It’s time now to leave the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah that we have been hearing the last three weeks. But before we move on let’s not forget the lovely images that he prophecies for us, the crocus’ blooming in the desert, waters in the wilderness, swords into ploughshares, crooked paths made straight, wolves lying down with lambs – all these images provide for us a look into the future when the salvation of the world will make all things possible, when hope will be the norm rather than the exception, or at least that was the intent.
Now it’s time to focus on that very salvation, Jesus the Christ and we will do so by beginning in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is not very wordy in his recounting the birth of Jesus but he does give us some interesting things to ponder about Joseph. This is the Gospel where an angel comes to Joseph in a dream, not Mary and after that Joseph has a very large decision to make.
Joseph, to me, always seemed to be an ancillary character in the life of Jesus. He’s present in his birth, around for the flight to Egypt, does a little carpentry work up in the Galilee, heads on down to Jerusalem with his family with Jesus was twelve and then we hear nothing more of him. But we can surmise a few things and learn from what little we know of his actions because Matthew provides some provocative words.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Let’s be curious together about this passage and unwrap it to see what there is for us learn and grow from. Mary and Joseph were engaged, more to the point they were betrothed. We don’t use that word too much anymore but for them it was an intermediary step before marriage. It was more than a simple engagement, it was a year-long legal contract where a couple becomes husband and wife but refrain from intimate relations with one another.
This piece of info is important as to why Joseph must divorce Mary. Betrothal was a binding contract in a strict system of arranged marriages. And oops, Mary turns up pregnant, which is a dishonor. Of course she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t know that yet. All he can surmise is that his betrothed, pregnant wife is an adulteress.
So Joseph is in a real pickle. You see when two value systems like law and compassionate faith collide, that often spells trouble with a capital T. He is caught way off guard here and has a tough ethical decision to make. Will Joseph take the conventional route of the law and divorce Mary, or the faith filled route and take care of her and work it all out. He’s at a crossroad with a decision that will effect a young woman, himself and of course the future of humanity. But, he doesn’t know that yet either.
Well Joseph is a righteous and moral man so he tries to blend these two systems together and decides to handle it by divorce, albeit quietly, under the Pharisaic radar screen, so as not to disgrace her or maybe even risk her stoning, and for him not being too politically disobedient is probably a good thing too living within the Holy Roman Empire. He takes the easy way out for everyone involved. He decides to ‘dismiss’ her. The law is satisfied and he is more or less showing Mary compassion.
I wonder if we ever do that, take the easy way out. It’s easier to not make waves if we can do something quietly and ‘take care of it’ even if it is not quite the right thing to do. Rather than go full steam ahead and make a decision that is faithfully and compassionately sound we just make things ok, knowing that not everyone will be happy and maybe even someone might be hurt, but just a little.
Of course, we’ve all done that at some point in our lives, it’s human nature to want to compromise to make it a bit easier. Who needs difficult lives?
But what if we acted out of a nurture frame of reference. A paradigm that cares for the health and well being of another individual over and above taking the easy way out or strictly adhering to law.
This is the faith filled route that Joseph does indeed finally take but not until he is visited in a dream by an angel who lays it on the line for him, “Look Joseph, I know this isn’t what you expected, things have taken a peculiar turn but see here, don’t panic, don’t be afraid, every little things gonna be alright! It’s the Holy Spirit who has come to Mary and infused her with child. Name that baby Jesus because he will save all of the people. Go ahead Joseph, God is with us now, you’ve got nothing to fear.”
Well that’s some dream, and that’s some message. The angel tells Joseph to do the right thing, don’t divorce her but stay with her and trust the process because God is doing a new thing. A not so perfect situation turns out ok. God opens a door, God gives Joseph a vision, all God is doing is asking Joseph to trust. And to follow because when the Holy Spirit is involved new things can and do happen.
This birth narrative shows us that life is not perfect, even for the son of God. That there are twist and turns that will test our hearts and minds and will ask us to make decisions for ourselves and maybe even for others. On which side of the big, wide ethical valley will you land? Will you let the conventional overtake you and blind you to the suffering of others or will you be open to the movement of the Spirit through your faith, trusting that the faith filled route will lead you to where you need to be.
God called Joseph to do the unexpected and in the end he did, in faith. How about you? When God calls, will you follow in faith too? Will you, against all odds, make decisions that are based in sound faith filled ethical thinking? It’s tricky to be sure. Yet this is the legacy of thought and action that Joseph leaves us with today.
May you, through that very same Spirit, see the new path that God is setting before you.
May you follow Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in faith trusting that this tiny child in the manger is your hope and your redemption.
And let the people say, Amen!