There have been pregnancy announcements that were easier to receive than the one Joseph received from his betrothed, Mary. Discovering your fiancé is pregnant before the wedding isn’t exactly novel in the history of human relationships, but when you know you’re not the father, it’s still difficult news to receive. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that since Joseph was a decent guy, he swallowed hard, accepted the news, and vowed not to put Mary through any “public disgrace.” Then, as we all know, the angel intervened.
But what Joseph hadn’t yet discovered was that God has never been averse to “public disgrace.” In fact, God has welcomed it. Part of God’s very nature, God’s modus operendi if you will, is God’s continuing vulnerability to “public disgrace” in human eyes. For what other term could we possibly use to describe first the Incarnation and then the Cross? None of us can understand the mystery of God becoming human until we first get it through our hardened hearts that God is a flagrant flaunter of the proper and seemly. The Bible is chock full of examples of God not caring one whit for what we humans see as respectable behavior.
There was an early Church heresy called Docetism. It comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem.” It bothered these early heretics that God would become human; that God would enter the same diseased and alienated flesh as ours and become fully as we are. They thought it was no way for any respectable God to act. It was so messy and uncouth. So, they argued Jesus only “seemed” like he was human, sort of like one of the gods in Greek mythology who took on a human form, but only for short time.
But we Christians contend that God fully entered our humanity in the birth of Jesus. God entered every part of our confused and broken humanity at Christmas and began his journey toward our healing and transformation. Beginning in Bethlehem, Jesus picked up our humanity on his back and carried it on this journey all the way to the cross, where in his sacrifice for our sins, he completed that healing and transformation. And then he took our humanity, healed and transformed, into heaven at his ascension.
For many, that’s no way for a respectable God to act. Shouldn’t a proper God hold us personally accountable for our unrighteousness? Any God worth his salt would insist we do something to deserve being carried on his back. Such a God is an affront to our sensibilities that demand we earn what we receive; that insist we be judged by our merits alone; that dictate suitable behavior of which no Pharisee would disapprove.
Yet, God doesn’t care at all about being proper in our eyes. Any God who’d be willing to be born in a stable behind an over-booked inn in a backwater town like Bethlehem wouldn’t be too proud to share his lot with the likes of you and me in a place like Georgia. That truth sinks thoroughly into our hearts when we stop long enough in our over-booked lives to trust that’s what God has done in the birth of Jesus. God became fully and “disgracefully” human in Jesus. As we learn to trust that truth more each day, we will begin to behave just as “disgracefully” with one another.