This sermon is part of the sermon series "Christmas Is for Real People". See series.
When the great Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this past summer, he began a speech as smooth and fluid as one of his signature homeruns. There came a memorable moment, however, when Sandberg lost his usual poise. Eyes welling and lip trembling, Sandberg called his Hall of Fame induction the "second-best" thing that had ever happened to him. "My wife, Margaret, is the best thing that has ever happened to me," he said. "[Margaret] is my best friend. She is the love of my life. She is my salvation. She is my past, my present, my future. She is my sun, my moon, my stars. She is everything that's good about life, and I thank her for entering my life at a time when I needed her most." Wow.
Over the course of 20 years of pastoral ministry, I have had the opportunity to perform the weddings of more than 100 couples. I can't think of a single one of them who, when I first encountered them sitting upon the pre-marital couch, did not have in their eyes the dream of building a marriage something like Ryne Sandberg described. All of them began with a vision of having not just a surviving marriage, but a Hall of Fame marriage—one of the great marriages, the kind of friendship that brings out the best in each other, that helps each other rise above adversity. The kind of union that produces something even larger than the sum of its parts. The kind of bond that the grandchildren and neighbors and friends will look at and say, "Oh, God, give me a relationship like that!"
Maybe you're blessed with a union like this. Perhaps you find yourself longing at times for that quality of connection. Maybe you haven't given much thought to how your relationship is trending, or maybe you're not married at all. Perhaps you're not interested in marriage. Whatever the case, I think we can learn something from the couple we meet in the Christmas story today. It can make a difference to us now or later, and help us to speak more wisely into the lives of people we know.
Admit when it looks bad
We can't say for sure with what vision Mary and Joseph began their relationship together, but this much we do know: By the time we meet them in Matthew's Gospel, things appeared to be going wrong. Maybe that's the first thing they have to teach us. As hard as it can be to face, it is really important to admit it when things are looking bad.
"This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about," Matthew 1:18 reads, "His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together"—that is, before they had sexual relations—"[Mary] was found to be with child." It doesn't get "badder" than that. It doesn't get badder in a relationship than the appearance or reality of infidelity. But, if truth be told, most affairs are really only the end-game of a character or a relationship that has been going bad for a whole lot of innings, with rare exception.
It's scary, isn't it, by what little steps things move from better to worse? Humorist Dave Barry gives us a light-hearted example when he remarks: "At this point in the Christmas season, your standard man has purchased zero gifts. He has not yet gotten around to purchasing an acceptable gift for his wife for last Christmas. He did give her something last year, but he could tell by her reaction to it that she had not been dreaming of getting an auto emergency kit, even though it was the deluxe model with booster cables and an air compressor. Clearly this gift violated an important rule, but the man had no idea what this rule was, and his wife was too upset to tell him."
When I was a young pastor, I couldn't understand how stories like that could figure into the collapse of something as marvelous as a marriage. I couldn't get how that couple I'd seen gazing at one another with such adoration at the altar now couldn't stand to look at each other. I'd ask them what went wrong, and they'd say things like, "Whenever we were out with friends, and I'd offer my opinion on something, she'd roll her eyes." Or, "He left me waiting on dinner so many times." I'd say to them, "You're giving up on your marriage because of rolled eyes and cold potatoes?" And they'd say: "Well, yeah. That and a million things like it." And then I finally got it—at least, intellectually.
Romance grows by leaps and bounds at the start, but it dies by little degrees—little steps of injury and disrespect, each so small that it hardly seems worth talking about, but each significant enough to create one more tiny layer of dangerous scar tissue over the human heart. We start by complaining a little bit about certain behaviors, and then we move on to regularly criticizing someone else's basic orientation, and then we finally move to a mode of condemning almost altogether the other's heart and worth.
We flood each other with our anger and disappointment. It comes sweeping at them with such intensity that it knocks them off their feet so that they can barely breathe, much less know how to respond. We grow defensive, then distant, and then we just shut down. We may still keep up the chores and the public image. We may still raise the kids and get out the Christmas cards. We may still be coupling in bed. But we are no longer each other's moon and stars, no longer best friends. We're no longer the best thing that ever happened to one another.
It's always tempting to just go on and try to ignore the reality. But it is there, like a pregnant lump in the belly, growing bigger and bigger with time. "It's your fault," Joseph may have said to Mary. "No, this whole thing's bigger than me, Joe," Mary might have answered. But sooner or later, they had to admit that something about the original contract, the original vision, had certainly changed.
Have you faced the reality of what's going on in your home? I pray that it's wonderful things. But are there moments when you fear that you've married badly, or that your marriage partner has gotten a bad deal? Are there moments when you think that, whoever's responsible, this relationship is no longer what either of us had once intended for it to be?
Consider the common options
You see, it is at that point that we learn the second valuable thing about marriage from the story of Christmas. First, we've got to admit when it looks like things are going badly. But, second, when it's gone from better to worse, we still have options. Like Joseph, we have to consider our options.
The most obvious option is to divorce loudly, as many do. Certainly, no one would blame Joseph for leaving a betrothed spouse who'd apparently been unfaithful. Matthew 5 says that even God allows for divorce under those conditions. Joseph could easily have said: "I give up. You've made your choices. You win, I lose, but you'll pay, Mary. You are going to feel this disgrace. You're going to feel this pain like I have."
Even Mary could have done likewise. She could have easily said: "Joe, you never could handle the truth. You never did listen. You always thought it was about you. You never could look at the bigger picture. So I give up! You go if you want to. I'm gonna tell people how you really were." Sound familiar? We can always just divorce loudly.
