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I have to be honest with you. If it was up to me and Matthew- Joseph-one of those Biblical people I share a name with-Joseph would get far more attention than we give him at Christmas.
Sometimes (and I don’t want to sound bitter here)… sometimes I think he is treated as a second class citizen… an after thought… he plays a supporting role in the nativity plays next to the donkey and sheep. There is Joseph… while Mary gets all of the attention. The spotlight and songs focus on Mary- "Round’ yon virgin Mother and Child"… Well… what about Joseph? Catholics treasure Mary- Ave Maria’ – Hail Mary, full of grace.
What about Joseph? How about "Ave Joseph-full of righteousness". A song is just waiting to be written about him. But no… (Noooo… – in a John Belushi voice)… Joseph will still be that forgotten figure in the nativity set standing by Mary holding a lamp. (I don’t sound bitter… do I).
It’s Luke’s fault of course. Luke writes all about Mary. He records the song of Mary… but Matthew… did you notice? Matthew says little about Mary as he remembers the birth of Jesus. For Matthew-the spotlight is placed on Joseph.
Matthew sets the scene:"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…"
And the story begins… a very difficult story begins… for Joseph. I think we sometimes forget what a painful, problem, pregnancy this was not only for Mary but for Joseph. How when Joseph hears the news about Mary’s pregnancy… how hard that had to be for Joseph. They were already engaged… the date for the wedding on the calendar… the rehearsal dinner restaurant had been reserved… the menu chosen… the tuxes were ordered… He was planning the honeymoon… he was dreaming of his life with Mary… a bright future… and then in an instant his world is shattered… he discovers… that Mary is pregnant. And he knows… he knows it is not his child. No way. It could not have been his. So, who was the father? How could she? How Joseph must have tossed and turned in his sleep wondering what to do… sorting through his thoughts and feelings. Wondering what to do?
The text tells us what he did: "Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly."
Matthew makes it sound so simple… so easy… like a righteous person figuring out what the right thing to do in this situation was easy… but it could not have been… not at all. Not for someone like Joseph-a person of unquestionable character, profound integrity and deep faith.
I hope you notice that what drives this story for Matthew is the question of what is a righteous person to do. For Joseph was a righteous person and with all due respect, far more righteous than any one of us in this Sanctuary. Ave Joseph-Hail Joseph full of righteousness. In Hebrew the word for righteousness is TSADIQ (Sadeek)
What this means is that Joseph was known for his uncompromising obedience to the Torah-the Book of the Law. He did what his Bible told him to do. He walked the talk 24/7. He didn’t eat unclean foods. He didn’t mix with the wrong kind of people. Kind of like the founder of Chick Filet who doesn’t open stores on Sunday-he didn’t keep the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to try to make a little extra income. He tithed… and he loved God… oh, how he loved God. He was a Tsadiq. That’s who he was. And everyone in his small village knew him in this way. He was the model church person… and an admired church person. A model for faith.
Which is why this presented a problem for him. This pregnancy. This painful, problem pregnancy. The Torah was very clear about what he was to do. The Bible told him that if a woman pledged to be married was sexually unfaithful, the book of Deuteronomy in the OT covers that kind of violation of law. And it’s fairly clear. I want you to think about and visualize what it said:
"She should be brought to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still being in her father’s house. You must purge this evil from among you."
Joseph knew the Torah. The law of God was painfully clear about what to do. And everyone in the village would have known what he was going to do when they found out. He was a righteous man after all. He would do what the law said… and if he wavered, some of the other righteous people would remind him that this sin must be publicly exposed and punished.
But this is where Matthew slips in the twist in the story:"Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, (he) planned to dismiss her quietly."
One scholar translated the verse this way: "Although he was a righteous man (in spite of the fact that he was a Tsadiq), he didn’t want a scandal."
