December 18, 2022
I love my girls. They are, to me, absolutely irreplaceable blessings that God has given me, and there is nothing in the universe that could possibly get in the way of my love for them. But as I was reading the gospel for this week, I wondered about how Joseph became the father of Jesus. Not in the “traditional” way, but he did become Jesus’s father. Joseph was like a stepfather, or an adoptive father, to the savior. I know that there are families in this congregation who have much more experience with what that looks like—whether it’s the remarkable circumstances of adoption that made you part of the family you are now, or marriage bringing stepkids or half-siblings together—whatever made your family look the way it does, you can see there is something remarkable, holy even, in the way Joseph rounds out the Holy Family.
Joseph is this fascinatingly complex, completely silent character in the gospels. We know that he’s a righteous man, and from everything I can tell he was a guy who wanted a quiet life, didn’t rock the boat, liked things to stay simple. He was quiet, but steady. It seems like he wanted to get married, settle down, and live that peaceable life that let him stay in the background, doing his carpentry work and caring for his family. So it was quite a shock when he learned about Mary’s pregnancy.
Now, even up until recently (and in a lot of circles it’s still true), having a kid before you got married was a black mark on a woman’s reputation. Some of y’all, I’m sure, knew or knew of girls who were sent off to “a relative’s house” faraway for a few months. Giving the child up for adoption, and then never speaking of them again, happened a lot. The stigma attached to women who have kids out of wedlock still hangs around, unfair as it is. Now imagine how much stronger that stigma was in Joseph’s time.
Joseph had the right, according to biblical Law, to have Mary convicted and stoned to death. It was an option at his disposal. But Joseph wasn’t that kind of guy. Not only would such an act bring a lot of unwanted attention (remember how Joseph liked his quiet life), Matthew tells us that he was a “righteous man.” He didn’t think that was a fair way to treat people. But what to do? Scripture doesn’t dwell on it for long, but I can imagine he struggled mightily with what, exactly, to do. He was a man of his time, after all. So he prayed. And he argued with himself. And he weighed the options. And then he decided the best thing to do was to quietly end the engagement and they would both go on with their lives. Then he went to bed, resolved to break the news to Mary in the morning.
And then there was this dream. We all have weird dreams from time to time, but this dream that Joseph had was one of those that you wake up, and even hours after you’ve been awake you still remember vivid details of it. It was a clear enough dream, and a clear enough message, that Joseph realized it was from God. And it wasn’t a dream that was asking him to do something that was easy. The angel told him not to be afraid—Mary was telling the truth when she said the child was from the Holy Spirit. And God wanted Joseph to adopt him, to protect him, to raise him as his own.
For a quiet man like Joseph, it was a big ask. There would be stares. There would be muttering and rumors. There would be gossip behind his back. He wouldn’t get that quiet life he’d hoped for. But he also trusted God’s word when he was told not to be afraid. So Joseph did the remarkable thing of stepping up and claiming Jesus as his own. He would embody the role of protector, watching over Mary and the growing Jesus. His heart grew more and more in love with this little boy as he watched Mary’s belly grow bigger and bigger. And when Jesus was born, this boy-child who was not his, Joseph took the momentous and very public step of naming him—that sealed the deal. Jesus was, legally and bindingly, his son.
And the kicker has always been, to me, that Joseph didn’t have to do it.
He could have quietly dismissed Mary. He could have ignored the dream. He could have decided the quiet life he wanted was more important than the fate of Mary and Jesus. But he didn’t. He chose to do the thing that he was under no obligation to do. He chose to watch over Mary and Jesus. He chose not only to do that, but to endure all the gossip and rumors and ridicule that came with it. He heard God’s call to extend his circle of love toward them, and he listened. He did the right thing, even when he didn’t have to do the right thing.
The thing is, Joseph isn’t the only person who had the option to dismiss someone in need because society said he could. We are given that option every single day. There are whole groups of people that society has decided it’s okay to ignore, it’s okay to dismiss, it’s okay to decide they are not our problem to solve. The single mothers who, like Mary, are blamed for their own predicament. The addicts, whose illness is deemed criminal and therefore a personal moral failing. The homeless, whose begging is culturally assumed to be to feed whatever vice took them to homelessness in the first place. The poor, whose situation must have come about by their own bad decisions. Society gives us the option to dismiss them quietly, just as it gave Joseph the option to dismiss Mary quietly. And all too often, we and the rest of society take that option.
But thank God—thank God, really and truly—the number of times I see that we decide to imitate Joseph. Thank God that we have been touched enough by the example of Joseph, and the love that his adopted son Jesus gives us, that we decide to act differently. To buck the trend. To help the single mothers. To believe the addicts. To support the homeless. To lift up the poor.
We imitate Joseph when we decide to take an ornament off the tree and give a gift to a needy family for Christmas or a poor person in the developing world when we are given every right by society to ignore it as “not my problem.” And we imitate Joseph every time we give money, or food, or clothes, or gloves, or anything else, to the backpack program, because just like Joseph could have ignored Jesus’s plight and didn’t, we decide to do the same. We imitate Joseph every time we decide the life and well-being of someone else is worth the judgment, the stares, the inconvenience to us. Because that’s the kind of behavior Joseph helped give to his adopted son, Jesus. And it’s the behavior we’re called to take on ourselves.
So let’s grow into that grace. Let’s be inspired by Joseph’s example. Let’s be the people that God has called us to be—the kind of people who will do the right thing, even when we don’t have to. And by doing that, we will share the meaning of this season each and every day of our lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.