(A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)
It may be that in reading these few short verses that describe events that occurred over just a few short days, we bear witness to Joseph making the kind of progress that it usually takes a lifetime to make—and that some of us, after many years of living, still have not made.
Joseph was engaged to Mary; engagement was in that day a legal and binding arrangement. While the couple would not consummate the marriage until the wedding took place, they were nonetheless considered legally joined during the engagement period. If the arrangement was to be ended, a divorce was required.
So when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he understandably assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Joseph knew what the right thing to do was; his tradition that was derived from his Bible told him that Mary was to be publicly divorced and his Bible told him that she could under certain circumstances be stoned. Joseph was a righteous, Bible-following, law-keeping man and the righteous thing to do, according to the rules and according to the tradition, was to shame and get rid of Mary. Everybody would have understood and supported that action had he taken it. He would have been honored for it.
Many people know the right thing to do; they know what the Bible says and they know what their tradition—which is supposedly derived from the Bible—says. They know the rules. And they know how to apply them, especially to other people.
Joseph knew the right thing to do. So do many of us.
Joseph, though, was not only righteous; he was also kind. Because he was kind, he wanted to do the right thing in the right way. And so, “being unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph seems to have been motivated by love because love does not seek vengeance, love does not seek to tear down, and love does not allow wounded pride to dictate one’s response. Love tries to do no harm in the course of doing right.
We Christians want to do the right thing but we want to do it in the right way. There is a right way to live but there is a “righter” way to live; that “righter” way is the way of love and kindness. We, like Joseph, are to be growing toward an attitude of gracious correction and away from gleeful and prideful vengeance. It is not difficult to imagine Joseph being more sad than mad. He thought he knew what had been done to him and he knew what he had to do about it; but his heart was such that he could treat the one who had wounded him in ways that would do as little damage as possible to her life and not do further damage to his heart.
Joseph knew the right thing to do; he knew what his Bible and his tradition said. But Joseph also knew the righter thing to do; he responded to the hurt he had received with love, kindness, and grace. That’s a step that we need to grow toward taking.
But Joseph took even a further step that we can grow toward taking: he moved into radical trust that led him to radical obedience. When Joseph had determined the right thing to do and the right way to do it, he lay down to sleep and an angel came to him in a dream and told him, “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.” Then, in one of those remarkable verses that we tend to read right past, Matthew reports, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife …”
Joseph moved beyond doing what was right to doing what was right in the right way to doing what was right in the best way because he did what best fit in with what God was doing and because he acted in radical trust in God. He embraced the one that his tradition told him he should despise and reject because God told him that God was doing something special in the one who should have been despised and rejected. And in so doing Joseph embraced the Son of God who would grow up to be the One who was despised and rejected; in so doing he embraced God’s salvation.
It just may be that the best way for us to embrace the Child who grew up to be despised and rejected who was born to Mary who should have been (and perhaps was) despised and rejected and to Joseph who embraced those who were despised and rejected is to embrace the despised and rejected.
In one of our Christmas hymns, we sing the prayer “Be born in us today.” Jesus was born into Joseph’s household because he moved beyond what was right to what was righter and beyond what was righter to what was rightest. He moved beyond applying the rules to applying the rules with love and kindness to acting with a radical trust in God that caused him to embrace the unembraceable and to accept the unacceptable.
So can we …