by Sharon Marr
(Based on Matt 1:18-25)
Our way into the Nativity story on this fourth Sunday of Advent, when we light the candle for Love, is not Mary or Elizabeth or John the fiery Baptiser. It is Joseph, a quiet carpenter who upends his good life for a dream. Every third year our lectionary turns its spotlight away from Mary and gives us the perspective of her would-be husband – a quiet, unassuming descendant of the House of David.
So, today we reflect on Joseph’s part in the world’s greatest love story. A love story enacted by God, whose love for us was so outrageously extraordinary … overwhelmingly unreasonable … that into this very troubled world, in His fullness of time, he sent his Son, as a babe … to reconcile us to himself. To restore us. To make us whole. To bring us eternal life. To show us how to love, this costly love.
So when did you last feel truly loved? When did someone do something for you that made you feel truly cherished? My moment was just the other day. Albie and I were having the yearly conversation about “what do you want for Christmas?”. And my very dear husband … who when doing the lawn mowing really prefers neat straight lines, no overhangs or obstacles, said, “Would you like another tree for our front lawn?” Now I suppose that doesn’t sound like a love declaration to you: certainly songs won’t be written about it. But to me it was a most loving and generous gift … offered because he knows I would love it, even though the gift will eventually cost him his equilibrium on lawn mowing days. An insignificant example, I know, but it is an everyday-ish example of love, the love we are commanded to give, the giving of self, costly love. When we think of costly love, names like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Bonhoeffer usually spring to our mind along with the Saints, but the reading today reminds us that this love can come in the smallest most insignificant of packages, a babe, and change a world!
Don’t you find it surprising that, of all the ways in which God could have reached us – of all the ways in which God could have saved humanity – he chose, in his infinite wisdom, to send his son as a baby? Not a man. Not an obvious Messiah. Not a solider or a king. But an infant, helpless as any infant, vulnerable to all of the harms of the world.
How like God. To do the exact opposite to how we would do things. No victorious warrior, no vibrant CEO, no charismatic leader, just a fragile teenage girl and a lowly carpenter … and God needs them to agree to be part of his planned love story.
So if we are tempted to think of Joseph as a minor character in the Christmas narrative, the Gospel of Matthew reminds us that, in fact, Joseph’s role in Jesus’s arrival is crucial, even though he is only given a couple of mentions in the whole of the New Testament! It is his willingness to lean into the impossible, to embrace the scandalous, to abandon his notions of holiness in favour of God’s plan of salvation, that allows the miracle of Christmas to unfold. What a gift of costly love Joseph gives.
As Matthew tells the story, the God-fearing carpenter wakes up one morning to find that his world has shattered. His fiancée is pregnant, and he knows for sure that he is not the father. Suddenly, he has no good options to choose from. If he calls attention to Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she might be stoned to death, as Levitical law proscribes. If he divorces her quietly, she’ll be reduced to begging or prostitution to support herself and the child. If, on the other hand, he marries her, her son will be Joseph’s heir, instead of his own biological child. Moreover, Joseph will be tainted forever by the scandal of Mary’s illicit pregnancy, and by her ridiculous (blasphemous?) claim that the baby’s dad is somehow God.
The fact is, Joseph didn’t believe Mary’s story until the angel Gabriel told him to. Why would he? Why would anyone?
We make a grave mistake, I think, when we sanitize Joseph’s consent. We distort his humanity when we assume that his acceptance of God’s plan came easily, without cost; when we hold at arm’s length his humiliation and doubt. In choosing Joseph to be Jesus’s earthly father, God led a “righteous” man with an impeccable reputation straight into doubt, shame, scandal, and controversy.
God’s call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness and purity. He would become the talk of the town — and not in a good way. He would have to love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son. In other words, God’s plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most. The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable. So much for living a well-ordered life.
No wonder that Gabriel’s first words to Joseph were, “Do not be afraid.” If we want to enter into God’s story then perhaps these are the first words we need to hear too. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid when God’s work in your life looks alarmingly different than what you thought it would. Do not be afraid when God asks you to love something or someone … more than your own spotless reputation … or your need for straight mowing lines. Do not be afraid of the precarious, the fragile, the vulnerable, the impossible!
Dear family, may our lives mirror that of Joseph, may we too be willing to say yes when we hear a call from God, and join with him in being part of the great love story, the story of costly love, the story in which God calls us to be bearers of the Good News to our broken world today.
We are reconciled, we are restored, and we are loved.