Summary: disregarding the societal norms, Joseph accepts God's mission
Here we are, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just two days away and we are all waiting for the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.
But waiting for what?
• Some are waiting for travel and returning to families, for parties and merrymaking;
• children wait wide-eyed for Santa and gifts,
• while others delight in special music, plays and art displays.
• Some are waiting for meals to be cooked and eaten, houses in disarray to be made right, order to return after chaos, and to be able to stop pretending all is perfect when it almost never is.
The most common answer to what we are waiting for is the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ Child, who we believe came as a prophet, teacher, example and God Incarnate – to show the world a better way to live.
But . . . what does that mean - for us today. . . in this complex world of 2013?
Today’s scriptures tell the Nativity story from another point of view: from the standpoint of Joseph, the father. We all remember the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her she would bear the Son of God. Today’s scriptures however, points us to an aspect of our beloved Christmas story often glossed over - the fact that Joseph was NOT the father of Jesus.
He is described as a ‘righteous man’, indicating that he was a member of the synagogue and follower of Jewish law. But he went against all Jewish religious and cultural laws to stay with his young betrothed, to shield her from certain infamy and dishonor, as well as himself. To be, in fact, the stepfather of Jesus - - all of this because God spoke to him in a dream!
Imagine yourself in Joseph’s place; here he is betrothed to a lovely young maiden, probably making him the envy of Nazareth. And all of a sudden, she is pregnant! Now, he knows he is NOT the father. In those times, when a couple was betrothed, the girl moved into the house of her espoused to learn from her future mother-in-law, making this situation even more disturbing.
So it wasn’t as if she was living somewhere else and could have been carrying on with someone behind his back. Joseph intended to quietly dissolve the arrangement and send Mary back to her home.
Jewish law said that a man and woman were not supposed to have intimate relations until they were married. A righteous man like Joseph, then would have honored that law in his relationship with Mary. But he suddenly learns that his fiancé is ''with child" - and he doesn't know it has come through the Holy Spirit. All he knows is that he has a horrible dilemma. If he marries Mary, others would assume that he disobeyed the Jewish laws.
It's difficult for us to imagine the depth of Joseph's shame at this point. In his culture, a fiancée's unfaithfulness would imply Joseph's inadequacy, bringing dishonor on him and his entire family. In fact, Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife or break off the engagement if she was unfaithful. Friends and relatives of Joseph would surely have mocked him and treated him with contempt.
According to Jewish Law, he would have been expected to publically divorce Mary. He could have impounded her dowry—the total assets she brought into the marriage But Scripture tells us Joseph was a good man—a righteous man. He chose a more compassionate path:
Matthew 1:19 says that he
planned to dismiss her quietly
In other words, in front of two or three witnesses, he would quietly give her a certificate of divorce and minimize her public dishonor. Joseph could have chosen the righteous path, a path that would have allowed him to maintain his honor without humiliating Mary.
But God had other plans for him. He may not have been the biological father, but he was being charged with bringing up the Son of God. No pressure there!!!!
It is incredulous to us today! This 'righteous man' Joseph, however, risked all to do what he felt led to do - regardless of the consequences. And the result, we believe, is that Jesus of Nazareth grew up nurtured in a family, with brothers and sisters, in the synagogue, protected and loved by an adoring mother and stepfather - to fulfill his destiny on earth: to be in the truest sense the Son of God and the Perfect Man.
The Bible generally does not give us a very good picture of fathers. Look at Herod, who slaughtered all the newborn male children out of fear; or Herod Antipas, who promised his daughter Salome anything, including the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.