Tradition is a funny thing. It’s human nature to cling to it. In a lot of ways, tradition is what makes us who we are.
We gather in worship today because tradition tells us to:
“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
“Come into God’s presence with singing.”
We light Advent candles all four weeks because tradition tells us to. The first Advent wreath appeared in Germany in 1839. A Lutheran minister working at a mission for children created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart and placed 20 small red candles and 4 large white candles inside the ring. Red candles were lit on weekdays and white candles were lit on Sundays. He adapted it from a Scandinavian practice that helped citizens remember that the long winters would come to an end, that the light would return.
We use evergreens and liturgical colors now, but the purpose is still the same: to remind us that the light is on the way. And on Christmas Eve, the first carol we’ll sing is “O Come, All Ye Faithful” - or at least that will be the case at my church - and while there may be many good reasons for why that has become our habit, the honest truth is, we keep doing it just because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
It’s funny, actually: I too am accustomed to that hymn opening Christmas Eve, that’s how it was when I was growing up, but at my previous church in New York they sang “Once in Royal David’s City” first. Now that’s a beautiful hymn with a beautiful message, and my heart would soar when the choir would sing it so angelically. But it honestly didn’t feel like Christmas to me until after the sermon, when we finally sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
There’s no logic behind this. I know that. But traditions - despite a total lack of scientific evidence to back this up - traditions start to feel a part of us, almost as if they were wrapped up in our DNA.
It makes me wonder what traditions you and your families have. I wonder which traditions you’ve always loved, and which ones you’ve always endured - what things you love and what things you endure for the sake of love. Because that’s the thing about traditions – the healthiest and holiest traditions are always rooted in a sense of deep and abiding love.
Sometimes we forget that. Or at least, sometimes I forget that. For my first Christmas apart from my family, my roommate and I decided we would have our own tree. We brought it home and wrestled it into the stand. And then, well, then there was a disagreement. I grew up with colored lights of all different shapes and sizes all over the tree. My roommate grew up with just a few white lights and silver tinsel. We both had very clear visions of how it was “supposed to be” and those visions did not line up.
That’s why we need Joseph at Christmas. It’s tempting to think we don’t. He is not the part anyone gets excited about playing in a pageant. He has no lines. He seems to just stand there.
My friend Emily has a five-year-old daughter, Clara. Emily is teaching her the Christmas story using a Nativity set. The first time they set it up together, Emily asked Clara to name each of the characters. Now, Clara is a preacher’s kid who has been in church school since before she knew what church school was. She knew Mary and Jesus. She knew the shepherds and the wise men. She knew the animals and the angels. But when Emily pointed to Joseph, Clara was stumped. Finally, she guessed, “Barn boy?”
Poor Joseph. But we really do need him. Because tradition is a good thing; it makes us who we are. But it can also be our undoing. And Joseph might be able to teach us about tradition – both its value and its cost – better than anyone else in all of Scripture.
Joseph’s life starts out in the traditional way: born and raised in Bethlehem, a small town outside of Jerusalem. At some point, his family moved 90 miles north to Nazareth. He came from a distinguished family, from the House of David. He was a carpenter, and he was engaged to Mary.
All of which is well and good, until it isn’t, because as Matthew puts it, “before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” And then we hear, “But her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
It’s necessary here to remember that Joseph lived not only in a different time but in a different culture. Not everything has changed about the way women are treated – not enough, actually – but many things have changed. In the ancient world, pregnancy outside of marriage brought shame and dishonor upon everyone involved. In some cases today, this is still true. Sometimes, but thankfully not always. But again, Joseph - like every other person in the history of the world - Joseph was a product of the time and culture in which he lived. And he knows two things. One: Mary is pregnant. Two: It’s not his.
