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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." -Matthew 1:18-25
“Do not be afraid” says the messenger. Joseph, like his ancient namesake, has been up all night wrestling.
Anyone in their right mind would be terrified at this unfiltered encounter with God’s word and will. So any time an angel of the LORD shows up in the bible, they work these words into the conversation, “Do not be afraid.”
In this case, Joseph is not to be afraid of changing his mind. (All of us probably know of at least one guy who’s afraid changing his mind might be seen as a sign of weakness. Can you say “political gridlock”?)
I’m not sure I ever noticed before that Joseph never says a word. God is the only active agent in this passage. Joseph never speaks; he listens, even though he’s already made up his mind. That’s why the angel’s here, to change Joseph’s mind. He doesn’t even lay out the plan for him. Instead it seems a perfect example of what Erwin Schrödinger called the ability to, “abide by ignorance for an indefinite amount of time, ” Can Joseph trust God to lead him beyond the facts that he is able to see at this moment in time?
Engaged in those days was the same as married in ours, in the legal sense. The timeline of setting up household could be different from what we’re used to. But a married man had set obligations, to his wife, and to his community. With Mary pregnant (surprise!) and not by him (surprise!), those obligations came into conflict. A righteous man clearly would set her aside. A loving man would struggle with that choice. But Joseph had wrestled a decision out of his confusion. A man had to do what a man had to do.
By this time in Jewish history, the Rabbis had softened ancient legal mandates for a dishonored man expose the woman to death by stoning. But it was still expected that an honorable man would “put aside” (divorce) the woman to maintain the integrity of his family. He could “keep her,” but it would bring shame to his family. Not because she was pregnant before they lived together, but because he was not the father. In other words, either she would be exposed to disgrace or he would be exposed to dishonor.
What’s a man to do?
Listening to God seems to be a very good start.
Joseph “covers” Mary and Jesus not out of moral obligation (quite the contrary) or biological self-interest (to live on through his descendents), but because God places them in his life and invites him to love them.
The point of this couple holding off on sex is not purity (nothing in scripture says that Mary stayed a life long virgin or that there was any value at all in her doing so). The point is that Joseph is not this baby’s biological father. Becoming Jesus’ father is his choice, just as God’s decision to enter the world in the vulnerable form of an infant born to parents living in a dangerous world is God’s choice.
Isaiah says, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”
If we read ahead in the story, we see Joseph’s role as protector leads him on three journeys, to Bethlehem with a very pregnant wife; to Egypt with an infant under a death sentence, and finally back to Galilee, though far from his hometown. He will raise Jesus in Nazareth, where the authorities are less likely to be alerted to their unusual story, just another new family in town. And that’s the last we’ll see of Joseph in Matthew’s gospel. (There is one more story of Joseph with 12-year-old Jesus in Luke’s account, but that’s another story.)
What kind of man was this Joseph?
What kind of father did Joseph choose to be that Jesus would teach his followers to call God, “Daddy?” Just this brief glimpse of his life shows us that he was:
a Listener, open to God's word and will
Response-able, a man of action
a provider for those in need and protector of the vulnerable.
A lot like Jesus.
I’ll never forget one long night struggling in prayer with a woman who desperately wanted to be open to a God called father but whose own father and uncle had abused her sexually from ages 6-14.
Stop and think for a moment about what qualities of your father adhere to your image of God. Growing in faith means learning to listen openly to the father images that others carry consciously and unconsciously, postivie and negative.
Figuring out how to be a man in that world was as hard as figuring it out today.
This video illustrates the struggle: “Men, let’s talk”
Godly men can face terrible dilemmas on behalf of their families and on behalf of the human race. I think of Nelson Mandela whose work at the end of his life was to reconcile with children and grandchildren he neglected in the struggle to free millions of people from apartheid.
On the way to one of his first speeches after being freed from prison, Mandela’s driver became lost. He stopped in an affluent suburb, not a safe place for them at that time, to ask directions form a young white woman pushing a pram. Mandela got out of the car and approached the woman. It had been more than three decades since he’d been able to touch a child. Could he hold her baby for just a moment? This week we saw his own proud grandchildren speaking at his memorial.
CNN reporter Raphael Warnock, observing the outpouring of response to Mandela’s death, said “We must move from awe to action”
That’s Joseph’s story too.
Holiday Ads would lead us believe that today, a fathers responsibility is to make their children happy. They promise you can achieve it with luxury vacations, wonderful toys. Those are delightful highlights in anyone’s’ life. They are not, however, the staples that create a truly happy life..
The fathers I talk with on a weekly basis struggle with:
mental health epidemic.
Paying for dental care- diabetic crisis- new glasses.
With how to make a living wage,
With the price of milk, of gas, of sports equipment.
They struggle with, “will my child be able to make their way through the narrowing economic bottleneck and be able to provide for a family themselves?”
“We must move from awe, at these precious lives entrusted to us, to action on their behalf”
I think of the grandfather who stepped in to help raise a fatherless boy who would become our current president.
I think of men who volunteer as Big Brothers, stepping in to the gap, not knowing what they’re getting into.
I think of Sandy Hook parents creating legacies
And Church fathers (and mothers) creating legacies,
So that children born today may inherit a better world.
I think of that line in James that could be words straight out of Joseph’s mouth, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”
Awe and action, Hope begins with quieting our fears long enough to listen for God’s guidance. Love acts out of the fathering mothering love that is an image of God’s own self.
Prayer of the Day by Thom Shuman
so we can see you cradling
the most vulnerable in our world
calling us to work at your side
to feed all who are in need.
so we might bear witness to your trust
which draws us closer to God.
to get us moving on behalf of all
who have lost their way.
so we might see you
in the barren places of life.
Holy Way Builder:
putting the finishing touches
on a new manger.
Come, God in Community, Holy in One, come.
Karen L Munson
United Methodist Pastor & Liturgical Artist