4 Advent – December 18, 2022
This morning we hear about Jesus’ birth from Matthew, through the perspective of Joseph. We don’t hear much about Joseph in the scriptures, he is the would-be husband of Mary, a quiet, unassuming descendant of the House of David.
As Matthew tells the story, the God-fearing carpenter wakes up one morning to find that his world has shattered. His fiancée is pregnant, he knows for sure that he is not the father, and suddenly, he has no good options to choose from. If he calls attention to Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she might be stoned to death, as Levitical law proscribes. If he divorces her quietly, she’ll be reduced to begging or prostitution to support herself and the child. If, on the other hand, he marries her, her son will be Joseph’s heir, instead of his own biological child. And then, well, Joseph will be tainted forever by the scandal of Mary’s illicit pregnancy, and by her ridiculous claim that the baby’s father is somehow God.
Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about Joseph’s anguish. But we do know he didn’t believe Mary’s story until the angel appeared to him. Why would he? Why would anyone? I think we have a tendency to sanitize this story, but it’s so much more powerful for us if we recognize that Joseph was a human being, with real feelings, just like us.
I can relate to what Debi Thomas shares with us about Joseph. She says: “In choosing Joseph to be Jesus’s earthly father, God led a “righteous” man with an impeccable reputation straight into doubt, shame, scandal, and controversy. God’s call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness, and purity. It required him to become the talk of the town — and not in a good way. It required him to embrace a mess he had not created. To love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son.
In other words, God’s messy plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most. The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable. So much for living a well-ordered life.
Then again, Joseph’s story gives me hope. I can’t relate to a person who leaps headlong into obedience. I can relate, however, to a person who struggles, to a person whose “yes” is cautious, ambivalent, and scared. I’m grateful that Joseph’s choice was a hard one. I’m glad he struggled, because I struggle, too”.
Thank you, Debi. A messy plan, indeed. I know my own life gets messy, it gets complicated, I do some stupid things. So, hearing the reality of Joseph’s story gives me great hope. Interestingly, the verses of Matthew just prior to this passage is Jesus’ genealogy.
He mentions Abraham — the patriarch who abandoned his son, Ishmael, and twice endangered his wife’s safety in order to save his own skin. He mentions Jacob, the trickster who humiliated his older brother. He mentions David, who slept with another man’s wife and then ordered that man’s murder to protect his own reputation. He mentions Tamar, who pretended to be a sex worker, and Rahab, who was one. These are just a few representative samples.
So, do you notice anything? Anything like messiness? Complication? Scandal? Sin? Isn’t it interesting that God, who could have chosen any genealogy for his Son, chose a long line of brokenness, imperfection, dishonor, and scandal.
It seems the perfect backdrop for his beautiful works of restoration, healing, hope, and second chances.
God still works in our messy lives, today. Giving us second chances. Granting us mercy and forgiveness when we recognize that we’ve done wrong.
No wonder the angel’s first words to Joseph were, “Do not be afraid.” If we want to enter into God’s messy story, then perhaps these are the first words we need to hear, too. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid when God’s work in your life looks alarmingly different than you thought it would. Do not be afraid when God upends your cherished assumptions about righteousness. Do not be afraid when God asks you to stand alongside the scandalous, the defiled, the suspected, and the shamed. Do not be afraid when God asks you to love something or someone more than your own spotless reputation. Do not be afraid of the precarious, the fragile, the vulnerable, the impossible. Joseph was human.
God comes through ordinary, mixed up people, in order to save ordinary, mixed up people. “Do not be afraid of the mess. The mess is the place where God is born”. The mess is the place where God is born. And God is born in us over and over and over again. Matthew tells us, “And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us’. Thanks be to God that God loves us with an extraordinary love. Amen.