thing he decided to do, to be just and merciful. But the promise of God-with-us opened a new possibility for him and for Mary. The promise of God with us gave Joseph the courage to put his doubts aside, to make a bold choice, and to embark on the risky journey of being husband to Mary and father to Jesus.

You and I are not in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, exactly. We do not stand at the center of human history, and we are not asked to bring the Savior into the world. And yet, we do stand in the center of our own stories, and we are able to welcome the Savior – God with us – into our lives, including our difficult decisions, wounds, and fears. God did not choose to be born into the family of a fairy-tale princess and a business success story. God chose to be born into the life of a poor, unwed young woman and to a man with lots of doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed an angel to help make it happen.

This morning we are one week away from Christmas. If you aren’t already in the spirit, this is the week to do it: to sing Christmas songs, to light candles and look at lights, to wrap or send the final gifts, and to prepare to experience as much joy, hope, and excitement of this season as your heart can hold. Yet, we also know that there is heartache in this season too.

Some of us are embarrassed by our struggles; we wonder whether our doubts are unfaithful, or somehow if we are unworthy. Some of us feel the weight of decisions we are facing, or regret over decisions we wish we could make again. Some of us are grieving the absence of one we love. Some couples feel disconnected from each other, some kids wonder what the future holds for them, some elders wonder the same thing. Some of us just long to feel love and a sense that we are accepted, with all our quirks, our mistakes, and even our regrets.

This is why the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective is a word of hope for us. Not only do we get with Joseph in the heart-rending decision he faced, we also get to hear the good news that gave him hope. God is with us. God is really with us.

God is coming to be with you just as we are. Not as you know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will some day be, but with us as you are – today, in this moment.

At the birth of Christ, God chose to be with, use, and bless the lives of Joseph and Mary. So, also, God comes in Christ to be with, use, and bless us by God’s own presence.

God is really with us, really and truly as and where we are. In the word read and the word proclaimed. In songs sung. In prayers whispered. In signs and sacraments. In love given and love expressed. In the face of the other and every other who bear’s God’s image.

Emmanuel. Boy of Mary. Child of Joseph. God with us.

[1] I’m grateful to David Lose’s insightful pastoral analysis of this text on his blog In the Meantime.
[1] Daniel Pink, The Power of Regret: How Looking Back Moves us Forward

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina


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