Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A, 19 December 2010)

It’s not easy being Joseph

Isaiah 7.10-16
Matthew 1.18-25


Sometimes, a young couple expecting their first child will say to me, ‘We’re not going to let having a baby change our lives.’ I just smile. Having a child is like a freight train colliding with your life. Nothing is the same ever again. And everyone finds that out sooner rather than later.

Mary and Joseph were no exception to this universal rule. Usually on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we look at how Mary the Mother of our Lord was affected by the coming birth of her first child. We look at Mary’s story two years out of three. But once every three years, we look at the announcement of the birth of Jesus from another perspective. Today, it’s Joseph’s turn.

In Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary were ‘betrothed’ to be married. We don’t ‘betroth’ children to each other any more; it meant that they were promised to each other. Joseph and Mary’s families had arranged that one day they would get married. When they were both old enough.

The decision had been made for them; a betrothal was serious stuff. Joseph and Mary were a genuine ‘item’—a celibate item, but an item nonetheless. Only a divorce could separate them. And a divorce could only mean a scandal.

So what could Joseph do when he finds out that Mary is pregnant?

One thing is clear about Joseph: he is ‘a righteous man’. In other words, a good man, an honest man. Desmond Tutu would say he has ubuntu. I wonder if Jesus may have been thinking a little of Joseph when he said to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’. He had to learn that kind of thing from someone.

Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. He once said,

There are very few people who realise what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands and let themselves be formed by his grace.

I see Joseph as ‘a righteous man’ who abandoned himself into God’s hands, just as Mary did when she said to the angel,

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

So as a man abandoning himself into God’s hands, what is Joseph to do about Mary? He may be a righteous man, but he’s not ‘hardline’ righteous. What do I mean by that?

It is possible to be ‘hardline’ in our righteousness. We can be righteous in a way that sticks to the rules above everything else. A ‘hardline’ righteous man would make sure the rules were followed to the letter. If Joseph had followed a hard line, he could have taken steps to have Mary stoned to death—along with the father of her baby, whoever he was. It says so in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 22:

If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

In fact, Deuteronomy really gives Joseph no choice in the matter. ‘You shall…stone them to death…’ The Bible can be pretty hardline! The bottom line is this: Joseph could have had Mary stoned to death and still be considered a righteous man. Let that sink in.

But Joseph is a good man. He’s not rule-bound. Joseph doesn’t want Mary to be the object of scorn, he doesn’t want her life to be ruined. He must have loved Mary, because he was ‘unwilling to expose her to public disgrace’ and ‘planned to dismiss her quietly’. He thought he’d send her away before the baby bump showed.

But this baby was a freight train about to collide with Joseph’s life. Things would never be the same again for righteous Joseph.

We’ve heard the story: Joseph goes to bed. He’s made his mind up about what he’ll do. But God has other plans: in a dream, an angel tells Joseph that Mary’s son will fulfil the ancient dream of Israel for a deliverer, a Messiah. He listens to the dream, and takes Mary for his wife, removing the shame from her.

A dad has a great influence upon his children, for good or ill; and Joseph was a great choice to serve as Jesus’ dad.

In our Prayer of Confession, we prayed:

We fail to make the ways straight for justice,
nor offer a welcome when you come as stranger.
We dismiss prophets and angels…

In the little we know about Joseph, we see him make the ways straight for justice; we see him offer a welcome to this strange baby and listen to the angelic voice. In doing this, Joseph makes choices that put the later teaching of Jesus into action.

We might expect that; Joseph was a good man. He lived according to the ways of the God of Israel. Is it not reasonable to suggest that Jesus learned from Joseph? Isn’t that one of the things it means to be a real human being, that we learn from our parents?

Matthew’s Gospel summarises Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which is found in chapters 5-7. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Joseph had already shown mercy to Mary.

Jesus says:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Joseph risked gossip and being labelled a ‘cuckold’ for Jesus.

Jesus says:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

Joseph did not judge Mary.

Jesus teaches:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Joseph followed this ‘Golden Rule’ in the way he related to Mary.

Joseph’s heart was prepared for the coming of Jesus into his life. Joseph was a follower of God, one of those the Old Testament calls ‘the poor in the land’. Joseph was one of God’s hidden ones, living with faith, with humanity, and in truth. He was a righteous man, but not ‘hardline righteous’. Joseph was a good man. Joseph taught Jesus.

God was able to do wonderful things through Joseph. We don’t hear about him in the Gospel stories; perhaps he had died, we don’t know. But he played a great role in Jesus’ life.

If we want God to do more in our lives, we would do well also to prepare our hearts. To give him room, to spend time with him. To get into those spiritual practices we talked about earlier this year, like prayer, simplicity, confession.

In doing this, we make the rough places of our hearts smooth, we level the mountainous obstacles that we put in the Spirit’s way. We become useable by God, just like Joseph.

What is it that stops us? Fear? Love of comfort? Recall what Ignatius Loyola said:

There are very few people who realise what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands and let themselves be formed by his grace.

Joseph is a great example to us of a life abandoned into to God’s hands. A life simply centred on God and the community God had placed him in. We can be so centred, even (and especially!) as Christmas draws near. If we only will take Joseph as an example.



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Filed under church year, RCL, sermon, ubuntu

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