Three kinds of love

Scriptures: Luke 2:1-38; Psalm 131

As we look at the passage in Matthew today, we face a dilemma of sorts. Just what is the point of the story of Joseph? Joseph, after all, has no voice. He says nothing here. In fact, he doesn’t say anything anywhere else either. (Apparently he was one of those strong silent types.) He is gone from the picture well before Jesus starts his ministry.

Matthew is writing to the Jews. So is this an attempt to curtail their snark or disbelief because of Jesus’ origins? Because people would have believed either that Jesus was illegitimate, or that Mary and Joseph were not the righteous people they had seemed to be up to that point?

And why is it that during the Advent season, they consistently put Joseph in the Advent week of “Love”? We can see the love of Mary in her Magnificat, responding to God’s announcement; the love of Simeon and Anna, both prophets of the Lord; and even Zechariah’s love and persistence for God as he continues to serve in the Temple despite the shame of no children. What does Joseph have to compare with any of that?

I believe that this little 7-verse passage shows us three distinct kinds of committed love, and together these all testify to the kind of love and commitment that we should all have.

First, Joseph love God. How do we know this? Well, it says that Joseph was “righteous.” I don’t know if you know this, but this declaration is made about only three or four people in the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Someone who is righteous – it means that he was right before God. It means that he kept the Law in spirit as well as in the letter (unlike the Pharisees).

Joseph loved God and was obedient to God’s command from the angel. It meant hardship. It meant shame. It meant strains on the relationships of families and friends. We see no complaining, hear no lament (unlike others in Scripture). Joseph was obedient to God’s command, as he was obedient to the Law.

Further on, in Matthew 7, Jesus says – first in regards to prophets – that we will know them by their fruits. Just a little later he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.”

He also tells his disciples, in John 13, that people shall know they are his disciples if they love one another, and do all that he comments. Only those who love God, and obey His commands, will be recognized by Christ on the day of judgment, and be called righteous by the Father through the blood of the Lamb.

Love, or trust in God, and obedience, are really two sides of the same coin we call “faith.” As it says in Hebrews, “And their faith was accounted to them as righteousness.” So we know that Joseph loved God.

Joseph also loved Mary. I realize that in this day and age, that may seem like a “Well, duh!” kind of comment. But you have to understand, this was an arranged marriage. Joseph and Mary had no say in it. Two families got together and basically negotiated a contract, and dowry, which was money or goods, changed hands. I won’t say it was like selling your daughter off, but there was some of that businesslike aspect to it.

If you’ve ever seen Fiddler on the Roof, they talk a lot about those arranged marriages, and how even the two main characters, Tevye and his wife, were apparently in an arranged marriage. There’s that song “Do You Love Me?” where they talk about having been married twenty-five years.

But it’s obvious that Joseph loved Mary. It’s obvious because he showed her compassion and mercy, even before hearing from the angel. How did he do that?

By the Law, he could have had her publicly humiliated, and even stoned, for adultery. He didn’t even need to know who the other guy was – the evidence of it was plain in the pregnancy.

The families were no doubt shamed also. We have seen the “honor killings” that go on even today, when they think that someone who is a virgin has been compromised. I am certain that they were encouraging and pushing Joseph to “get rid of her,” by whatever means he could.

Joseph decided to “put her away” by private divorce. The law allowed that if the husband wrote a document of divorce, and had two witnesses, he didn’t even have to say why he was divorcing her. While this led, I am sure, to lots of abuse, and the “serial monogamy” that Jesus complained about in Mark, in this case, it was a way out that would allow her some dignity, and a second chance, as long as she settled away from Nazareth.

It was, for Joseph, the only way he could see of dealing with an affront to his own reputation and righteousness, while showing his mercy and love for the one who had hurt him so deeply.

So we have the visit by the angel, and after the vision, as we look at Joseph, there are no recriminations. No signs of anger against Mary are recorded. Joseph forgave her and let go the pain, instead choosing to trust God and celebrate with joy the fact that God chose them to be the tools for executing His plan.

