Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we hear Joseph’s story.
He appears in the readings of our Sunday lectionary just this one Sunday, every three years, and then if the calendar gives us a Second Sunday after Christmas and we are not celebrating the Epiphany, the other piece of his story is one of three gospel readings we can choose from. We just don’t spend a lot of time with Jospeh.
In much of our remembering of the Christmas story, Joseph is a collateral figure. His ancestry is the reason for the trip to Bethlehem, but otherwise he stands to the side, silent and stalwart. In my own creche scene, I confess that I always have him standing in the back corner as Mary leans prayerfully toward the holy infant in the manger.
In the gospels Joseph then disappears after the Nativity and infancy narratives, apart from the occasional reference to Jesus being “the carpenter’s son”.
What we learn of Joseph this morning is well worth our attention, however, so let’s pause and consider.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man”. As our story opens, he is presented with a pretty devastating dilemma. The young woman to whom he is engaged, Mary, has come up pregnant. Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary have not yet lived together, so the pregnancy is apparently the result of Mary’s having been with another man.
What a shock. What a hurt. What a humiliation.
In Joseph’s world, betrothal is a legally-binding status that could only end in death or divorce: Joseph and Mary as good as married. Mary, has apparently, in effect, committed adultery.
The Law of Israel is clear: the Torah prescribes in Deuteronomy (Deut 22:23-4) that a betrothed virgin and the man who has lain with her are to be stoned, at the city gates.
By Joseph’s time, however, the rabbis had decreed that the Deuteronomy teaching was not to be followed literally. Appropriate application of the Law, if a betrothal relationship was violated, was to make public the incident with the result that, like poor Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, the betrayers were socially ostracized.
Accepted wisdom, even religious responsibility, let alone a wounded heart and ego dictated that Joseph publicly cast Mary aside.
The moment was, indeed, a test of Joseph’s righteousness.
Many Orthodox Christian icons of the Nativity portray Joseph as standing to the side of a central image of Mary and the infant Jesus, and he is often accompanied by a figure representing Satan. The episode we have heard this morning was, for Joseph, clearly a moment of temptation.
But Joseph, the “righteous man”, opts not to publicize Mary’s apparent betrayal, but instead, plans to divorce her quietly.
Joseph passed the test, and it’s now that the story gets interesting!
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, offering that frequent and favorite biblical admonition “do not be afraid”. From the angel in the dream Joseph learns that the child conceived is by Holy Spirit, that Mary will bear a son, that Joseph is to name him Jesus, and that child to be born will save his people.
Probably the most extraordinary part of this story, from my perspective, is how seriously Joseph takes the vision in the dream. Joseph, amazingly, accepts the vision from the dream as truth, and proceeds as he has been told.
Joseph is a man facing a challenge - committed to living by the law, faced with disturbing information, trying to find his way through painful situation, moved by compassion of own heart, and then after all of that, he is called to engage with a completely outrageous idea.
Joseph is challenged by MYSTERY, which is so often the way we encounter God: he is called, as is Mary, to partner with God in an unfolding event that he does not understand or control.
He could have said “thanks but no thanks”.
He could have dismissed angelic vision.
Joseph certainly could have taken the safe path, and stayed in his comfort zone.
Joseph didn’t take any of the easy ways. I think I need to move him forward in my creche scene.
It IS most comfortable for us to encounter God in small, manageable doses – we like revelations of God that we can safely and easily integrate with life as we know it.
But it sometimes happens – as it happened to Joseph and to Mary – that God is doing something that requires radical trust and courage.
Let it be our prayer
- to be ready for whatever summons comes our way.
- to have our ears open to whatever whispering voice calls us to an unfamiliar path.
- to be righteous, like Joseph, and to be brave enough to help God be born into a suffering world.
I want to end with some words from a song that I always think of at this time of year as we hear the annunciation stories. They’re from a song written by a seminary classmate of mine who did not pursue the path of ordained ministry, but instead writes and performs music on the folk circuit. If you perchance follow the coffeehouse scene, you may know him – Bob Franke.
The song is titled “Say Yes”.
When the angel arrives there will be terror,
The sound of wings like the breaking of a mirror….
It will arrive when you’re little and you’re scared,
It will lay claim to the things you’ve never shared,
Though your heart and your soul are unprepared, say yes.
It may tear you from home and family,…
It may demand you become a refugee…
And when you’re cold and you’re hungry and you’re poor,
When you’re in pain, in a room without a door,
And when the angel returns and asks for more, say yes.
When the legions of angels call you blessed…
And were you faithful in each and every test…
And when they ask you in story and in song
Were you upheld and protected all along?
And did the power of the Spirit make you strong?
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