I think that’s why Matthew tells us so quickly, in the very same breath even, that Joseph is righteous. He is well-schooled in the religious tradition of his time. And tradition taught that if a woman was accused of adultery, the matter was brought to the town elders. If it was determined that her husband was lying, he would be charged a relatively modest fee. But if it was determined that the charge was true, the woman would be taken to the door of her father’s home, where she would be stoned to death. In so doing, the tradition of the law stated, you purged the evil from your midst.
That’s righteousness. Or that’s what righteousness often was and still is thought to be: the purging of evil in order to pursue the good. Joseph could have put Mary to death. Tradition allowed for it, but Matthew tells us he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and he planned to dismiss her quietly.
That means Mary would escape with her life. I can’t help but wonder, though, what that life would have looked like. Pregnancy is something that can only be hidden for so long. She would be on her own, shamed and dishonored for being a single mother. Odds are good that in that time, in that culture, she and her child would not survive long, or if they did, that survival would be painful and perilous. Such a decision could save Joseph though. It would enable him to leave, quietly.
If Joseph had done this, we might not have heard the story of Jesus. At least not the way it comes to us today. It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it? Of course, we remember how Mary says yes. We – or at least I – tend to forget how Joseph has to say yes, too.
We aren’t told much of how his “yes” comes to be, only that he has a dream. A dream in which an angel visits him and says, “Don’t be afraid. Take Mary as your wife. She’s going to have a child, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, but you will be the one to name him – you will be the one to call him Jesus.”
So, for those of you keeping tabs, a “traditional” Holy Family went out the window a good while ago. The vision of what their life was going to be, and the vision of what is now in front of Joseph – those visions don’t line up. At all.
The angel seems rather unconcerned by this though. The angel simply says, “She’s going to have a baby, Joseph, and please – raise it as your own.” In those days, to name a child was to lay claim to that child’s heritage and lineage. In other words, as another preacher puts it, Joseph is being asked “to be willing to believe in the impossible, the claim the scandal, to adopt it and give it his name, to not only accept the whole mess, but to rock it [tenderly to sleep] in his arms.” [Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine]
Joseph is a righteous man. No matter what choice he makes, he will still be righteous. But the angel is asking him to choose what has been described as a higher righteousness. That sort of righteousness is hard to come by because it’s not righteousness that focuses on the law. It focuses on the bigger picture, and it always leans toward love, toward the well-being of others. It pays attention to how our attempts to be righteous can sometimes yield unrighteous consequences. It does not ask, what does the law allow me to do? It asks, what does love compel me to do? What will bring the most light and life into a situation?
It is in this swirl of dreams and consequences that Joseph has to make a decision. He has to balance tradition and law on the one side, and an angel of the Lord seemingly on the other. He has to think about how much one person can handle, what integrity means, and what the bounds of commitment really are, to say nothing of figuring out to whom or to what he is most committed. It is a lot to think about. It’s a big question, whether he will permit God to be born, whether he will stay in the midst of it all and give his good name to a scandalous child.
That Joseph says ‘yes’ to this just might be the biggest miracle recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. It is certainly the biggest miracle you or I have the capacity to replicate. Because God is always coming to us in ways that allow us to say no. We want things to be the way they’re supposed to be. We want life to be the way we’ve always imagined it.
That’s why Joseph might be the Christmas character we need the most this year. The one we strive to emulate most, because Joseph reminds us that the truest and deepest tradition has very little to do with the right carols or the right color lights. The tradition that lies at the very heart of the Christmas story is the question the angel poses, “Will you give your name to God’s latest idea? Will you permit God to be born? Because that is still God’s intention – to be born, to be with us, to be Emmanuel.” [John Cairns, “Claiming the Scandal,” preached December 25, 2003, at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.]
Where else might that angel appear? To whom else might that angel whisper a scandalous invitation? In what moment might that angel tap on your shoulder or change your plans?
Like Joseph, we will have to make a decision. Because the Christ child is waiting to be born. The Christ child is waiting to change the world, if only we will welcome him and make space for him in our lives.
“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but _had no relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Amen.