“Hello . . . Joseph? It’s Mary.
“Say, I’ve got some great news. Remember how we said we wanted to start a family sooner rather than later? Well, we’ve got our start – I’m pregnant!
“Joseph? Joseph? Yes, of course I know you can’t be the father. Mother and I had ‘the talk’ a long time ago. But it’s OK; I’m pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
“Holy . . . Spirit. H . . . O . . . L . . . you know, of God.
“Well, yes, I know God has never worked that way before. This must be one of those ‘Behold a new thing’s the prophets wrote about. After all, God had never parted a Red Sea before either, right? But . . .”
“Yes, well, sure, I understand. Of course you need some time. I had to do some . . . ‘pondering’ myself. Call me back, okay? Okay? Joseph?”
How would you feel, at the receiving end of that news? Joseph believes his life is set on a certain, pretty good, track. It’s official: he’s engaged. It will be him and Mary, for keeps. They’ll have a small but nice house in Nazareth, his carpentry tools out back, some kids . . . There’s a nice plan in place. And now suddenly the dreams are shattered, with this one sudden announcement: “Mary was found to be with child.”
You’d have to feel confused; betrayed; angry. “I thought I knew her. I thought we were all set. I’ve done everything right, and don’t deserve this.” Imagine if your daughter or granddaughter came home pregnant, offering Mary’s explanation for her condition. The best one could probably do was conclude that the poor girl has deluded herself.
And even if Joseph can think that way, things are still all messed up now. Because, as we discussed last Sunday, the law was clear when the evidence showed that an engaged woman had been physically involved with another man. “Engagement,” back then, was the legal beginning of the marriage. The contract was already in force. The woman was already called “the wife”; if he died she was considered a widow. Unfaithful behavior during an engagement made her officially guilty of adultery. And the law required that the man write a certificate of divorce and send her away; he had no choice.
In fact, the law required that she be stoned to death. A story about the Holy Spirit wouldn’t help her, not in the eyes of the village. The only thing that Joseph’s repeating that story to the village would accomplish would be to get Joseph labeled a gullible fool. Joseph’s life is shattered. There will be no Mary, no nice little home. There will be, instead, profound loss, and public embarrassment and humiliation. Joseph’s hope and dreams are gone.
As we do our preparing of ourselves for Advent this year, we’ve been looking for guidance as to how to do that, how to prepare ourselves, to those people who prepared themselves for the first coming of Christ so long ago – people like John the Baptist and Mary. How can they serve as models or example for us, as we try to figure out how to prepare? Today we turn . . to the unhappy Joseph.
Joseph, we are told, was a “just,” or “righteous” man. That means Joseph will follow the Law. He will divorce Mary. Things have developed in Israel, it seems, in such a way that he does have one choice: he can pursue the on-the-books law to try to get Mary stoned to death, following Deuteronomy 22:21, or he can choose instead to just send her away quietly, without the public humiliation and capital punishment. But he will divorce her. That’s the Law, so that’s what a righteous man does.
Joseph picks the “quiet” route; he shows mercy toward Mary, compassion for her situation. He doesn’t indulge whatever feelings of anger or betrayal are boiling inside of him – doesn’t go for the revenge – even though he’s entitled to. He swallows hard and plans to dismiss her quietly.
Joseph acts in a just and compassionate way, and so can serve as a model in that way for us right off the bat: “Justice,” he shows us, doesn’t have to mean seeking the harshest possible penalty. Justice can incorporate compassion. One can enforce a law, combined with a sense of mercy. In our world, where the news is often full of decisions about judging and punishing and enforcing – nationally and internationally – it’s not a bad lesson in itself: Justice can include compassion.
But Joseph’s story isn’t quite over yet.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, and lets him know: “Joseph, the child conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. Emmanuel, God with us, is on the way through her. Don’t be afraid to take her as your wife.”
Why “don’t be afraid”? Isn’t marrying her what he’s wanted to do all along? What is there to be “afraid” of? Well, this is a new and strange and mysterious thing, isn’t it? If you don’t like new and mysterious things, there’s something you might wish to avoid for starters. Or maybe one would be afraid of being such a central part of God’s plan: the responsibility. The attention. Being noticed, and remembered. And being part of God’s plan isn’t always easy; ask Moses or Jeremiah. Or maybe it’s a much more immediate concern: you’d still have to consider what it’s going to do to your reputation in the village, still think about looking foolish: “She said she wasn’t with another man – and he believed her! What a schmuck!” See, all of them didn’t have the dream. Or one might be afraid of all of the above. So even if Joseph has been reassured about Mary’s faithfulness, there is still plenty of potential difficulty ahead.
