December 22, 2013 4th Advent Matthew 1: 18-25
Rev. Catherine Purves
Everyone thinks about Mary at Christmastime. It’s easy to visualize the young, innocent girl and to imagine the shock it must have been for her to be told – by an angel no less – that she was going to have a baby when this was just not physically possible. Everyone sympathizes with Mary. She must have been frightened. She must have been confused. She must have been awed. She must have been a very faithful young woman. Poor Mary. What was she to tell her parents, or her friends, or the villagers, or her fiancé? She would feel so alone. It was going to be a long and difficult nine months for her, and then what? Who knew? The angel’s message was perplexing, to say the least. This could stretch her faith to the breaking point. Poor Mary. But what about Joseph? Everyone is full of sympathy and compassion over the challenge of being Mary. But what about the difficulty of being Joseph?
I for one think it must have been even harder to be Joseph. As the mother of three I’m certainly not saying pregnancy is ever easy. And Mary’s situation was obviously unique and overwhelming. But she knew what was going on. Changes were happening to her body. A baby was conceived and was growing. She alone knew for certain that this could only be an act of God. She was told that this birth would be a blessing, not only for her, but for the world. She was told that God had favored her, chosen her. Even in the midst of her confusion and fear she was able to declare to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
But what about old Joseph? There he was, minding his own business, being a righteous man engaged to a young virgin, and suddenly it is discovered that she is pregnant. What a disaster! And he certainly knew that he wasn’t the father. What could he do? According to Jewish law, the only way out for him was to divorce her. Once the betrothal was announced, they were as good as married. Mary’s betrayal (what else could you call it?) was as bad as adultery. The shame! This was just not the way it was supposed to work. Mary was meant to be making wedding plans, not preparing to have a child. Poor Joseph. He wanted to do the right thing, but what was the right thing? The kindest thing that he could do was to divorce Mary, but keep it quiet and so minimize the public disgrace for both families. No matter what, it wasn’t going to be easy being Joseph for the next nine months.
Unlike Mary, Joseph was not suddenly confronted by an angel in broad daylight – an angel who answered all of her questions and declared her blessed. Joseph only had a dream in which an angel told him not to do what he had already decided to do. What the angel said made no sense. What did “conceived from the Holy Spirit” mean? Quoting the prophet Isaiah didn’t make it any more understandable: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” It was a very strange dream. First century people took dreams very seriously, so Joseph didn’t just dismiss it, but what was he to make of it? A virgin birth? That’s crazy.
We all have a lot more experience being Joseph than we do being Mary, I think. We have to cope with the remarkable, unbelievable proclamation of the church that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We don’t get to interrogate angels sent to deliver the news, like Mary did. Instead, like Joseph, we are left to try and make sense of it ourselves. Like Joseph, we live in the real rough and tumble world of work and worry. We often find it hard to see that God is at work in our lives, while, for Mary, that was obvious. Like Joseph, we are trying to be righteous and good people when it is often not that clear what we should do. Mary knew what she must do, simply welcome what God was doing through her. Joseph had all sorts of tricky ethical decisions to make because of this unexpected pregnancy. For Mary, the decisions had all been made. Being Joseph was hard. For many of us who are living the life of Joseph, it still is hard.
When we open our Bibles to hear the Christmas story, it is like we are being Joseph. We have sort of an outside view of events not dissimilar to Joseph’s dream. And we have to square the extraordinary claims of Christmas with our ordinary experience of the everyday world in which we live, where virgins don’t conceive and bear children by the Holy Spirit, and angels don’t deliver cryptic messages, either in person or in dreams. How do you cope with this clash of cultures? How do you reconcile the Bible’s claims with your own experience? Are you any good at being Joseph?
Here is something that is undoubtedly true. Joseph did not fully understand what was going on. He could not have explained to anyone how the virgin birth took place or what it really meant. The science of it all was not his problem or his main concern. This was not because he didn’t understand how reproduction worked, but because God, after all, could do anything. God was not limited by what was scientifically possible, since God was the creator of everything, including those scientific principles and realities that we sometimes treat as sacrosanct. Joseph was not ignorant of the improbability of a virgin birth – which might prove to be a real stumbling blocks to us on our way to faith. Joseph simply had different priorities. Being Joseph was all about recognizing the unlimited and surprising freedom of God. He didn’t need to fully understand it. He only needed to trust God and to be obedient.
The word “blessed” is often associated with Mary. The Gospel of Luke which tells the story of the conception and birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective does say that Mary found favor with God, and in her song of praise to God she says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Certainly, Mary was blessed by God, and her role in the incarnation of Jesus Christ was vital. Jesus was one of us because he was the son of Mary, a fully human young woman. If Mary was anything other than fully human, then Jesus would not have been fully human. The later notions that Mary was in a sense super-human or semi-divine cannot be justified by the scant details of her life that are provided by the Gospels. Mary was blessed not bless-ed. That’s what being Mary was about.
The word that is associated with Joseph is “righteous.” Now in Joseph’s day being righteous meant that you strictly followed the Law of Moses. A Law-abiding Jew was a righteous Jew. But Joseph was in a bit of a dilemma. The Law pertaining to his predicament was quite harsh. He must publicly divorce Mary. In fact, since her actions were tantamount to adultery, he could insist that she be stoned to death. In spite of his devotion to the Law, he decided to divorce her quietly. Perhaps they could all get out of this with a few shreds of dignity left.
But, no, that wasn’t God’s plan. The righteous, Law-abiding man was told in his dream to ignore the Law, to take Mary as his wife, to live with the disgrace, to adopt the child, to name him, and to raise him as his own. According to the letter of the Law this was not the righteous thing to do, though it was the compassionate and the loving thing to do. It was actually the harder thing to do, because it involved forgiveness and taking on the burden of fatherhood when no one would have expected him to have to do that. Being Joseph meant that he would need to find a new way to be righteous in obedience to God. For a Jew, this was uncharted territory. Being Joseph was hard.
It has always been harder to live by the spirit of the Law than to live by the letter of the Law. It is easier to be faithful to a list of rules than it is to be faithful to a loving God. That’s because the Law has limits, while God has none. The Law says this is what you must do and no more. Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus said, “You must forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Jesus said again and again, “You have heard that it was said,” that is, in the Law, “but I say to you.” Being Joseph means that we need to enter this uncharted territory in which we cannot simply rely upon the letter of the Law. We must learn the Law of love, and we must rely upon Jesus Christ for our righteousness, because we can never fulfill the limitless Law of love by ourselves. The good news of Christ’s birth is that God was coming into the world to fulfill the demands of the Law of love for us.
So, it seems to me that we are all called to live the life of Joseph. Being Joseph means living at the cutting edge of what God is doing in the world. Being Joseph means that what we “know” or think we “know” can never take priority over the amazing freedom of God to act in the world in unprecedented ways. God always trumps science and anything else we might lift up as authoritative or true. Being Joseph means learning the Law of love and discovering a new righteousness made possible by God through Jesus Christ. In short, being Joseph means trusting God in all things and being obedient to God’s call on your life. Obviously, being Joseph is not going to be easy for us. And that is why Jesus was born, to be our Savior, to be God with us, to help us all as we struggle to be righteous Joseph. For it is only in and through Jesus Christ that we can learn God’s Law of Love and live in faithfulness. Being Joseph is a challenge, but being Joseph is possible for us because of that baby who was about to be born in Bethlehem.