Joseph's Righteousness (4th Advent, A)
4th Sunday in Advent, Year A
16 Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17 And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
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.
We are now very close to Christmas. Advent, our season of waiting, is nearly over. In just two nights, we will gather here again to welcome the birth of the Messiah Jesus on Christmas Eve.
The end of Advent is easy to skip over because the Christmas story is so familiar. It’s easy to rush to the manger with the animals surrounding Mary and baby Jesus and the shepherds in the field and even the wise men from the East. These iconic stories dominate the church’s and even the broader culture’s imagination at this time of year.
But on this Fourth and final Sunday in Advent, we have an opportunity to reflect on this Christmas story from a different angle. We get to think again on the preparation and the lead up to Jesus’ birth. We get to meditate on the difficult journey of Mary and Joseph and truly all of Israel as they awaited this coming Savior. Because as good as God is to us, it’s never easy to follow God’s will. There are always forces that push against us as we pursue righteousness. God almost always surprises us and that change of expectations can be difficult for us too.
So I want to reflect on the Gospel reading and consider anew just how difficult Jesus’ birth was for Joseph. The Gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph’s perspective; we will hear more from Mary’s point of view in the Gospel of Luke on Tuesday night, but for now let’s think about Joseph.
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.
Let’s examine what happens in the middle of these verses. What must this experience have felt like to Joseph? Can you imagine receiving the news that your fiancé is pregnant, and knowing that you are not the father? I wonder how he got the news. Did Mary tell him herself? Did word spread when she began to show? How did her parents or his parents react? How did Joseph feel when he learned this? How did he handle the feelings of heartbreak, disappointment, and betrayal when he believed that Mary had been unfaithful?
There are so many questions we can speculate about here because there are many questions the Bible leaves unanswered. But I’m asking them, not so we have definitive answers about them all, but so that we can empathize with these characters.
See, we know the whole story. This is a classic example of dramatic irony; we know things that the character in the story doesn’t. We have heard the story about the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary. We know that despite her fear, the messenger told Mary that she was blessed and highly favored by God. Gabriel explained that she would bear a son and he would be the Savior of Israel and the Savior of the world. Gabriel further explained that this pregnancy was the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit of God, not the result of contact with any man.
We know that Mary is innocent. She never cheated on Joseph; she never betrayed her promise to marry him and remain faithful to him. But at this moment, in the space between these two verses, Joseph does not know that.
That’s what makes this part of the story so remarkable. Verse 19 could have read, “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, exposed her infidelity to their neighbors and they ostracized her and the child for the rest of their days.” Or it could have read (in accordance with Leviticus 20:10), “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, called the elders of the village and they stoned Mary to death.” But that’s not what Joseph chose.
Even though Joseph thinks that Mary has wronged him, he doesn’t seek revenge. Even though he feels hurt, he doesn’t lash out. Even though his social world seems like it’s about to come crashing down all around him, Joseph did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph’s world accepted shame, blame, and violence against women; their culture even expected violent punishment in situations like this. But Joseph refused to treat Mary that way. He rose above the pettiness and realized that revenge could not soothe his pain, that retribution wouldn’t heal his broken heart.
And Joseph makes that surprisingly kind decision before communing with the Angel of the Lord. Again, Joseph chooses the unexpected path of mercy before he learns the truth of Mary’s innocence from the angel, before he learns that the child Jesus will be Immanuel, God with us.
In hindsight the story fits together neatly. But along the way, this was a rocky road.
And it makes me wonder: What does it take to be a “righteous” person like Joseph? How can we learn to handle pain, sadness, disappointment, and anger with grace and honor? Even if the angel doesn’t come to tell us that everything is actually okay, and even if the betrayal and heartache are real, what can we do?
This is the beauty of the lectionary, which tells us which Bible readings to use on Sundays and holidays. This story about Joseph from the Gospel of Matthew is paired with Psalm 80, a prayer for help. Verse 17-18 read, "And so will we never turn away from you; * give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved."
I believe that a key to living a righteous and gracious life is maintaining a prayer discipline. We must daily turn to God in prayer and daily ask for help in our struggles against sin. We must daily turn to the scriptures to reflect on how God has interacted with people throughout the ages. We must put our trust and hope in God, praying that God will heal and God will restore.
One way to build that prayer habit is with devotional resources like Forward Day by Day. St. Matthew’s buys these pamphlets for the members of the church to use in their daily personal prayer devotions. Another way is to use the short devotions in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 137-140. And thirdly there is the full daily office of Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline (nighttime prayers) found in the BCP, pp. 75-135. All of these sets of prayers help us to read portions of the Bible (including the psalms) everyday. This habit of reading the Bible and praying over it reaches us the stories of God’s salvation and reminds us to turn to God for help when we need it.
So I imagine that, when Joseph got word that Mary was pregnant, he prayed these words: "Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved." Amen.