Fourth Sunday in Advent
It is quite possible that Joseph might have missed Christmas. There is a whole lot of space between his discovery that his intended had been unfaithful, and the angelic visitation that set him on the right path. Much could have happened, and much did happen in that intervening space. We love to romanticize the Christmas Story, and it is only in our romanticizing of the Christmas Story that Joseph’s emotional agony and spiritual struggle becomes buried beneath all of the glitter of the season.
There are many in our world who miss Christmas every year. And they miss it, not because they do not have a Christmas tree, or a Christmas dinner, or because they lack enough presents, or because they will be separated from their families, but rather they will miss Christmas because they will fail to observe the wonder and the glory of the birth of Jesus the Messiah.
For reasons known only to God, Joseph was not invited to become a willing participant in his own drama. He got no word in advance that the girl he had chosen to become his wife was destined to become the mother of the Messiah.
Marriage was different in those days. It was more of a family thing than a couple thing. And so when Mary and Joseph reached a happy point in their relationship, they called their families together and asked that a marriage be arranged for them. The first step was the formal announcement of a betrothal. The betrothal was a legal, contractual, and covenantal arrangement, accomplished in the presence of witnesses. If something went wrong during the betrothal period, and the engagement needed to be dissolved, it required a legal divorce.
And in Joseph’s relationship with Mary, something went wrong; something went tragically wrong. The shape of Mary’s body was changing. It could not be denied. She was pregnant. And her pregnancy had not one thing to do with Joseph.
He knew for a fact that he was not the father of this child growing inside of Mary’s distended abdomen. She had been unfaithful. She had been with another man. She had willingly violated and betrayed the sacred covenant of her betrothal. In addition to the initial anger, there must have been some deep disappointment and a profound sense of loss in Joseph’s heart.
Mary, of course, had a different story. An angel had visited her, announcing that she would become the mother of the Messiah. She had consented to the plan. She was pregnant by the agency of the Holy Spirit. The angel did not tell her that her consent to the plan would tear her life apart, but perhaps she could have imagined that it would. This was an intrusion in her life that she did not invite, but it is one that she welcomed. It was an intrusion that carried with it both blessing and bane. On the one hand, there was the honor of becoming the mother of the Messiah. And yet on the other hand was that awful and haunting question, how will Joseph respond, how will I ever tell him? I suspect that she settled that question by choosing not to tell Joseph at all, until her circumstances required that she must. Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be with child. There’s a strong suggestion there that she was found out; that she was caught. Perhaps Joseph himself was the one to confront her when he could no longer quiet his fears.
But however it came to pass, nothing about it went well. it was a mess. Luke tells us that Mary quickly escaped into the hill country and spent about three months living with her elderly relative Elizabeth. With Mary gone, Joseph has time to think. The law was very clear about what should be done. Joseph could have made a public spectacle out of Mary that ran the gamut from having her paraded naked through the streets to having her stoned for her obvious sin of adultery. Somewhere within all of that extreme behavior was the option of divorce. A public divorce trial, given her blatant physical condition, would have left no doubt about her guilt. Her sentence would have been a life-time of rejection and shame. She would raise her illegitimate child alone, shunned by everyone she knew. This would have been a very fitting and satisfying punishment.
But there’s a problem. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, and that he was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. Too often, we breeze right past those words, and we breath a quick sigh of relief. Aah, there, all is better now! Joseph is a nice guy. The nice guy part of him has prevailed. All is well.
But that’s not really the half of it. Matthew is really telling us more about the tremendous emotional and spiritual struggle that Joseph agonized over. When Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man, it is not at all a reference to his being a nice guy. It is instead a reference to Joseph’s deep and abiding commitment to Hebrew law. Joseph loved the law; he knew the demands of the law. He was dedicated to living his life by the precepts of the law. He was determined to obey the law, because his obedience to the law was the evidence of his relationship with God. Joseph lived in the Old Testament, even though his story is told in the New.