And Joseph can avoid it. All he has to do is the reasonable thing, the expected thing, the legal thing. He can still divorce Mary. It would be easier to divorce Mary. He can avoid all the complications we just mentioned by following the law, by doing what his neighbors would advise him to do, by sticking with tradition. He would be within his legal rights; he would still be a “just” man; he would still be admired in many circles, for having done it quietly instead of vindictively. All the current standards of justice and righteousness, not to mention convenience, say “let her go; let her worry about the child.”
And Joseph the just man doesn’t do what traditional justice calls for. Instead, Joseph steps up, to a new, higher level of righteousness. Joseph sets aside his plan, to divorce Mary, and his notion of what’s right based on a strict following of the Law, no questions asked; and Joseph follows instead God’s plan, as announced by the angel, and God’s understanding of what’s righteous in this case. Joseph looks at his and his neighbors’ and his culture’s understanding of “the right thing to do” on this hand, and God’s mysterious instruction on this hand, and Joseph steps up, to God’s new level of righteousness, even though it will make life more difficult. Joseph . . . steps up.
Do you have any plans right now for the next few weeks, in which you know what you could do, what you are legally entitled to do, what people would expect you to do – but in which there might be a better, more righteous alternative? Will you have the opportunity to follow Joseph’s example, and “step up,” this Advent and Christmas season?
- We can insist on getting our way when it comes to making the Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve family plans, instead of taking into account other people’s wishes. That’s legal. We wouldn’t get arrested. Perhaps we’d be standing up for “tradition,” for the way we’ve always celebrated the holiday. Perhaps these holiday “negotiations” are an annual event in our family, and everyone knows that the one who’s most stubborn “wins.” We can stick to our guns, and justify it. We’ll have violated no laws. But is that the best way?
- We can choose to not give to people in need this season. There’s plenty of available arguments: they’re getting enough help already. I worked for mine; why don’t they? Hey, I take care of my own first. Perhaps our friends would ridicule us if we did drop a dollar in the homeless man’s cup, did mention our donation to those on welfare. They’d say “What’s the matter with you? They’re playing you for a fool.” We can find reasons not to help, and we’d be within our rights, and within the law, and maybe doing what’s expected in our circle. But is that the most righteous way? Does that kind of “justice” include compassion, the benefit of a doubt, like Joseph’s did?
- We can choose to not worship regularly the next few weeks. We’ve put our time in today. We’ve been “seen” in church; we wouldn’t be harshly judged. We can say, “I think Christmas is a time families should spend at home together,” or “I’m on vacation,” or “My church is back in Paris, not here in Grandma’s town.” We could get away with that. Or we could consider “stepping up” our praise and listening to God a bit.
- We can participate in mean-spirited conversations and jokes with the rest of a crowd, go around making harsh, critical, judgmental statements. There will be a lot of that going around, especially as we come up to an election year – people who are trying to look clever and witty at the expense of others. It’s legal; it’s permitted. We might even impress a few folks. But is that the most righteous thing to do?
- We can side with “tradition,” or “the way it’s always been done” when the group we’re members of has choices before it, so as not to ruffle any feathers, not create any touchy situations, be seen as “a guardian of what we’ve always stood for” – even if deep down inside we suspect God may be calling our group to something new. It’s easier. It’s familiar. It’s more peaceful in the short run. But is it best?
- We can choose not to do any reflection, any looking inside, this Advent season; can avoid asking hard questions of ourselves, avoid confessing sins, holding on to things we like to do without looking into their consequences. Who would know? Reflection and repentance are so nice and . . . private that way. Or we can follow Joseph’s example this Advent season, and prepare for the coming of the Lord by stepping up to a higher level of righteousness, a way even more in keeping with what God’s calling us to today. Even if it’s not the easiest way.
Joseph was a “just man” before Mary, before the dream, before all those complications came along. Joseph was doing all right. But Joseph discovered a next, higher level of righteousness, a call from God to a new thing, and he set aside his plans and his traditional understandings, in favor of God’s plan and God’s understanding, and he climbed up to meet the challenge. May we all celebrate Christ’s coming by joining him, in whatever ways we can.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for Joseph’s example as a “person of Advent” preparing for Jesus’ birth – for his openness to hearing your voice, for his willingness to follow where that voice led, for his recognition that there can be a more just, more righteous way to be, even more than he’s ever known before. Help us to listen for you, to follow, to be able to learn new and better ways. Amen.