Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent IV: Joseph's Problem...

I think Joseph gets a bum deal during Advent. He made some hard decisions, and did some amazing things.

Isaiah 7:10-16
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
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." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This was the biggest problem Joseph could remember ever having. More terrifying than when the Romans came though last year and destroyed the town of Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth. More worrisome than the time he’d dropped his hammer and ruined the finish on an expensive table he’d almost completed for a rich client.

He’d known for a week or so that Mary was pregnant, and that he was not the father of the child. They’d been betrothed for a year already, and though the wedding date was fast approaching, there was no chance that Mary would be able to hide the fact by then. The ridicule and embarrassment would be unbearable – imagine, Joseph, a respected member of the community, well-known in the synagogue, sinning in such a way! And if he dared let it be known that the child wasn’t his, well, Mary’s very life would be in danger!

His workshop was a mess. He’d overturned his bench in frustration, had thrown his saw against one wall and his hammer against another, and he’d paced the dirt floor until his feet were sore. The Jewish law was clear: he should denounce Mary publicly, and she should be stoned. A cruel solution, but one where he could save face. It would be a just decision, and it would be the right decision under the Law. It was the obvious choice.

But for Joseph, it was an impossible choice. Put aside the fact that he loved Mary; every time he considered the route of cold, cruel justice, the words of God as written by the prophet Hosea echoed in his head: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

What did that mean? What was “merciful” in this situation? That was what had Joseph wearing ruts in the floor with his pacing, running his hands through his already wildly unkempt beard and hair.

Finally, as the workshop grew dark with the setting of the sun, Joseph stopped pacing. It seemed, finally, that the merciful thing to do would be to, very gently, call the wedding off. Perhaps send Mary to her relatives someplace far away. To very quietly move on from the whole situation, preserving his honor and Mary’s reputation as much as possible. To elevate compassion over justice.

Joseph could think about it no more. He was exhausted. Settling in his bed, sleep came quickly, but rest would elude him. God had other plans, you see.

There was a dream, there was an angel. This pregnancy was no accident, no mistake, no youthful indiscretion. This child was from God. The angel gave Joseph the solution to his problem, but it was a solution which led down a frightening, unsure, even scandalous road.

Take Mary, pregnancy and all, into his home as his wife, as planned. Endure the stares, the whispers behind his back, the open disgust and rejection of the most religious in the community, and accept this child to raise as his own.

And the very idea! God coming to earth, not as a vengeful warrior, exacting retribution from the Roman oppressors and establishing a holy Empire upon the earth, but as a baby? How could such a thing be true?

How deep, Joseph, does mercy go? Is mercy just a word, or is mercy an action – and more than that, a series of actions? Tell me about faith, Joseph. Is it enough to expect God to act, or must we reserve the right to dictate the ways in which God may act? Yes, God is with us. For you, Joseph, God will be in diapers. God will need to learn to walk. To use eating utensils. God will need to be potty trained.
Take this step – make Mary your wife, watch this child be born, accept the responsibility that comes with naming the child (because that is the right of the father in the Jewish custom, and it signifies acceptance of the child into the family), live out the mercy you claim to be seeking in making a quiet end of the marital contract… do this, and God’s love, salvation and forgiveness will explode forth from this child, bathing the earth in God’s grace and mercy, establishing a kingdom far greater than anything an avenging army could hope for!

Here’s your choice, Joseph: look back, embracing the Law and its rigid code of right and wrong, ignoring flesh and blood in favor of words on a page, or look forward, to an uncertain future, knowing only one thing: Immanuel! God is with us!

We know how Joseph responded. He chose the difficult path, the way of uncertainty. He decided to trust that the promise of “God With Us” was enough.

And that promise – Immanuel, “God With Us,” is ours as well!

Advent is not simply how we spend our time in church in December. It’s not simply getting ready for Christmas Day. Advent is both a recognition of Jesus having come, and it’s a statement of faith, a step out into the unknown, an acknowledgement that we, too, in our own way, walk the path of divine mystery. We say that Christ will come again, though we haven’t the foggiest notion of when. We say that we shall spend eternity in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, though we’ve never met anyone who has actually been there.

But this we know: God is with us! We cannot say how God will act to save, to heal, to restore, to forgive. We can only say, with assurance, that God will do these things, and will do them in God’s time. Like Joseph, we expect, but we do not control. We trust in the promise of Immanuel: God (is) With us!

Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

  1. It is through His grace, His calling, our living faith in Jesus Christ, our Baptism, our gift of the new heart and the new human spirit, the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Sacrament of Confession that make us righteous in the eyes of God, the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist that gives us the living bread as our assurance of salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies us so we may grow in the fruit of the Holy Spirit to become shining lights in the world. How abundant are the gifts of our loving Father!