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Touched By Grace: Family Ties, Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38

Family Ties

Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38


Johnny Carson, former host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, once offered this cynical take on Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”[i] Family is hard. Being a family is hard. Staying connected to family is hard. Visiting family can be hard. For kids, parents are hard. For parents, kids are hard. Just being a part of a family can be hard.


Even in the Bible, there are no perfect families. In his book, Like Dew Your Youth, Eugene Peterson writes:


Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable reference to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy.


Adam and Eve are no sooner out of the garden than their children get in a fight. Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth are forced to devise a strategy to hide their father’s drunken shame. Jacob and Esau are bitter rivals and sow seeds of discord that bear centuries of bitter harvest. Joseph and his brothers bring changes on the themes of sibling rivalry and parental bungling. Jesse’s sons, brave and loyal in service of their country, are capricious and cruel to their youngest brother. David is unfortunate in both wives and children – he is a man after God’s own heart and Israel’s greatest king, but he cannot manage his own household.


The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption.


Jesus was a part of one of those broken, in-need-of-redemption families. He wasn’t in need of redemption, he brought redemption. But his family was just as broken and in need of redemption as any other family.


Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of Christ on Christmas. Now, we know that Jesus wasn’t literally born in our month of December. We don’t know exactly when he was born, but subtle cues in the text would point toward more of a late spring or early summer date. The early Christians chose to celebrate his coming in conjunction with a major Roman festival so that their at times illegal celebration of Christ wouldn’t draw too much attention. The point is, we’re celebrating THAT he came, not necessarily WHEN he came.


Advent simply means “to come” or “arrival.” The season of Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and those four weeks are marked by the four Sundays of Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. As a pastor, I typically encourage the church to do less, not more, during Advent, to help create space to think, to pray, to experience, and to meditate on this special season.


I tend to lead the church toward pausing Bible studies and youth group and things like that during this season to help create that space, instead of trying to add more and really run people ragged. Our food pantry and community meal continue, as does our worship and Sunday school for kids, but other than that, I like to see us creating space for reflection and really embracing this time of preparation. The goal isn’t to create space for cooking and cleaning and shopping and decorating and things like that, although we need time for those things. It’s to create a little margin for prayer and reflection and just being. Time to sit and put on some Christmas music and wonder at the miracle of Jesus – God with us.


So today, let’s take a look at Jesus’ family. Most specifically, his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph. Turn with me first to Luke 1:26-38.


Mary and Joseph were a betrothed couple from Nazareth, in Galilee. Nazareth wasn’t a great place. If we were to step back in time and visit Nazareth at the time of Jesus, we would see a very small village settled by a few families. Only about 400 people lived there. That’s about 1/3 the size of Central High School. Everyone literally knew everyone. It was high up in the hills and positioned to be a good place to watch over the whole valley, so of course Rome put a garrison there. Which meant the town became a place to be avoided. And it was out of the way, so it was easy to avoid.


There wasn’t much going on there. When family member’s said, “Hey, let’s go visit Uncle Joseph and Aunt Mary in Nazareth,” the kids wouldn’t be very excited. “Aww man. This sucks. They don’t even have internet up there, and there’s no cell signal. And the people there are weird. Nothing good comes out of Nazareth.” That’s where Mary and Joseph are from. They’re poor. The wealthy didn’t live there. They aren’t important. The important didn’t live there. They spoke with a Galilean accent. And they’re betrothed.


So Jesus’ birth was surrounded by controversy from the beginning. Getting married in their time was a two step process, and both steps were significant. The first step was the betrothal. It was way more significant than our modern engagement. In that time and culture, a betrothal was a binding contract that a couple and their families entered into in the presence of witnesses. A betrothed couple was considered married, but not yet living together. Today, an engagement can be broken without any legal work being done, usually just returning the ring. In that day, a betrothal could only be broken by an actual legal divorce, which was often done with the entire community as witnesses, although it COULD be done privately, with only two witnesses. But the two witnesses were a requirement.