And now… do you feel the tension in the story? Joseph’s dilemma. Joseph wants to do the right thing but he hesitates. He cannot bring himself to expose her publicly… to lead the parade to his father’s house where Mary-would be stoned to death. "
What anguish must have been going on day after day inside of Joseph. Then, one night, sleeping… the messenger of God-the angel comes to him in a dream and said,"Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife…"
Don’t be afraid… Joseph. Oh, he needed to hear that. But he would have been afraid. Very afraid. Spiritually, afraid of offending God…. He is likely disobeying God’s law. He would be afraid of what others might think of him… what would the people in church say about this man engaged to a pregnant 13 year old woman… what would they say about this righteous man who refuses to follow the Bible… what would happen to his reputation in that small village. Keeping the baby-would be a problem…
But the angel comes (this is Joseph’s annunciation) and says…
"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 will 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: (You can look it up in your own scripture Joseph) "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" which means "God is with us."
And in that dream God does something touching to me. God sends an angel to Joseph at his point of deepest distress with a gift-seeking to release him from his fears that he will disappoint God… and pointing him to another part of his Bible that reveals a new truth to him- what we may call a teachable moment… God reveals that there is more to God than following rules and laws and regulations… there is the relationship. In a world where our relationship with God has been broken or fractured thanks to our sin, our guilt and selfishness… God will do something to restore it… God will save us from those sins… in fact, the purpose of this pregnancy is to send Jesus as the means that God will be present among us-to offer forgiveness for all of those things that separate us from God. God wants reconciliation of our relationship.
How does the hymn say it? "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn king… peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."
God’s goal is to reconcile us… and to teach us a new kind of righteousness. (a new way to please God or to get right with God to use an old Southern expression)
Jesus would speak of a righteousness that exceeds that of the law abiding scribes and Pharisees.
Here we have the first picture of what that righteousness looks like. There is more to righteousness than following the rules. It looks more like the kind of grace Joseph struggled to offer Mary when he sensed the law he loved told him otherwise. It meant being open enough to hear an Angel-a messenger of God… lead you to understand this grace….
I’m thinking this is why Matthew starts the story of Jesus with the story of Joseph. Joseph would be the model of a new kind of righteousness. Later Matthew would talk about it. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth. Unless your righteousness (your tsadiq-ness) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven." (Matt 5:20)
Matthew wants to reveal this new kind righteousness to Joseph. Joseph would then be prepared to raise Jesus to be what God would need him to be if he was to fulfill the reason for which he was born- he would be raised to be a friend of sinners. That’s what they called him. Perhaps Joseph taught him what that looked like.
Maybe that is a reason God decided to come to earth in this unusual way. Had Jesus been raised in, say a priestly family, where he grew up simply learning to follow the law learning how to prepare decent and orderly worship-and that would be okay, but if that was all… then maybe Jesus couldn’t have fulfilled his purpose. Perhaps God decided that Jesus needed to be raised in a family that knew firsthand what it felt like to be regarded in the spiritually second class category. That is how it was for Jesus growing up in this circumstance, you know. There were whispers about him and his mom while he was growing up. Maybe part of why Jesus had such a heart for unrespectable people is that he was raised in a family that lost its respectability because of his birth. Maybe one reason that Jesus had such compassion for women who were walking scandals when he grew up is that he knew what it meant to his mom that his father had stuck by her when she was single and pregnant and all the "righteous folks" – all the tsadiquim-would have picked up a stone. What the righteous folks didn’t know when Jesus was born is that God had redefined the righteous life.
Later, after Jesus was raised… he would show them-us- what a righteous life looked like… he would teach us what a righteous life looked like to God-it looked like forgiveness… it looked like sacrifice… it looked like love. It would look like a love so deep that it would go to the cross to save even sinners who broke all the laws of God. Jesus would fulfill all righteousness.
He knew all about it. He learned it from his father who learned it from God. Anyone who wants to can be a part of that righteous community… because God in Christ made it possible… a good place to start of course is by looking to the one who raised Jesus – Joseph. Ave’ Joseph. Hail Joseph, full of righteousness… the Lord is with you… and because of your faithfulness, the Lord is still with us. Amen.