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Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
18 December 2022
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
We know almost nothing about Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. He shows up in the scriptures a couple of times and then vanishes, giving us little that our imagination could hold on to. But for us who sing the Magnificat and who remember that Mary’s song has been part of the evening liturgy since time immemorial, we see today that there were in fact two annunciations, two announcements and that the heavenly messenger was working overtime preparing the Holy Family for God’s coming to them and to us.
We’re familiar with the story and we no longer raise an eyebrow when we hear about Joseph’s conflicted soul. But just imagine believing your pregnant betrothed that her child is from the Holy Spirit. Most of us would say, “Whatever happened, if you don’t owe me anything else, you owe me honesty.”
Of course, the way the story unfolds, Mary does not have to answer to Joseph, although she may have tried and it likely did not go well, but we don’t know because the Gospels don’t tell us about it. What we do have is the angelic bailing out of Mary, the restoring of her honour by Gabriel, and hand-in-hand with that the instruction to Joseph not to leave his betrothed but to care for her child as his own.
Two important things happen here, aside from the exoneration of Mary. We learn here that the word of the prophet is fulfilled, showing us that God is faithful and remembers God’s promises; and secondly, Jesus is adopted into the family tree of David through his adoption by his stepfather Joseph.
But this does not dissolve Joseph’s dilemma which I imagine to be quite real. I mean, after the angel disappeared, would not his doubts have returned, because the appearance of a divine messenger is not something that can prove anything, and besides who would believe you if you told them that an angel of the Lord had appeared to you? Maybe your neighbour in the pew, but even there I wouldn’t be too sure.
But Joseph stays with Mary, and raises Jesus, and teaches him his trade. And that is the sign that the angel did appear and that something of great significance happened. That Joseph stays is the miracle the Gospel brings to us today. The miracle is not the appearance of the angel. The miracle is that Joseph stays with Mary and becomes a father to Jesus.
Joseph is a decent man. Matthew describes him as a righteous man. That means that he knows the law of the Lord and that he tries to live by it.
That is a beautiful thing. God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
I grew up in the church and in Sunday School we memorized Bible verses. But it was near the end of memory work. We did not do memory work in school, other than the periodic table, or French vocabulary. Sunday School was the last hold-out for memory work, and the young Christoph did not really embrace Sunday School memory work. But whenever I come upon people who did, or who do, I am a little jealous and I think of how foolish it was to neglect it. Of course, knowing Bible verses comes from knowing the story, and knowing the scriptures is still possible, even if we did not go to Sunday School, or never memorized Bible verses.
I think the reason I was not keen on memory work was that I found it mechanical and I saw little value in spouting off Bible verses, not realizing they could find their way into my heart. And later I came to know lots of people who could recite Bible verses but who seemed to have trouble making a connection between the scriptures and the world, except as a tool for evangelism and judgement, but less as a way to understanding the world.
Matthew says that before the angel appeared Joseph had wanted to dismiss Mary quietly. That was a generous interpretation of the Bible verses Joseph had memorized. It could have come a lot worse for Mary.
Many years ago a magazine I have a subscription to ran a beautiful first person piece on a talk a gay Christian gave at a fundamentalist college. The piece is entitled, “Coming Home”1 because the spiritual and theological position of the college represents the part of the church in which the author was raised.
Near the end of the article the author says about the talk he gave,
I ended by sharing a story about my conservative, fundamentalist father. It was the day I finally asked him if he thought I was going to hell. “Johnny,” he had said, “I believe every word in the Bible is God’s literal truth, and the way I read it, it says homosexuality is wrong.” But then he continued, “And I know my son. I know for a fact that he is not evil.” He nodded once, and then said decisively, “I guess both are going to have to be true.”
Lutherans know that the Bible is not God but points us to God. But this a beautiful exchange because here we have someone who knows the Law, someone who has memorized Bible verses, but who also understands that the truth of God cannot be contained in letters alone. In this way he is like righteous Joseph who believes the angel, stays with Mary, and adopts her child, because by doing so Joseph ventures far beyond what he knows to be the Law.
When Jesus has grown and has left his earthly father’s trade to fulfill his heavenly Father’s mission, he tells us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
Joseph’s righteousness exceeds that of scribes and pharisees as he pays attention to the angel and remains with Mary. He does not pursue the options available to him through the law but chooses the way of God. In this way Joseph embodies what is to come in Jesus.
And by doing so, Joseph becomes a role model. Not for willy-nilly deciding what in the scriptures is normative and what is not, but by remembering that the Law does not give life but that the Spirit does.
In choosing this way Joseph receives a gift. Of course, he receives the grace of having Mary for a wife and Jesus as his stepson, but he also receives the grace of making this story not about him, which any other response would have made it. And by not making the story about him, he is able to live into God’s grace. In Jesus we receive such grace. May we live into it.
1 Coming Home – A Gay Christian Speaks to Fundamentalists, Jonathan Odell in Commonweal, 11 January 2010