So after the betrothal, the groom would go and begin preparing a place for he and his bride to begin their life together and raise their family. And after about a year of being betrothed and his working on that, another ceremony would happen. In that ceremony, the groom and his friends would go – in a joyous procession with a lot of fanfare – to her father’s house and get her, and bring her back to their house for the wedding supper, which would include members of the community (if the family could afford it) as well as the both the bride and groom’s family and friends. And that celebration could last for days. It was then that the marriage was physically consummated. But they were legally a couple from the time of the betrothal somewhere around a year before all of that, and it could only be terminated by legal divorce even then.


And there weren’t a lot of grounds for divorce. But one of the primary ones was sexual unfaithfulness. Of course, the husband was expected to be physically faithful to his wife, just as she was expected to be physically faithful to him, but it’s harder to prove that a man hasn’t been faithful unless he’s caught in the act. With a woman, there is often some physical evidence. And sexual unfaithfulness was grounds for divorce, both during the betrothal and after the marriage was consummated.


In the Old Testament law, if a woman was found to not be sexually pure, she could be stoned to death. But the Romans had abolished Jewish death penalties, as they did for all of the people’s they ruled. Only the Roman government could sentence someone to death. That’s why Pilate, the Roman governor, was the only one who could sentence Jesus to death. And we aren’t sure how often Old Testament Jews actually carried out that death penalty. We do know that in Jesus’ day, they usually just got a legal certificate of divorce and went their separate ways. But they often made the divorce a humiliating public spectacle for the woman and it would be pretty likely that she would be subject to severe physical abuse behind the scenes by her father and any brothers she might have.


And Mary is pregnant. Even in the ancient world, people knew how that happened. So before Mary knows she’s pregnant, the angel Gabriel appears to her and explains the whole thing. Look at Vv. 28-33.


Of course the first thing he tells her is to not be afraid. There’s suddenly an angel standing in front of her. But it isn’t his appearance that makes her afraid. It’s his words. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” If angels, messengers from the throne room of God, DID appear to people, it certainly wasn’t to poor Galileans living in Nazareth. How is she favored by God? Did God even know she existed? Those were the kinds of questions that would have been going through her mind. But it was the words Gabriel was about to say that would really rock her.


You’re going to find yourself pregnant, even though you’ve been good and virtuous and have never been with a man. Everyone’s going to be thinking you’ve been messing around, but don’t worry about that. Just go with it. Because this baby isn’t just any baby. He’s the Son of the Most High. He’s the Son of God.


And she doubles down. “No way! I’ve never been with a man.” No, you haven’t Mary. And that’s actually the point. This baby is quite literally going to be a gift of God for you, and through you to the whole world, to all people everywhere and every when. He’ll be the only truly holy baby ever born.


Mary and Joseph had been making plans. Plans for their home. Plans for their family. Plans for their life together. And all of that had just gone out the window. God had put his plan for her life in motion, and communicated it to her, and now she had a decision to make. God wasn’t forcing this on her. Look at V. 38. None of this makes any sense … not physically and scientifically and medically, not socially, not in any way. This is like the dumbest thing I could do. But okay God. “May it be to me according to your word.” Those just might be the most faith-filled words in all of Scripture. Okay God, I’ll do what you ask. I’m in. She wasn’t just trusting that God could do what he said he was going to do – a pregnancy without the involvement of a man. She wasn’t trusting that God would bring her through it. That he would get her through the ordeal that she knew was coming.


When God communicates his will, and we obey, the impossible becomes possible, no matter how fantastic it may seem. And God was already at work around Mary, setting the stage to bring her through this. Turn with me to Matthew 1:18-25. Let’s look now at Joseph, her betrothed.


Mary had gone away to be with her elderly relative Elizabeth, who was literally the only person in the world who might understand, because she had gotten pregnant, albeit with the help of her husband, as a gift from God. And Mary was with Elizabeth for about 3 months. Three months in which there is a baby growing in Mary’s womb that Joseph has no idea about. He’s just doing what betrothed husbands do – getting things ready for their life together and the wedding supper. When Mary got home, was she showing? Maybe. Three months plus travel to and from Elizabeth’s home. So she was in her second trimester. Matthew just tells us that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” He doesn’t say who it was who noticed. But in a town of 400, word traveled fast.


