Christmas: Grace Upon Grace

December 20, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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For a moment, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You come from an impoverished family and have endured a hardscrabble life. But now, finally, things are looking up. You are engaged to a good girl named Mary, and the two of you are on your way to a wedding. But then, she turns up pregnant. And you know the baby is not yours. What would you do?

2,000 years ago, in Israel and as a Jew, Joseph had only two options.

First, according to the law of Moses, he could have called for her life:

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)

Second, as the son who Mary eventually bears notes, he could have divorced her:

I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

Divorce displeases Jesus, but He permits it when sexual unfaithfulness is involved.

Death and divorce – these are Joseph’s options. Which will he choose? Matthew tells us:

He had in mind to divorce her. (Matthew 1:19)

Joseph chooses divorce over death. But there’s more to Joseph’s decision than just one option over the other. Matthew adds a very important qualifier to Joseph’s divorce decision:

He had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

In the first century, divorces were often public spectacles, meant to shame an unfaithful spouse. But Joseph forfeits his opportunity to shame his fiancé, as Matthew makes explicit in the rest of this verse:

Because Joseph was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

Joseph was walking a tightrope. As a pious Jew, devoted to following the law of Moses, he knew he couldn’t just continue on as if nothing had happened. But Joseph also knew that grimly responding to his fiancé’s perceived infidelity with all that he could do according to the law wasn’t what he should do, for shaming her would destroy her. Something else was needed.

Grace.

Joseph followed the letter of the law by planning to divorce Mary, but he also did everything he could not to retaliate against her even though he thought she had betrayed him. He responded to her apparent unfaithfulness with every bit of kindness he could muster. Joseph did the right thing according to the law and the loving thing according to grace.

Joseph’s path can be instructive for us as we face messy moral challenges in our lives. Respecting divine law is necessary and right. But we are also invited to seek opportunities to layer divine grace on top of divine law.

We can discipline our children and still remind them how much we love them.

We can reprimand an employee and still do everything we can to help them succeed.

We can adamantly disagree with someone while still treating them gently.

When Joseph layered grace on top of law, something incredible happened:

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

When Joseph chose grace, an angel appeared to show him where even more grace could be found. He did not need to divorce Mary, for, contrary to appearances, she had not been unfaithful. Instead, she was being a radically faithful servant to the Lord who had miraculously gestated in her the Savior of the world (cf. Luke 1:38).

In John’s account of the Christmas story, he describes Jesus’ mission like this:

From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. (John 1:16)

“Grace upon grace.” Grace that begets even more grace. Pile it high. Spread it wide. Do what Joseph did for Mary. And trust in what Jesus has done for us.

This is the miracle and the message of Christmas.

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