A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent: Joseph’s story (Matthew 1:18-25)
If I were Joseph’s sister, or cousin, or mother, how might I advise him? By now everyone and his wife (sorry, Joseph) knows about Mary’s condition. There is murmuring and even muttering. All eyes are on Joseph’s house, waiting for him to confirm their outrage and complete their judgement.
At dinner, Joseph was quiet. His parents pressed him for an answer, “What will you do about her?” He needed time to think, he said. “What’s to think about?” they asked. “What do you think she thought about?” they asked. Joseph’s eyes did not reflect their anger and righteous indignation. He simply looked sad.
That night he dreamed. At breakfast, he appeared straighter, stronger, more resolute than his family had seen him these past days and weeks. They looked up to him in a nervous thrill of expectation. Judgement is always exciting, especially when applied to somebody else.
“The child,” Joseph announced, “is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is the Son of God. He will be named Saviour. And I will raise him to know his Father. The Lord has spoken.”
There were a few theories around the village.
One, the simplest, was that Joseph had slept with Mary, his betrothed, and she had become pregnant. These things happen. But out of embarrassment, Mary had denied the deed, and Joseph was left to smooth over her story. No one would have thought anything of it, had she not denied, out of some squeamishness, that the child was his. They laughed at Joseph’s clumsy attempts to cover up for Mary’s innocent lie.
Those less inclined to be generous questioned why, in that case, the young couple would ever have raised doubts about the baby’s origins. Perhaps there was something more to the story, someone more to the story, those neighbors suggested, and they turned away from Mary and Joseph’s families in the marketplace, and they watched the young men watching Mary, and wondered. They laughed at Joseph’s gullibility, raising a cuckoo in his own nest.
Then there was the explanation that Joseph himself offered. Few believed him. Dreams of angelic announcements were a little medieval, they agreed over the water well. It had been several centuries since Isaiah’s prophecy of a woman bearing the child of God to live as Emmanuel, and nothing had come of it yet. Who did these young people think they were anyway? They laughed at the idea that God could still surprise them.
If I were Joseph’s sister, or mother, or cousin I might counsel him that it was not too late to put Mary aside. She had gone, after the quick wedding ceremony, to her own cousin’s house in the country, Elizabeth’s home in the hills. Perhaps it would be better if she stayed there. But Joseph insisted on welcoming her home, even into our home. He insisted on believing that the promises of God through the prophets still stood, that angels still spoke through dreams, and that love would always find a way into a weary and cynical world.
And what do we believe?
There are a couple of possibilities for why and how Joseph was so ready to accept the word of God that came to him in a dream. One is that he was so in tune with the will of God, so ready in prayer and in spirit to receive the revelation of God that it came as no surprise to him when God answered his misgivings with a word of challenge and of reassurance: never give up on the way of love.
The other is that Joseph was so besotted with Mary, so in love that he would believe anything that would allow him to keep her by his side, that would let him continue loving her, come what may.
I suppose the question for us is, how ready are we to receive the challenging and reassuring word of God? And where do we invest and spend our love?
If God asked us to accept something quite unreasonable to the outside world – like self-sacrifice, like selflessness, like the possibility that all of the answers to our troubles might not be found at the bottom of a ballot box, or the middle of a bottle, or at the top of a pecking order – would we believe it?
If God asked us to go ahead and accept the unacceptable – the person whom society had written off, laughed at, scorned – if God told us instead that this person carries the image of God, and bears the love of God, would we believe it?
And if we were to believe it, would we be brave enough to suffer the scorn of our neighbours to stand up for God’s beloved? Would we be foolish enough to go against our own self-interest for the good of someone else, just because the Holy Spirit said so in a dream?
What are we willing to give up, to let go for the love of God?
On the night before Jesus died, his closest friend denied three times that he even knew the man. In the nights before Jesus was born, Joseph dreamed. Would we be ready to stake our reputation on the acknowledgement that yes, Jesus is the Son of God; that yes, the way of the Cross, the way of self-giving, selfless, vengeance-denying love is the way to life, liberty, and the pursuit of heaven; that yes, Jesus, born of Mary, is God Incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us?
And if we are prepared to say it, are we prepared to live it? Joseph did not only say that he believed Mary: he dedicated the rest of his life to living like it. He married her. He loved her. He loved Jesus. He was no longer afraid of what the neighbours might say, that he had gone soft. He understood that love is more powerful than any law, any jealousy, any weapon or word, because he saw God in a dream, and he knew that it was real.
If I had been Joseph’s mother, or sister, or cousin, in that moment I am afraid that I would have failed him. But Jesus would have been born anyway, and perhaps I would have come to see, in time, what I had been afraid to understand: that the love of God will not be constrained by our imaginations, nor by our self-righteousness.
All I can pray today is that God will guide my heart to know the foolishness of love, the scandal of the Incarnation, the ridiculous victory of the Cross, the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us. To quote a countryman of mine, “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”*
John Lennon, Imagine (Apple Records, 1971)