A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Advent 4 ~ Matthew 1:18-25
We’ve all seen dozens of movies or Christmas pageants in which the story of Jesus’ conception is portrayed, and just about all of them show Mary, filled with angst, coming to Joseph with the news of a miraculous pregnancy, and Joseph flying off the handle in anger, and then eventually coming to terms with it and stoically helping Mary through it all. It’s very powerful, dramatic stuff – and it’s pure fiction. None of that is actually in the scripture.
In Luke’s gospel, Joseph is mentioned a grand total of two times around the birth narrative – once to say he was engaged to Mary who was expecting a child, and once to say he was with her at the manger. That’s it. No big dramatic encounter.
In Matthew’s gospel the news also happens in an offhand and very undramatic way.
Matthew 1:18 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.
Again, that’s it. All that wonderful angsty stuff in those biblical movies is just not there. It makes for a great story, but it’s not based at all in scripture. So, if Joseph is barely mentioned, what can we learn from him? Plenty!
In Jesus’ time, an engagement, more properly called a betrothal, was a legally binding thing. To become betrothed, the groom (or his family) would make a symbolic journey to the bride’s home to pay the bride’s family a dowry to secure the bonding of the families. Marriage was very much a transaction, and sadly, women were not afforded the same rights and powers as men. Upon payment the couple was legally betrothed and breaking a betrothal was essentially a divorce, and it incurred penalties and shame. Then, often a year later, the groom would journey to the bride’s home again and bring her back to his home in a bridal procession, a short marriage ceremony would be held, the marriage was consummated, and then a 7-day wedding party happened.
So. Engagement was marriage without cohabitation. And, believe it or not, lots of folks even way back then were just as tempted as modern day people are to maybe not wait for all the official things to happen before they, well, made things happen. If you know what I mean?!
Yes, I’m suggesting what it sounds like I’m suggesting – that Joseph is Jesus’ biological father. If your theology needs the conception to be miraculous and immaculate there’s certainly room for that too. You can read the scriptures either way.
Why am I making such a big deal out of Joseph’s paternity here? Because what happens next reveals so much about his character, and serves as a lesson for us all.
After learning of the pregnancy, Matthew 1:19 tells us: (Mary’s) husband Joseph (remember, they’re legally bound), being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
According to their laws, as I understand them (and yes, there’s some dispute even among scholars about exactly which laws were in place at that time), having discovered his betrothed was pregnant, Joseph had every right to divorce her, and possibly even have her stoned. From what I can discern it doesn’t even matter whether the man did the deed himself or if it was adultery, he could legally, and righteously, claim she was ‘damaged goods’ and reject her – and everyone would have thought he did the right and honourable thing. But because Joseph was a good guy he decided to do it quietly and not bring more shame and dishonour upon her. (Although, she’d still be pregnant, so she’d still be shamed – but he wouldn’t!)
Matthew 1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream
Ok, can you picture it? Joseph has thought hard about his situation and has resolved to divorce Mary. He has every right, and he’s decided to do it. He takes a deep breath, nods his head, and lays down to sleep knowing he’s acting according to the law. And then, in the night, when his mind is quiet and not racing, when the world is not noisily clamouring for his attention, when his guard is down, Joseph has an encounter with the Presence of God in the form of an angel.
And the angel 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.”
(The name Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua) which means ‘God saves’.)
Why would Joseph be afraid to take Mary as his wife? Because doing so meant he would share in her shame and disgrace. And, (and this is my interpretation) doing so would be admitting that he was, in fact, the one who fathered the child. In other words, by going through with the marriage Joseph was going way above and beyond the requirements of their law and their culture. You may say he’s just being a man of conscience. True, but I’m saying that the law did not require that of him. And for him to go outside the law and act this way is a remarkable expression of courage and faith. No, it’s more than that – it’s an act of tremendous love.
Inspired by a deeply spiritual encounter with the Presence of God, Joseph’s heart was broken open and he experienced a transformation. His eyes were opened in a new way, and he realized that love and compassion are supposed to trump the letter of the law, and that by writing Mary off he was actually diminishing himself.
Imagine the story if Joseph had rejected this spiritual awakening. Mary is divorced and disgraced. Jesus may or may not have even been born, and certainly would never have been raised in the way he was – which gave him the foundation for what he would do.
This is all a very human thing here. Sure, it could be a miraculous, immaculate conception. But it doesn’t have to be. And if it isn’t – if it’s a messy, human, earthy thing just like you or I could get tangled up in, then for me it has infinitely more power to teach me something about myself, my humanity, and my faith.
Jesus is not Superman masquerading as Clark Kent. Jesus was profoundly shaped by deeply spiritual and loving parents – Mary and Joseph. If Joseph wasn’t open to God’s presence, Jesus doesn’t become the ‘one who saves’ through his teaching and his life. Instead of being an afterthought, and someone who is virtually ignored in our tradition, we ought to be holding Joseph up as the poster child of faithfulness and transformation – and love.
Instead of doing just what was expected of him, or what was required by the culture, Joseph went above and beyond and embraced a higher love.
Joseph risked everything.
He leaned into shame and disgrace when he could have taken an easier path and avoided it.
He sacrificed his comfort and reputation for something deeper, something much more valuable, something More.
He started by settling for peace of mind – but in the end he embraced peace of heart – something that transformed not only his life, but the lives of every single person in this room, thousands of years later.
Joseph and Mary teach us that once you truly encounter God’s Spirit and let it work on and in you that you begin to see the world through new eyes – that the world turns right side up for you – and you move forward in your life with love as the highest value.
Perhaps this is where Jesus got the idea that he would live out through his whole ministry – to love above all – to be radically inclusive – to birth God’s love into the world by loving everyone he encountered.
Perhaps Jesus learned that lesson from his Dad who accepted and loved his partner regardless of the cost?
Perhaps Jesus learned that lesson from his Mom who incarnated God’s gift despite the cost and birthed God’s presence into the world in the most unique way?
Perhaps Jesus learned to ‘Love All’ because he knew love so intimately – from Dad, from Mom, and most importantly from God.
How does all this fit into our Advent Conspiracy theme? We are ordinary folks, just like Joe and Mary. They didn’t do splashy, noticeable things. They didn’t overthrow a government, or fight a battle, or change the laws, or write best-selling books, or have a zillion followers on Instagram, or dazzle the masses in any way. They both just lived their faith with openness, fullness, and integrity. They did basic things – they trusted God, and they loved – and that love has meant everything. That it all probably began in very messy, human ways makes it all the more powerful for me. I can change the world – you can change the world – simply by trusting God and loving. Mary and Joseph would have had absolutely no idea they were changing everything, or that 2000 years later we’d all be gathered here being inspired by their faithfulness. They just loved.
That’s the conspiracy we’re trying to be part of – a conspiracy of love. This Christmas, instead of taking the easy way out and doing what the world expects us to do, we choose to live it differently. We choose to focus on worshipping fully by keeping this sacred story on our front burners. We choose to spend less money because we want to focus on the relational aspects of the season. We choose to give more of ourselves to show our love for one another, and birth God’s love into the world in our own unique way. And in doing all this we develop and deepen our posture of love, and we love more fully – we love all.
A conspiracy is when people join, or act, or plan, or plot together. It has an element of the subversive or the dangerous about it. Our conspiracy has sought to do nothing less than take back the real meaning of Christmas – that once you truly encounter God’s Spirit and let it work on and in you that you begin to see the world through new eyes – that the world turns right side up for you – and you move forward in your life with love as the highest value – birthing that love into reality. I cannot imagine a merrier Christmas than that!