Many Christmases ago, after singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” service after service after service and after having a distracted parent spill hot wax on my hand, service after service after service, on Christmas morning Ali and I took our boys into New York City to see the tree in Rockefeller Center,to gaze into the windows on 34th Street, and to run after the boys as they ran wide-eyed through FAO Schwarz.
We were nearly into the city, at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, on the Jersey side, when outside my window I spotted a large billboard depicting the manger and the magi making their way by the star over Bethlehem.
Only on this billboard were the words “Myth “and “Reason,” spelled out in all caps: “You KNOW it’s a MYTH. This season celebrate REASON.”
My son, Gabriel, saw it, or saw me staring at it. He pointed at it through the window and asked me what it said. “It says atheists are irritating, unimaginative killjoys,” I said. Gabriel nodded his head and said, “That’s what I thought.”
I later learned (thanks to Google and NPR) the billboard was paid by the American Atheists Association, whose president, David Silverman said, “Many people do not actually believe in God but go through the motions of religious practice,” Silverman said in an interview, “Plus, every year, atheists get blamed for having a war on Christmas, even if we don’t do anything so this year, we decided to show Christians what a war on Christmas looks like.”
Paul Myers at Science Blog applauded the American Atheists Association “bold billboard,” saying “… he hoped it would “sting Christians and stir up a little resentment among them by reminding Christians that not everyone can follow the same path to God as them. Not everyone can come to a belief in something like the Christmas story. Belief doesn’t come easy for some people.”
Leave it to a dues-paying atheist to believe it’s somehow news that it’s difficult for folks to believe the Christmas story.
Only someone who never goes to church would suppose that card-carrying members of the Christian faith don’t still struggle with that faith.
I’ve been preaching Advents and Christmases for almost twenty years now, and every year more than a few pew sitters ask me about the truth of the virgin birth.
Sometimes, it’s a life-long question for a doubting pilgrim.
Sometimes, it’s a point of argument for a hardened skeptic.
Sometimes, it’s an intellectual hurdle for a student just home from college armed with just enough philosophy to inoculate them against the real thing.
Sometimes, it’s a question from someone at a holiday cocktail party, someone I’ve never met, someone who finds out, despite my subterfuge, that I’m not an architect after all, that I’m a pastor, and then is determined to be a pain-in-my-you-know-what to ask me (like I’m as dumb as a potted plant or a member of congress), “Do you really believe in the virgin birth?”
“Do Christians really expect right-thinking people to believe in something as preposterous as Jesus being born of a virgin?” David Silverman asked a reporter.
It seemed not to occur to the president of the American Atheists Association that the angel’s news would have been every bit as unbelievable and preposterous for Mary.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the first person to learn that Isaiah’s 800 year old promise would finally come to pass in a much less tidy and much more complicated way than Isaiah ever let on.
Joseph is the first person to hear the news. He’s the first person to realize that his fiancé would never be able to prove how it happened exactly.
He’s the first person to know that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him.
And he’s the first person to struggle with believing that abstinence only works 99.99999% of the time.
Matthew reports in his nativity narrative that upon hearing the news of Mary’s pregnancy, “Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly…” Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it took Joseph to come to that decision.
But, it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.
The word in the next verse, where Matthew writes, “But just when Joseph had considered to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The word “consider” in the Greek comes from the root word thymos.
It can mean “to ponder” as in “to consider” or it can mean “to become angry.” It’s the same word Matthew uses in the next chapter to describe King Herod’s rage as Herod orders the slaughter of innocents.
Joseph’s initial response to the annunciation is anger.
Why is he angry?
Because prior to the angel appearing to him, Joseph only had Mary’s testimony.
Joseph only had Mary’s word, and Joseph did not believe her. Joseph did not believe in the virgin birth. Joseph did not believe the word was made flesh in Mary.
Therefore, Joseph knew what the word required Joseph to do with Mary.
Matthew says that Joseph was a “righteous man.”
In Hebrew the term is tsadiq.
And it’s not just an adjective for someone.
By calling Joseph a righteous man, Matthew’s not simply saying that Joseph was a good man or a moral man or even a God-fearing man.
Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title. Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously, applying it to every nook and cranny of life.
When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph knew what the Law required he do with Mary.
Dismissing her quietly was no more an option for a righteous man under the Law than healing on the sabbath.
You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract.
Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.
Mary and Joseph weren’t simply engaged.
For all intents and purposes, they were husband and wife.
For that reason, according to the Law, unfaithfulness during the engagement period was considered adultery. According to the Mishna— which is Jewish commentary on the Law— infidelity during betrothal was thought to be a graver sin than infidelity during marriage.
According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house and accuse her publicly of adultery. If Mary doesn’t deny the charge, then the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death.
That’s what the Law commands.
Of course, if Mary does protest, if she denies that she’s sinned, if she’s foolish enough to tell people something as ridiculous as her child being conceived by the Holy Spirit, then Joseph, as a tsadiq, certainly knows what course of action the Torah requires.
According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, who will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her.
Finally, the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water and command Mary to drink it.
