Advent 4: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Once every three years, this particular Sunday–Advent Four in Year A–rolls around and because Year A draws on Matthewâ€™s gospel, we finally get to hear a little about one of the most enigmatic figures in the New Testament, Joseph, the husband of Mary.
We never hear him speak–even in Matthewâ€™s gospel, which focuses on him, things are said to Joseph, but he never replies. In Lukeâ€™s gospel, with all its attention on women–on Mary and Elizabeth–Joseph is even more shadowy. And then the story jumps straight Â from the infancy of Jesus to the life and mission of Jesus–and Joseph is gone. He is presumably dead, though we are never told that. He simply vanishes into a silence as complete as the one in which he begins.
And yet, imagine how difficult things were for poor Joseph! He is engaged to be married to his young bride and suddenly he learns that she is pregnant–and he knows the child cannot possibly be his. How painful! How heartbreaking! How betrayed he must have felt by this discovery! Surely he would have had much to sayâ€”and yet not a syllable was recorded. We get only the most indirect glimpse of his feelings.
Of course, people have certainly thought about Joseph, and the situation in which he found himself, over the years. There is, for instance, a very famous Christmas carol called the Cherry Tree Carol which includes a direct look at Joseph and gives him a voice and lets him speak, at least for a moment, from his anger and hurt:
Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he,
when he wedded Mary in the land of Galilee…
…Joseph and Mary walkâ€™d through an orchard green,
where was berries and cherries as thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary, so meek and so mild, â€˜
Pluck me one cherry, Joseph, for I am with child.â€™
O then bespoke Joseph with words so unkind,
â€˜Let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee with child.â€™
But that is just where Joseph has taken hold of the wrong end of the stick, of course, and the song sets him straight in no uncertain terms:
O then bespoke the babe within his motherâ€™s womb,
â€˜Bow down then the tallest tree for my mother to have some.â€™
Then bowâ€™d down the highest tree unto his motherâ€™s hand:
when she cried, â€˜See, Joseph, I have cherries at command!â€™
O then bespake Josephâ€” â€˜I have done Mary wrong;
but cheer up, my dearest, and be not cast down.’…
…Then Mary pluckâ€™d a cherry as red as the blood;
then Mary went home with her heavy load.
But even in this carol, which begins with Joseph, notice how, by the end, the focus is off Joseph and onto Mary. Joseph, despite his apology, just doesnâ€™t quite measure up.
And yet, what was asked of Joseph was no less great than what was asked of Mary, and if he seemed to waver, remember that he did not have the same choice Mary did. Mary was asked if she would be willing to endure disgrace and humiliation for the sake of the child that was to be born, and Mary said yes. Joseph was presented with the fait accompli of her pregnancy.
And we are not told how he learned of her pregnancy–the indirect wording of â€œShe was found to be with childâ€ suggests he did not hear it from her, but from others, so that Mary either did not or was unable to explain. So it is almost certain that the news came to him with shame and stigma already attached, and that other people were well aware that the boy was not the son of Joseph. This would be very difficult for a â€œrighteousâ€ man–to marry a girl with such a deep public stain on her reputation. And, in fact,Â what Joseph has to learn is indeed about righteousness: about the difference between self-righteousness Â and true righteousness.
Self righteousness is easily shocked and scandalized, and is characterized by a sort of judging disapproval.
True righteousness always asks the question, â€œWhat does Love demand of me?â€
As I was preparing this sermon, I looked at a number of paintings of The Holy Family, and most show Joseph as an old manâ€”-sometimes a terribly old man, old enough to be Maryâ€™s great grandfather. And the Cherry Tree Carol I quoted from also calls him an â€œold manâ€. But there is absolutely nothing in the gospel to suggest this. After all, Mary was very young, perhaps 12 or 14, and the normal assumption would be that her chosen husband would also be young, perhaps 18 or 20 at most. The legend that Joseph was old is based on several factors. Most importantly, it is the basis for the argument for the perpetual virginity of Mary. This is also not in the Bible, but has been an important claim forÂ many through the centuries. If Joseph was very old, the argument runs, he was not able to consummate the marriage. Also, it tidies up a loose end–if Joseph is old, it explains his disappearance from the story. He was simply so old that he died before the boy grew to manhood.
But there is no evidence in scripture that Joseph was old, and it seems far more likely that he was a young man. And I think it makes the story richer to think of him this way: Joseph is a normal, ardent young man looking forward very much to having his bride for himself and a life together with her and their children. And now the rug has been pulled out from under him. No one would have blamed him if he had publicly repudiated Mary. A terribly self-righteous man would have felt it incumbent upon himself to do so.
But, as Matthew makes clear, Joseph was not that self-righteous. He considered Maryâ€™s dignity and the shame that would follow her if she were publicly disgraced. He was ready simply quietly to dissolve the engagement with no recriminations.
And that was indeed the act of a man with a loving heart. So generous an act that it is clear that Joseph thought that quiet resignation and withdrawal were the utmost that anyone could possibly expect of him.
But God was pushing for more. God was pushing Joseph to claim true righteousnessâ€”to ask himself â€œWhat does Love demand of me?â€ And what Love demanded was that Joseph would embrace Mary and the baby, and care for them, andÂ bear the same pain and shame that Mary had already accepted as the cost of obedience.
God was calling Joseph to surrender the last vestiges of the appearance of righteousness in the eyes of the world, calling him to be fearless and faithful for the sake of love and true righteousness, regardless of what the world thought of him.
Because just this kind of true righteousnessâ€”of love, faithfulness and fearlessnessâ€”would be required of all who would ever love this child.
And so does it still. And, indeed, in all that we do, God calls all of us to faithfulness and to the courage to love in the midst of imperfect relationships and in a world that may at times look so imperfect that it seems unredeemable.
But just as God promised to be with Joseph if he would embrace Maryâ€™s pregnancy and the child that was to come, God promises to be with us even if all the world is against us.
And promises too that this will be, not just enough, but absolutely all that is required.