God's Open House

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Grace Begets Grace

The book of Matthew begins with a long genealogy. Forty-two generations of begats. Abraham begat Isaac begat Jacob begat Joseph begat Judah, who begat Perez and Zerah by Tamar…and on and on and on until you get to Joseph. Matthew wants us to know the whole genealogy of Joseph, all the way back past David to Abraham. And it’s a little weird. Because two verses later, after all those names, we discover that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. Joseph’s genealogy, just looking at the evidence, is the only one that we can be sure does NOT apply to Jesus. But for some reason, Matthew thinks it matters. Because grace begets grace. Let me tell you what I mean.

I’m going to jump forward to something that happens much later in Jesus’ ministry. I just read from John 8, the stoning of the adulterous woman. I know it’s not the most Christmas-y of passages, but we’ll get there. Recently—and I don’t remember what sparked this—something made me wonder… how is it that someone gets tried for adultery—alone? They said she was caught in the act of adultery, right? It takes two to tango, doesn’t it? So where is her partner-in-crime? It just doesn’t make sense unless…

Unless there was some other sort of evidence of the affair. The kind of evidence that gets harder and harder to hide. What if she wasn’t exactly caught in the act of adultery, but caught in the act of having committed adultery and not being able to hide it. Anybody could bear witness to a pregnancy in an unmarried woman. Even a miscarriage might be evidence enough.

The thought of stoning a pregnant woman sounds horrific, but let’s take the log out of our own eyes first.  Our own system is just as bad. This year a woman was charged with manslaughter for being shot in the stomach and losing the baby. She knew she was pregnant, and yet she pressed the argument; they said. The truth is that the most vulnerable populations—women, LGBTQ folk, racial minorities—have always received disproportionately cruel treatment from the powerful, and they still do. Her story isn’t sadder than stories that happen every day in our own back yard.

So she’s brought out to be stoned for adultery while Jesus is teaching in the Temple. The authorities ask Jesus what he thinks. It’s an invitation and a challenge. He’s been drawing crowds for being a holy man devoted to the law. Either Jesus will give them his blessing, and they’ll get the Jesus bump in their polling numbers. Or he won’t, and they can score points against him for failing to uphold the law. It’s a “with us or against us question.” We’ve all encountered situations like this, haven’t we? People say cruel things as a test to see if we’ll join them or not. Whenever someone is throwing stones, whether physically or verbally, there’s an unstated choice. You can either join in or maybe you’ll be next. What do you say?

“What do you say?” They ask Jesus. He doesn’t answer right away, though. He starts to write in the dust on the ground. I wonder. What was he thinking in that moment? Was he thinking of another woman caught in the same trap? Was he thinking of his mom?

Jesus knows this story. His father Joseph faced the same choice. When Joseph discovered that Mary was with child, he had the choice to shame her publicly, knowing that she might be brought before the people in the very same way. But he was kind. He made up his mind to spare her the shame. And he went to bed. That night an angel came to him and told him not to be afraid. The child was God’s child. He should be named Jesus, that is, “he saves,” for he will save his people from their sins. When Joseph woke up, he made up his mind again. He decided to marry her and claim the child as his own.

I don’t think we really get what a brave decision this was. We know the end of this story, and we’re here because we believe that Jesus was the Son of God. But Joseph didn’t know that this stuff was true. All Joseph knew is that she was pregnant and he didn’t do it.

But Joseph made the choice to offer grace. He wouldn’t let her pay the price. If this was her mistake, it would be his mistake too. Grace is God’s love that we receive that we didn’t earn and don’t deserve. Mary was pregnant and unmarried. (Soon enough), anyone could bear witness to that. But instead, Joseph loved her. Grace is the only way to describe it. God had a hand in it; God always does.

Jesus was born out of Joseph’s grace. Joseph chose love instead of punishment. Without it, Mary might have been standing before a crowd with stones in their hands. Without Joseph, Jesus might never have been born. Joseph begat Jesus. Jesus is a child of grace.

And grace begets grace. 30 years later, that child of grace is in the Temple, standing between a crowd of people with stones and a woman caught in sin. Jesus answers like someone who knows that we all need grace. “Anyone who is without sin, cast the first stone.” We might put it another way. If you never want to be forgiven, refuse to forgive.  If you ever hope to receive mercy, offer it to others.

And one by one, their stones fall to the ground, and they walk away. At least for this one moment, everyone understands that we all need grace. Until finally, Jesus and the woman are the only ones left. “Go and sin no more,” he says. The grace of Joseph allowed Mary and Jesus to live. The grace of Jesus allowed this woman to live. Her grace will touch even more lives. And Christ’s grace offers the only hope for us too. Grace begets grace. When you choose to offer grace, there’s a ripple effect. The chain reaction begins when someone—Joseph, or Jesus, or you, or me—decides to offer grace instead of penalty. And it ripples out to bring grace to more and more and more. Grace begets grace.

Joseph’s genealogy matters to Matthew because Joseph passes on something crucial to Jesus. What Joseph passed on isn’t a bloodline. It was the choice, made over and over again in the history of God’s people, to choose love and mercy over righteousness and punishment. That choice made Christ possible. That choice Mercy begets mercy. Love begets love. Grace begets grace.

When you show grace, you allow something new to be born. Just like when Joseph offered grace, he enabled Jesus to be born. And your act of grace extends into that persons’ life, and the grace that they show to other people.  To forgive someone is to give someone a chance to make things right. To show mercy is to allow something to be born for someone, a new life, a new hope, a new self. Every act of grace ripples out into new acts of grace, love, forgiveness, and hope in ever widening ways. Grace begets grace. The choices that you make in this world set up the future. The choice to show grace to your friends, to your neighbors, to people you don’t even know ripples out into the grace that they offer each other and beyond. Grace begets grace begets grace. Who knows who you might be saving, what kind of effect your forgiveness might ripple out into the world?

This Christmas, remember Joseph. Remember that his act of grace made everything possible. This act of grace brought forth Jesus, and the grace of Jesus, on which we all depend. And when you go out into the world, choose grace, and watch that grace grow and grow and grow. Grace begets grace. Be like Joseph. Bring grace into the world. You never know what new hope will be born.