There is an illustration about two friends walking through the desert. They had an argument, and one friend slapped the other in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything wrote in the sand: TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SLAPPED ME IN THE FACE.

They kept on walking until they found an oasis where they decided to stop for a rest, to take a bath, and to get a drink. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mud and muck and mire at the bottom of the oasis, and started drowning. The friend save him. After he recovered, he wrote on a stone: TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SAVED MY LIFE.

The friend who had both slapped and saved asked, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand. Then you wrote on a stone when I saved you. Why did you do that?”

He reply was “When someone hurts us, we should write it in the sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away. When someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.”

Learn to write your hurts in sand and carve your benefits in stone. It’s said that it takes a minute to find a special person, an hour to appreciate them, a day to love them, and a lifetime to forget them. Value who you have in your life.

Joseph showed a love and restraint that very few people would have shown in that day. And he demonstrated his love for both Mary, and for God, in the way that he handled the situation. So Joseph loved God, and Joseph loved Mary.

The third kind of love we see if God’s love for us. During the vision, the angel referenced a prophecy on the one hand, and gave an explicit direction on the other. Both show God’s love in various ways.

In the prophecy from Isaiah referenced by the angel, about the virgin birth, it goes on to say “and you shall call his name Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” In the command, the angel tells Joseph to call this son Yeshua, or Joshua, which literally means “God saves.”

In the prophecy, we see God’s desire to have a relationship with each one of us, to be a part of our lives, and to be faithful to His promise to be with His chosen people always and everywhere – no matter how dark it may seem at the moment.

The context for that prophecy is that God is promising Ahaz aid and victory, if he will only believe in the Lord God and again follow and worship Him (which, by the way, Ahaz chooses not to do).

In Joseph’s time, under the oppression and occupation of the Romans, the people have been crying out for a Messiah. There has been no word from God for 400 years! Yet here, God announces, through the angel, that He has heard, He was there, and He will continue to be there for His people.

Not only is God going to be there spiritually, but He will be a living presence for His people that all can turn to for aid and succor. All can gain the promised victory of God against the enemies of sin and impending death.

In giving the name Jesus, God announces how He is going to achieve this goal. God will save His people, when they cannot save themselves. God will send a Savior who is fully human, fully God, and incarnate so as to be one of us yet also able to redeem us.

The incarnation is too great a mystery to dwell on fully in one sermon, much less part of one. But I can say this: it was necessary for God to do it this way. There was a Church Father and theologian named Athanasius. He had a lot of influence on the early Church. He had a lot of arguments, including with an arch-nemesis, if you will, named Arius.

He and Arius got into a number of arguments before the bishop of Alexandria, and Athanasius said something in his creed that was very profound, I think. He said that, for redemption to occur, for salvation to occur, Jesus needed to be fully human. Because, if he was not fully human, then any part that was not human, he would not be able to relate to, and thus not able to redeem.

But Jesus also needed to be fully God. Because any part that was not God could not experience the power and the glory and the righteousness of Christ, and therefore could not be redeemed. The only way that salvation could occur was if Jesus was fully human and fully God.

I know when we were in first grade math, we learned that 100% plus 100% equals 200%. But I always like to say, in Scripture 100% human plus 100% God equals Jesus. We don’t understand it. It’s a mystery. But we have to believe it.

God’s love here shows us what real love is all about. Too many people conflate love and schmaltz or passion. It’s not that those don’t have a place – I doubt that very many of us would get married if we didn’t have that! But real love involves sacrifice. It involves finding a way to put the needs of someone else before your own without giving up your essence or principles.

What the Son did was the perfect example of extravagant, incomparable love. First, in His very birth, He gave up everything he already had as far as glory, authority, power, and knowledge to become incarnate.