And Joseph knew he hadn’t been with her. His beloved is pregnant, and it isn’t by him. What must he be thinking? Feeling? The one he loved hadn’t been faithful to him. She’d been with another man. Recently. After the betrothal.


But he’s a good guy. Actually, he’s way more than a good guy. Matthew tells us that he was “a just man.” The idea there isn’t that he’s just a good guy or basically kind. It means that he is very careful in his observation of the Jewish law. He kept the law very carefully. He is a legitimately righteous man. Not perfect. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” right? But he is legitimately righteous. He’s the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to be betrothed to. But he isn’t legalistic. He isn’t arrogant. He’s kind. And he doesn’t want Mary to be shamed in front of the community, so he decides he will divorce her quietly, with just the two witnesses, who could be chosen from within their families. Still, he wasn’t the kind of guy who would be married to someone who had been unfaithful to him.


But God is at work, protecting his plan, and protecting Mary. He sends Gabriel to Joseph in a dream. And Gabriel explains the whole thing to Joseph too. Look at Vv. 20-23. Just like with Mary, God tells Joseph not to fear. Why? Because he’s asking them to do something really hard. Not just be parents. Yes, that’s hard, but they had likely been planning on that. It was the WAY in which they were to become parents for the first time that was unusual. Actually, it was beyond unusual. And it was going to be a hard and lonely path.


So God tells Joseph that Mary is still pure and virtuous, in spite of what everyone else thought, and in spite of how things obviously seemed. And he tells Joseph what to name the child. But just as significantly, he tells Joseph TO name the child. To make the child his, by right, if not by birth. YOU name the child, Joseph. YOU raise this child Joseph. This child that everyone else things is some other guy’s baby. YOU raise him.


And what does Joseph do? Look at Vv. 24-25. He takes her as his wife. We have to learn to align our lives with God’s plan as he leads. And when God communicates his will, and we obey, the impossible becomes possible, no matter how fantastic it may seem.


I wonder what Joseph and Mary thought as they walked from her father’s house to his, ready for the wedding feast. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion celebrated with family and friends. But Mary was already pregnant when she made that walk with Joseph. Were there any family and friends? We don’t know. But look at what the people say to Jesus in John 8:41. “They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father – even God.”


They’ve been pushing back against him, arguing with him, but to this point their attacks had been more formal – disputing his claims, condemning his words, and even plotting to get rid of him. But now, they resort to personal insults. And what is the insult? The insult aimed at a now ADULT Jesus. “WE were not born of sexual immorality.” What’s the insinuation? That he was. Even into his adulthood, those rumors, the scandal, the scandal of his birth, was known and used against him. Born in Nazareth, to unwed parents, under circumstances that even if explained, most wouldn’t understand. Or accept.


Birth circumstances that would follow Jesus throughout his life. And then there’s his family’s relationship to his ministry in adulthood. Going back to Eugene Peterson’s description of families in the Bible, he says this: “The picture in Mark, chapter three, strikes us as typical rather than exceptional: Jesus is active, healing the sick, comforting the distressed, and fulfilling his calling as Messiah, while his mother and brothers are outside trying to get him to come home, quite sure that he is crazy. Jesus’ family criticizes and does not appreciate. It misunderstands and does not comprehend.”


Yes, family is hard. But it is also one of the primary ways God shapes us, transforms us, and even in ways we cannot expect, blesses us. Complicated relationships. Difficult people. Challenging circumstances. But also godly, faithful people in the midst of all of it. Broken people following Jesus. Think about this: Jesus was born into incredibly difficult circumstances. A birth narrative that, while absolutely and unequivocally true, no one outside of his family would understand. Or believe. A hometown that was about as backward and disconnected and looked down upon as you could find. And that same family pushing back against his ministry at the height of its popularity. Think Jesus doesn’t, or can’t understand you and your circumstances? Think again. So when God says, “This is the direction I’m taking you,” trust him to work out the details and rest in that, even when everyone else laughs. Let’s pray.

[i] Johnny Carson, during an episode of The Tonight Show