The bitter waters.
If it makes her sick, she’s guilty, and she’ll be stoned to death.
If somehow it does not make her ill, then she’s innocent.
Her life will be spared though, in Mary’s case, her life still will be ruined, because she’s pregnant and Joseph’s not the father.
She will be considered an outcast on par with lepers and tax collectors and shepherds.
And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Law inside and out, Joseph certainly knows her sin will become his sin.
He’ll be an outcast too, righteous no more.
That’s why Joseph’s angry— whether he shows Mary grace or he hammers her with the Law, either way he’ll suffer. He’ll either lose his wife or he’ll lose his life.
But it’s a choice— notice— determined by his disbelief.
The Church has never quite known what to make of Joseph, treating him like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child.
It’s Mary whose song we hear at Advent. It’s Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s, that’s the most popular this time of year.
It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint.
Prior to the angel of God appearing to him, Joseph distrusts her.
Joseph is a red-letter righteous man, but before God’s messenger brings him the news, Joseph doubts the Christmas Gospel.
That is, it takes a revelation of God— a revelation from God— for Joseph to have faith in the news of Mary’s pregnancy ex nihilo. This is why we shouldn’t get too hung up over that clause in the creed about the virgin birth.
Every little mustard seed of faith is a virgin birth.
God creates Jesus ex nihilo, but God also creates your trust in Jesus ex nihilo.
Joseph is the model for how God works faith in us. Joseph’s asleep. Joseph’s completely passive.
And from nothing, God implants faith in Joseph’s heart through his ear; such that, when Joseph wakes up he does the very opposite of what he had previously determined to do.
Only then can Joseph profess, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
The Small Catechism (a catechism for children) explains the work of God the Holy Spirit this way:
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”
Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift.
It’s not an attribute innate to you.
It’s not an accomplishment won by you.
It’s not an answer you arrive at through investigation.
It’s a gift— extra nos— that comes from outside of you.
Faith comes by hearing a promise, the Bible says.
The Gospel is the promise by which Christ plants faith in you.
Promises like this is my body broken for you, this day in the city of David a savior is born for you, apromise like the one we sing in the carol, “Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger.”
The promise called Gospel is the device by which Christ delivers faith into the empty womb of your heart.
This is what David Silverman at the American Atheists Association gets so wrong. Unbelief in the Gospel is our natural predisposition.
Apart from the gracious work of the Living God upon us, all of us believers in the Gospel teeter on the verge of unbelief.
It’s not that Christian faith is easy.
It’s that it’s harder than even atheists imagine.
To believe that the baby in the ark of Mary’s womb is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, to believe that Jesus has wrapped himself in our flesh and through his body and blood has done everything necessary to save you and make you holy, to believe that he will come again, bearing your every sin in his body, to make you his own beloved— that sort of faith is no easier for us than it was for Joseph.
That sort of faith— it takes an act of God.
It’s not that Christians are on a path up to God that others with their reason and doubts cannot abide.
There is no path to God for any of us— that’s the point of this season.
God, Zechariah reminded us this morning and the Christmas carols remind us year after year, must come down to us.
And that’s why, contrary to the American Atheists Association’s stated desire, all of us, preachers, you and me, cannot be silent.
Because the Word that took flesh in Mary’s womb, comes down to us in the manger of ordinary words and, apart from the auditory assault of God in his promise called the Gospel, we’d all be atheists.
I didn’t see it until we were leaving the city, on our way home. On the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel was another billboard, another nativity image, put there by some evangelical group.
This one said: “It’s true.”
Gabriel saw that one, too, and said, “Look, it’s the same picture.”
And I said, “No, that one’s different.”
“What’s the difference between them?” he asked.
“A miracle,” I said.
When it comes to that miracle—
Maybe you’re still clutching an IOU from God. Maybe it feels like porch pirates stole it right underneath your nose, because the gift for you still hasn’t arrived. Maybe Christmas is a time when you think everyone else here has it all together and you’re the only one with more questions than clarity.
So remember, Joseph is the model.
And neither Joseph’s faith nor his doubt changes anything from God’s side.
Joseph’s belief in the incarnation does not activate anything in God that wasn’t already true just as Joseph’s disbelief did not negate what God was already up to in the world for him.
The Holy Spirit had already overshadowed Mary, whether Joseph believed it or not. God had already taken flesh in Mary’s womb.
Even if Joseph doubted it, God had already determined to become Jesus and in Christ’s body and blood to die for Joseph’s sins and be raised up from the dead for his justification.
It’s all already true.
The only thing Joseph’s faith in it changes is Joseph— his life.
By believing in it, Joseph gets to share his life up close with Christ.
May God wind his way to your heart through your ear.
Hear the good news.
The great good news of the Gospel is that God has already decided to do something about our lives— whether we let him into our lives or not— whether we do anything about it or not, whether we believe it or not.
He has sent his Son to live for us the faithful life we cannot live, to die for us the sacrifice we cannot offer, and toraise us up with him forever.
That’s good news!
Believing it is what makes all the difference in our lives.