6-Week Series: Against All Odds


Summary: Sermon for Advent 4, Year A. Sermon contrasts how Joseph could have treated Mary and how he actually acted toward her. Mary has a story (and thus Jesus) because Joseph listened with love and showed mercy.

Preparing for 2020: Listening with Love

I feel for Joseph. Not only because he’s often overlooked, but in some ways I understand what it’s like to be Joseph. In 1994 I found a new level of solidarity with Joseph. The children’s director concluded that the pastor’s grandson didn’t need a “speaking” role in that year’s Christmas play. Partly because I was twelve years old, and partly because they dared not risk the potential train wreck of an ill-conceived improvisation.

They decided I would play the role of Joseph. I huffed and furrowed my little brow as I said, "Joseph does nothing. He only stands there and stares at that creepy baby doll laying in the fake straw." God bless dear Carol Anne; she gently took me aside and said, “Not Rian, remember, Joseph was one of the most important people in the play. He might not have lines, but he has expression. Just make happy faces.”….. lovely.

Right before the play began, I stood next to Mary, the star of the show. I asked the cute girl who played Mary, “You ready?” She said, “I’m a little nervous that I won’t remember my lines just right. What about you?” I smirked and said, “My only job is to stare at you.”…. somethings never change…

I see now that at twelve years old, I picked up on the pervading attitude toward Joseph; he seems insignificant to the story. But on this 4th Sunday of Advent, Joseph has many things to teach us about the 4th Advent candle, the candle of love.

The Gospel teaches us:

1. Joseph was a man of mercy.

We talk about how painful this was for Mary. We discuss her fear, and we talk about her excitement. She inspires us because she faced shame, alienation, and possibly death, yet she faithfully embraced her calling.

That said, without Joseph, Mary has no story at all. With one nod of his head, Joseph could have sentenced her, and thus Jesus, to death.

In their time, men were rigid (… even more than now…), and they built a stern system that only held space for judgment and justice, not compassion and mercy. Joseph's faced a decision about life and death. Making that choice was a tall order for a 19-year-old man.

His pregnant fiancé left Joseph with few options. He respected the law. He followed the ways of his forefathers. He was an honest man determined not to bring shame to his family.


He could live with her and allow people to think that he defiled her before their ceremony. That could ruin his reputation. To make bad matters worse, if the child was a son, they would only know him as the offspring of sinfulness.

Joseph’s other option was the most valid. He could obey the Law in the book of Deuteronomy. He could send her to a public trial. If found guilty, the priests take her into the streets, rip her clothes off, exposing her abdomen, and stone her to death.

—It never ceases to astound me how people can inflict pain in the name of a god from whom they want mercy.

Joseph was a man of mercy. He listened to Mary’s circumstances with love. Even facing the darkest moments of their lives, there was a flicker of light from a candle… and it illuminated another way.

Joseph couldn’t bear the thought of Mary, a girl he knew for most of her life, dying at his feet. So he decided there was one more way; divorce her quietly. Together they could claim the child was from another who forced himself on Mary. That document was two signatures from the town elders. She would return to her father, and she would never marry… but she would be alive.

Joseph chose mercy. Why? Because he had love in his heart.

2. Joseph was a man of mercy, and he was a man with an open heart.

His life changed when he fell asleep. His dreams spoke to his soul. An angel said, “The child is from the Holy Spirit. Do not tremble in fear. Don’t worry about your social status or your community’s opinion of you, the child… he’s bigger than you. He will save your people, and all people, from their sins.”

—Let me pause here…The eyes of the soul open wide when we stumble upon God’s work. Then we realize that God’s plan is sweeter than we ever dreamed. The other side of a crucible is the birth of newness.

I wonder if it can help us dream bigger? That idea scares me… that God called Joseph to such an unconventional life. God invited Joseph into a vocation where he parented religious and redemptive history.

God, unlike humans, does not aim for normality. The American dream is okay. But what if God says, “Hey Joseph, come here… I have a life for you that’s more difficult, but you will not simply live history, you will shape it with one act of obedience.”

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