Matthew 1: 18-25
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
December 18, 2016
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I am wondering if these weeks leading to Christmas have been difficult for you. I know they have been for some. Whether it is harder this year in particular or it has been tough for years, for many of us the days before Christmas are not easy. Perhaps it is because you are aware of broken relationships or regrets you still hold close. Maybe you miss someone or several someones who can no longer celebrate with you. Or maybe it is simply that you think you are supposed to feel a certain way right now and you just can’t feel it. Whatever it might be, this time of year is tough on many of us.
I bring all this up to say that if we think the weeks before Christmas are tough for us, we can’t hold a candle to what these same weeks have been like for Joseph. When we meet him in Chapter One of Matthew, we learn that he has been rocked by public scandal. We know it was public, that Mary’s pregnancy has not been kept under wraps, because Matthew writes, “Mary was found to be with child.” Matthew does not write, “Mary told Joseph in secret and they made a plan.” No. The whole town knows. And Joseph is furious.
We know he is furious because the word that our Bibles translates as “resolved” really means “fuming” or “furious” in every other usage we have of it. The only other two times we find it in the New Testament are these: when King Herod is angry after he hears that the wise men ignored him and went home another way; and the rage the congregation feels in Luke 4 when they rose up to stone Jesus. That is the same word that is here translated “resolved.” But Joseph is not resolved. Joseph is fuming.
The translators have softened it for us here, perhaps so we won’t think ill of Joseph or perhaps so our Christmas sensibilities won’t be offended, but I think it is helpful to know that someone as righteous as Joseph is furious as he headed toward Christmas. He was a real person with real feelings and things were definitely not going well.
This is the way the Christmas story goes. If we know only one thing about it, we know that the birth of Jesus took place because of divine initiative. None of the people involved would have chosen it this way. None of them would have signed up for their role. In the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are passive players in God’s plan. Mary cries out “let it be” and Joseph is introduced to the whole drama while he is sleeping.
And this is where Joseph’s story differs from Mary’s. For though he is asleep, upon waking he has a choice to make. This righteous man, this man who follows every commandment, has an ethical dilemma: what is true righteousness? In Joseph’s case this doesn’t just happen to him once but three times. Three times he passively falls to sleep and three times he dreams about God’s plans: that he marry a woman, that he flee to Egypt, that he return home again. Three times he sleeps and, three times, upon waking he must make a choice. Each time God asks a hard thing of him and each time God blows apart Joseph’s preset categories and plans.
In classical Protestant thought, we put all the emphasis on God’s grace. In classical Catholic thought, they put all the emphasis on responsive obedience. But neither are right if they are alone. We need both. We may dream and, in passively dreaming, receive; but, upon waking, we have a choice to make.
Which brings us to the question: why there is a Joseph at all? Think about it for a minute: a virgin birth was always going to be embarrassing. There was no way around it; someone was going to have some explaining to do. Mary was always going to have a lot to face. But she could have been alone. She could have been single, or widowed. Then a pregnancy would still have been embarrassing but only to her. But God sends Jesus to an engaged woman, guaranteeing that someone else would be embarrassed too. Why?
I think it is because Joseph is the one in the story who has a choice. Mary has no choice of course. By the time she knows about it. the pregnancy is a done deal. But Joseph has a choice. He feels the embarrassment and then he has the dream. Upon waking he has a choice: will he be faithful or will he not? In Joseph we get to see ourselves , for we have a choice too. Very few of us will find ourselves forcibly and divinely pregnant but all of us will be faced with choices. God will not force us in these choices: we can be faithful or we can not.
Let’s learn from Joseph and let’s do what he did. Once we’ve woken to God’s will, we do this: One, we prepare to do the hard thing; and two, we don’t let ourselves be afraid. That is what Joseph did. He made the more difficult decision. He took Mary as his wife, even with all the talk and even under the weight of the questions and scandal. Even when it went against everything he had been taught. Then he heeded the angel’s words and refused to be afraid.
In so doing, this man, who was known as righteous because of the laws he kept, became truly righteous because of the laws he broke. He shows all of us the beginning of a new value system instituted in the birth of God’s Son, one that might even ask us to go against our values and principles in order to follow God’s plan.
How do we follow in his path? How do we become truly righteous? Let’s learn from Joseph again and choose what he chose. First, we choose to be sensitive to God’s will. We listen for what he would have us do and we follow him even when it goes against what we want. Next, we are sensitive to other people. We seek out ways so that others will not be shamed or hurt, even when it comes at a cost to us. We are sensitive to God’s will AND sensitive to others. When we do that, righteousness is sure to be near.
If these weeks have gotten you down, if they are complicated and fraught, please remember that you are in good company. These weeks have been complicated and fraught since their very beginning. Joseph shows us the way through it, the way to righteousness in the midst of it. That’s why he is in the story. He is there to show us what the Christian faith will ask of us. It will ask hard things of us. It will ask us to upend everything we thought we knew about following rules and being a “good” person. When we wake up to the difficult choice God wants us to make, we will have to decide for ourselves. And Joseph is also there to show us the great joy we can have in choosing the Christian faith, even if it is the more difficult path. That God will send Emmanuel—his very self with us—and that Emmanuel can save us from our sins. Waking up to that , offers the best Christmas choice of them all. Amen.