And so Joseph is faced with a terrible and terrifying dilemma. He wants to be faithful and obedient to God. He wants to obey the law. But he also wants to find some grace in all of this. And that is why Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man. It has nothing to do with him being a nice guy.
Joseph is desperately seeking, somehow, to protect Mary from the full demands of the law. He’s looking for the way of grace. He wants to find a way to bring grace and mercy into this situation in a way that will temper his spiritual commitment to the law. There is a terrible conflict raging within Joseph’s heart. There must be a way to balance his love for the law, and his love for Mary, that really, has not abated.
And Joseph found that way. He resolved to divorce Mary secretly and quietly, with as little fanfare as possible. Joseph struggled and found the way of grace. It was a godly solution. He would divorce the girl.
This is a most profound lesson. Joseph had no obligation to choose the way of grace, and quite frankly, neither do we. And probably too often, we do not choose it, because it requires much work. I strongly suspect that it took the full three months that Joseph and Mary were apart, for Joseph to come to his conclusion. I am sure that he agonized over it. It required that he consider the demands of the law; that he examine the depths of his own righteousness. It required that he address his issues of anger at and disappointment in his beloved. It required that he set aside his own very legitimate rights. It also required that he ignore the consensus of his community. But in all of this, Joseph found the way of grace. He struggled, he cried, he prayed, he looked for a different solution that surpassed the normal and the obvious. And he forgave the woman who had so deeply angered and disappointed him by her failure to love him, as he had loved her. And so, he would divorce her quietly.
What is grace? It is a total anomaly. It makes no sense at all. Grace is a gift from God that we do not deserve, that keeps us from receiving the punishment that we do so very much deserve. Joseph could never have known it in advance, but the child growing in Mary’s womb would one day extend grace to him. The child in Mary’s womb would offer him mercy and grace, and the forgiveness of his sins. The child in Mary’s womb would give him the gift of eternal life, a gift that he did not deserve; a gift that you and I do not deserve. Joseph was a sinner, and so are we. But we have all received grace upon grace. And when Joseph resolved to divorce Mary, he settled upon the way of mercy and grace.
In an almost anti-climactic way, the story of Joseph’s struggle of faith comes to an end. After doing all of his work to settle upon the way of grace, Joseph has a dream. And in that dream, God confirms to Joseph what Mary had been telling him all along. I’m not even sure that Joseph’s dream was necessary. After agonizing to find the way of grace and mercy, Joseph may very well have taken the next step by setting aside his resolution to divorce Mary. Being a righteous man, then, and given a little more time to think and ponder and pray about it, he might very well have gone on to marry her on his own. He was solidly embedded on the road to full grace, full mercy and full forgiveness. In any event, the dream did not hurt him one bit. And for those of us who are trying to find the way of grace, that is a very, very good thing, because in our own lives, we do not very often hear from angels.
Joseph’s struggle presents a very powerful lesson for all of us. In all of life, we are always presented with two choices: choice number one is often the way that seems to be the most right and the most proper. But that way usually also involves getting our own way, insisting on our rights, and doing what everyone else expects us to do. That was Joseph’s first option. He could have done what was right, but it would have been all wrong. Choice number two, on the other hand, is looking for another way; a different way, a way of mercy and a way of grace, a righteous way rather than the right way. It is struggling mightily to extend mercy and grace and forgiveness to those who do not deserve it.
Was it easy for Joseph to find that other way? Not a bit. It was an agonizing decision that tore at the very fabric of his life and especially of his faith. Joseph’s decision must certainly have separated him from family and friends, it must have made him the butt of cruel jokes, and there is no doubt that it gained him the severe criticism of his religious community. There are consequences that lie in wait for us if we choose to seek diligently for the way of grace and mercy. But this is assured: if we seek to live by extending mercy and grace, we will receive it. And what one of us can predict where that path of mercy and grace will take us? What awesome wonders will we discover? What glorious plans of God will we find ourselves in the midst of? Joseph was a righteous man and he found himself participating with God in the greatest and most profound act of God in all of history. What lies ahead for us?