I have to admit that I haven’t seen that many Christmas pageants. (The truth is, we brothers don’t get out much.) But of the Christmas pageants I have witnessed or been a part of, I am certain that I have never seen one where Joseph is the star of the show. The spotlight is always on Mary and the baby. Joseph stands off to the side, in the shadows, as a necessary, if somewhat embarrassing, appendage, an actor without lines and without anything to do, really.
But in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, Joseph, not Mary, is the primary human actor. Matthew’s narrative takes great pains to identify Joseph as the father of Jesus, tracing out his link to King David in the elaborate genealogy that opens the gospel. And in our gospel lesson today, even if Jesus’ birth is clearly a miracle of God’s power through the Spirit, still Joseph is the real father, who by naming the child according to God’s command, in effect adopts this child as his own.It is Matthew who tells us of Joseph’s dilemma, his plan to “dismiss her quietly” and the dream that changed his mind. In Matthew’s story it is Joseph, not Mary, who responds to the angel’s directive with unhesitating obedience. In effect, it is Joseph who accepts the word of the angel and who says by his actions, “Behold, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
The text tells us that Mary was “engaged” to Joseph, but that word hardly captures the meaning of the Greek word it represents (mnesteuo). Other translations tell us that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph (RSV), or that she was “espoused” to Joseph (KJV), or that she “was pledged to be married to Joseph” (NIV). But all of these fail to give us a true picture. The problem with saying that Mary was “engaged” to Joseph is that we know that an engagement can be broken off informally; there is no need for legal action. But the situation of Mary and Joseph was more complicated than that.
According to the custom of the day, there were two stages for a couple to go through in the marital process: There was first the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin), which was a marriage contract typically arranged by the parents that could only be broken by divorce. Then there was a second step, considerably later, when the groom actually took his wife to his home, often following an elaborate wedding feast attended by relatives and guests.
In the lesson we read today from Matthew’s gospel, we find the couple in between these two events: the betrothal had been agreed upon and in the eyes of the law the couple was married, but the actual wedding ceremony was now in jeopardy. And the reason it was in jeopardy is that Mary was found to be pregnant before she and Joseph had had marital relations.
Joseph was “a righteous man,” Matthew tells us, and because of this he had no alternative other than to divorce her. This might not satisfy modern readers, who might think that Joseph could have explored other ways out of the situation. But in Joseph’s mind, there was no alternative. It is obvious, however, that Joseph’s righteousness is tempered by compassion: he is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” and plans to dismiss her quietly. Fortunately, Mary knows nothing of these deliberations and in any case, it all becomes a moot point when an angel intervenes, telling Joseph in a dream that he is to go through with the second step of the marriage process. The angel explains how it is that Mary is pregnant and announces Jesus’ forthcoming birth.
One thing we can say about the Bible is that it rarely presents its heroes without blemish. The characters in the Bible are real and their lives are often just as messy as ours sometimes are. The heroes and heroines of the Bible struggle with anger and jealousy and lust; they are in turns faithful and unfaithful; they deceive and betray and scheme; their lives are every bit as complicated as ours. So it should be no surprise to us that the birth story of Jesus is full of the messiness of life: a young woman, betrothed to a righteous man who faces difficult decisions regarding his religious tradition, the law, and their status in the community. God comes to people in the messiness of their lives, in the common and everyday circumstances with which they struggle – and continues to do so.
Another thing that can be said is this: that God’s call often, if not always, disrupts our lives and steers us off in a direction we could not have anticipated or chosen. God calls Abraham to leave his homeland for an unknown destination. God calls Moses to abandon his sheep in the desert and to present himself before Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the world, to demand that he release the Israelites from their captivity. God calls Jeremiah to speak harsh words to God’s people even though he is only a youth. God calls Mary to accept a role she could not have imagined in her wildest dreams, a role that turn her life upside-down and bring her both great joy and great suffering. God calls Paul to literally reverse direction and to become a servant and leader of the very church he is persecuting. And God calls Joseph – God-fearing, righteous Joseph – to be the father of this unplanned-for child and the husband of this young girl, a role that will expose him to the gossip and suspicion of his neighbors and that will require him to act contrary to the very laws in which he has always put his trust.
This is what happens when God intrudes into our nicely laid plans and decisions, when God completely disrupts and overturns our expectations, our “rules,” our assumptions about what “righteousness” and “holiness” should look like in our lives, and in everyone else’s.
Joseph can be a model for us. When God’s call comes to him, Joseph speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to the call. Matthew’s account makes this clear by describing Joseph’s actions of response with exactly the same words used in the angel’s instructions. Three times he is told in a dream to take certain actions, and three times he does exactly what he is told.
And there is a cost. His reputation is threatened. His good name is put at risk. He will be the object of suspicion and perhaps even scorn. The neatly-ordered, righteous life he had envisioned for himself and his family will be lost. Nothing will ever be normal again.
This is the danger of inviting God into our lives. This is the danger of praying the prayer we pray during Advent, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come among us.” There’s no telling what God will do. There’s no telling how our plans and dreams and well-ordered lives may be disrupted. There’s no telling what direction God might send us off in. It’s a RISK! A risk to our reputation, to our dreams of success, to our well-ordered plans. It’s a risk to ask God into our lives, to ask God to choose us and send us and use us as God wishes!
But here is the great part: God is with us. “A young girl will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, God with us.” Matthew reminds us of this at the very beginning of his gospel and at the end, when Jesus promises his disciples that he will be with them always, to the end of the age. God is with us – always – and with that assurance, we can dare to welcome the risk, to do the uncommon thing in response to God’s invitation, to open ourselves to the disruptive and transformative power of the living God.
What will “righteousness” look like in your life? What shape will “obedience” to God’s call take for you? What will God ask you to risk? And will you dare to do it?
“Stir up your power, Lord, and come among us,” we pray.
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