December 18, 2016
“Mary and Joseph’s Boy”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
One of the surprising things that has happened for me personally during my Advent observance this year has been a new perspective on Joseph.
To be honest, I have not paid a great deal of attention to the man in the past. He always seemed like a background character among all the other characters that populate our Christmas scenes.
While Mary and the angel and the shepherds and the Magi and King Herod all have speaking parts, Joseph doesn’t.
Joseph is only mentioned in two of the gospels, in Matthew and Luke, and never mentioned in Paul’s writings, and disappears entirely after Jesus’ childhood. The last we hear of him is when Jesus is twelve and stays behind in the temple and his panicked parents search wildly for him.
There is a good chance he never got to see Jesus’ ministry as an adult, and died sometime during that in between time in Jesus’ life which we have no record of. According to Catholic tradition Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death, because he would have died with Mary and Jesus by his side.
Joseph is also the patron saint of many other things which are telling; he is the patron saint of families, of fathers, of pregnant women, of immigrants because he and his family were refugees in Egypt, house sellers and house buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general.
We find the story of Jesus’ birth in both Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ life. And they share some commonalities: a birth in Bethlehem, conception by the Holy Spirit, a pregnancy during the engagement period, and Joseph accepting Jesus into his life and family.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ life we get Mary’s perspective on all this, but Matthew gives us this brief glimpse at Joseph and his deeply important role in Jesus’ life.
We learn from Matthew that Joseph was a righteous man and faithful to the law. He was likely older and engaged to Mary who would have probably been a young teenager.
The contract between them was arranged by their families, but the story shows that to Joseph, Mary was more than just property.
He finds out that she is pregnant, and at this point his world falls apart. She has been unfaithful, he assumes. He is humiliated, she will be humiliated.
Two paths are open to him according to the law. He could bring her shame out into the open which meant there was a good possibility she would be tried for adultery and stoned to death, according to Deuteronomy 22:23-27.
Or, he could give her a certificate of divorce and go on his way, as infidelity was the only reason a man could divorce his wife.
He could marry someone else, he could move on with his life, rebuild his reputation, continue his work as a skilled laborer, father other children who would carry on his name and legacy.
But Mary, she would have been ruined either way, and would likely live in poverty trying to provide for her child. Joseph cares about Mary so he chooses the path that seems the quietest, the gentlest.
But an angel comes and tells him that God is doing a new thing, and it will require that Joseph choose a third way, not public disgrace or quiet divorce, but the embrace of a son who is not his own, and a new path that he cannot see the end of.
And it was a difficult way, one that required Joseph to be humble and obedient, knowing that he didn’t have and couldn’t have all the answers when he needed them. Joseph let himself be guided, not always an easy thing.
And Joseph, the faithful Jew, was willing to consider the possibility that a new thing was happening, and that his life could change from what he imagined it would be.
In the third way, Joseph names the savior of the world, and Jesus gets a home and protection and love.
So perhaps we could call Joseph the patron saint of the third way –
for those times in our lives when the present changes unexpectedly and the future is unimaginable, those times when we struggle to get a handle on our realities, those times when we don’t know what to do, those times that feel like the end of the world –
and God is present and we take a step forward and then another and discover that God was doing a new thing in our lives and in the world.
No one except God knew how this third way was going to play out.
Mary and Joseph couldn’t see how all this was going to end, the fullness of Jesus’ life, and how the world was going to change forever. We know what that feels like.
We don’t know what awaits us in our future, or for our church, for our families, our country. We are in the dark, which is an appropriate place to be in Advent time. We are a people who sit in darkness.
We are waiting, watching, yearning for the light of Jesus Christ.
In the midst of our uncertainties, our transitions, the changes, the fears, God is working in ways we cannot see.
One of my favorite prayers comes from a Jesuit priest (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) who writes, “Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
We are, like Joseph, ordinary and in suspense. We wait to see what God is doing through our ordinary mixed-up lives. Amen.