He became one of us; born a baby in low estate, growing up the son of a rough carpenter, in a hostile environment that involved moving to avoid murder, extended family and community thinking he was a bastard, then becoming an itinerant teacher, and finally suffering and dying for us so that we could be cleansed of our sins and reconciled with God the Father.

He lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, showing us how to love God. Even on the cross he was thinking of his mother and others. If you remember, as Mary and John, the disciple whom he loved, were at the foot of the cross during his crucifixion, one of his “seven last words,” as they talk about, was to look at Mary and say, “Woman,” and he looked at John and said, “Behold thy son.”

Then as he looked at John he said, “Son, behold thy mother.” And then John notes, from that day on, he took Mary into his household and provided for her. Even at that moment on the cross, as he was wondering, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was caring for those he loved, thinking of them and providing for them, being with them. That is God’s love for us. His life was one of sacrifice and love.

Most of us haven’t heard directly from God – by His own voice, or that of an angelic visit. Oh, and if you have, I want to hear about this story! So how do we handle the message of this passage? What can we make use of besides knowledge to underpin and support our theology and understanding (not that there is anything wrong with that)?

For us “others,” I think this passage is one of great hope and comfort. It is one that shows that, even if God is asking us to do something difficult, He will be there with us all the way. He will provide for us a means of making it through, and the strength to triumph in the end.

It is a message of joy, to know that we are loved so deeply, and that God is faithful to His promises throughout time. God cares about YOU.

It provides an example of how we can be obedient, even when we don’t necessarily understand. And I feel pretty confident in wagering that Joseph, even after the visit from the angel, did not really fully understand what was going on. But he trusted and obeyed.

We can then turn those lessons from this passage around and live them out in our own lives. We need to choose to love our God and others with passion and willingness to sacrifice – especially our families (blood, church, and adopted). Our relationships will show how much we actually believe the message of the angel in the passage today.

We need to show the same kind of concern for justice, tempered by compassion, that Joseph did. Sometimes doing what is right requires going against the laws of men – but never for our own gain, but rather to follow the greater call of God. And we need to be willing to pay the price that we will inevitably incur – which Joseph presumably did, every day, after Jesus’ birth.

We can love God with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our strength. God’s Word should be our bread, and we need to be well versed in it, even as Joseph was with the Hebrew Bible. We should be prioritizing time with God in prayer, with God’s Word, and with worship so that God has the chance to speak to us, and let us know what it is He is calling us to do.

I don’t know that I will ever be good enough to be called righteous, but fortunately, God takes my sincere though meager efforts, multiplies them by the Spirit, looks upon the blood of the Lamb, and calls it enough – as long as I am faithful. He will do that for every person who calls upon His name in faith.

As we reach our conclusion for today, I would like to touch first on one more thing. God knows our every weakness, our every doubt, our every fear. He has provided many means for aiding us in this walk of faith in our lives as we seek to listen to and follow Him. One of those aids is Communion, which we will take in a couple of minutes.

It is a sign and seal of God’s love and grace for us, and a reminder of just how much God loves each and every one of us. It is a reminder of the incarnation that was just celebrated on Christmas, and why Christ even came to earth. It is a signpost to the joy which is to come, as together we become the Body of Christ and are joined with Him forever.

This passage today shows us that you don’t have to be big, or important socially or economically, to have a major message. You don’t have to be prominent and perfect to be used by God to do amazing things. You can be in someone’s life for a very short time, not even talking a whole lot (though man, that would be really tough for me!), and still shape their life to come.

It shows us that every decision you make causes ripples that affect other people, and God’s plan. As you face those decisions in the coming days and weeks of this new year, be ruled by the law of love shown here in this passage with Joseph.

Do justly. Love mercy (and practice it!). And walk humbly with our God, as we seek to follow Him, trusting in His presence and power. Show the three kinds of love to all around you, as you love God, love your neighbor as yourself, and reflect God’s love to others so that they may know what kind of love He has for them.

And may God get the praise and glory, through your life, for the wondrous things He has done. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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