Or, I suppose another option is to divorce quietly. It takes better character to do that, of course. Matthew 1:19 says: "Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man"—in other words, a person of character, aligned in some measure with the character of God, perhaps a bit more than most. Because Joseph was a righteous man "and did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly."
Some couples choose that path. "Look, it didn't work out. We tried, but it just didn't go. Let's not shred each other, our kids, and friends. Let's just part ways quietly. You take the house in Nazareth; I'll take the donkey. You can have little Jesus at Christmas; I get him at Passover."
And then there is always the option to divorce secretly. I've learned over the years that you can never really tell about the health of a marriage by simply looking at it from the outside. Some couples hold hands because they're madly in love with each other and joined at the hip. Some couples hold hands, however, because they're afraid that if they let go, they'd kill each other!
Mary and Joseph could have just shut down and kept up appearances. You know, they had family and friends watching. They could have shut down and just kept up appearances. How many people in marriage simply give up and stay?
Respond to God's dream with faith and obedience
I don't say all this to beat up on anyone. If you know anything about Christ Church, then you know that we believe in showing grace to those who've come to the end of their resources. If you know anything about the heartbeat of Christ Church of Oak Brook, then you know that we believe in the God of second chances and new beginnings.
And if you are among the people listening to me today who came to the end of your resources and just lost out—you just couldn't find it, you lost the marriage—know that I'm not saying these things to break your heart further. We wouldn't be investing in the Singles' ministry at the level that we do if we didn't believe in the God of second chances and new beginnings. But this same God is also the God of restored relationships and fresh starts. And so I want to say to you that it is sometimes only when we come to the end of our dreams that God gives us his dream in a way that we can finally see it.
The Bible says, "After [Joseph] had considered [his options], an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid.'" How much of the breakdown of our lives is because of fear? "Don't be afraid," says the angel, "to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived [here] is from the Holy Spirit. [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." In other words, what the angel is saying here is that the very circumstances that you fear spell the death of your relationship are actually the beginning of your salvation.
Wow! Is that possible? That we could find ourselves in a place that seems to be so riddled with the death of things as we wanted them to be that we wouldn't understand that this was where we had to get for God to create the new beginning—to save us? What looks to you like an impenetrable barrier today will become, if you lean into it, a bridge to a whole new season of blessing. What is needed right now from you—the angel is saying—is fresh faith and courageous obedience.
What does that look like in practice for you and me? Well, sometimes it means that we go before God in prayer about our relationships. How long has it been since you asked God to show you his dream for your marriage? How long has it been since you prayed: "Lord, give me the reason again why you brought us two together. I know there was a purpose. I knew it once. Help me to see it again." Ask your spouse to pray with you today for God's blessing to be poured out on your union afresh. Pray for God to give you, supernaturally, the love and respect that your partner craves—that person who, once upon a time, was the best thing that had ever happened to you.
Proverbs says: "Trust in the Lord with all you heart and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God"—with faith and obedience—"and he will direct your paths." Ask God to do something supernatural to save the two of you—both of you—from your sins.
Or maybe faith and obedience means that you'll get help. You'll go get counseling together. We think nothing of sitting down with an architect when we want to build a good house, or a financial planner when we want to get our fiscal household in order. Why is it so hard, then, to make the leap and seek that third-party counsel when we're doing the far more important work of constructing or reconstructing a home?
Or, finally, maybe faith and obedience means that you'll read a marriage-building book together. Again, the writer of Proverbs says: "Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance." Are you open to guidance? Even if you have a great marriage, are you open to further learning? Pick up a copy of John Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Or The DNA of Relationships, by Gary Smalley. Add to your learning. Let God use resources like these to move you along in his direction. And remember what's possible.
Slats Grobnik caught a glimpse of it one December. Every December, Slats Grobnik sells Christmas trees here in Chicago. He tells the story of one year when he met a couple on the hunt for just the right tree. The guy was skinny with a big Adam's apple and a receding, small chin; the girl was sort of pretty, but the two of them were wearing these ragged clothes that looked like they might have come from the bottom of the bin at the Salvation Army store. They didn't have much, it was clear. Finding most trees too expensive, the couple settled on a Scotch pine that was okay on one side, but quite bare on the other. Then, a little further along, they picked up another tree that was hardly any better—full on one side, Charlie Brown scraggly on the other.
A few days later, Slats was out walking on the street when he happened to look up into this picture window of this ground-floor apartment, and he spied this absolutely spectacular Christmas tree. And then he was shocked to see come into the window view the couple to whom he had sold the two lousy trees. Curiosity got the best of him, and so he went up and knocked on the door. He just had to know where and how they'd managed to pick up this much finer tree.
And then they told him how they'd come home with all they had. And how they'd worked the two trees he'd sold them close together where the branches were thin. They told him how hard it was to get the branches interlaced, and how they had had to use wire to bind the two trunks together until the branches overlapped and formed a tree so thick you could no longer see the wire.
"So that's the secret," said Slats. "So that's the secret. You take two trees that aren't perfect—that might even be homely, that maybe nobody else would want. But if you put them together just right, you can come up with something really beautiful."
Do you think that's possible—what can God do with a man and woman willing to be worked in faith and obedience into the dream of God? Do you think that's possible? The gospels speak of a time when it apparently happened, with real people: "Mary said, 'let it be unto me according to thy Word." And, "When Joseph woke up, he [also] did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. He had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus."
Jesus—the name of the Savior who still takes imperfect people and, with grace and truth, binds them together to make something truly beautiful, fully and finally one.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.