Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)
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, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, 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 are to 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:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a close look at Jesus’ earthly parents. Matthew focuses on the good Jew Joseph; Luke spends more time examining Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary’s perspective. Let’s start with Dad.
Joseph was a righteous man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in the story we have heard today. By “righteous,” the author of Matthew is implying Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.
Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.
Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”
It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone Joseph believed had wronged him terribly. He was truly a good-hearted man.
Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond good behavior to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.
Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on the tasks given him as soon as he awoke. He also would receive other instructions from God (head to Egypt, now go home) in a similar manner, and again act without hesitation, despite how odd they might have seemed.
I’m certainly not God, but I’m going to ask Joseph to do something else today. I’m going to ask him to serve as an example of what is possible when we move from good to great. By that, I mean when we move in our lives from laudable righteousness to radical obedience, regardless of what obedience may cost us in this world.
Note that Joseph’s righteousness is described as an ongoing state; certainly he was considered righteous by those around him before he learned Mary was pregnant, and before God began to speak to him through angels and dreams.
We can assume saving Mary cost Joseph a great deal in terms of how he appeared to others, who watched the situation without angelic guidance. To call already pregnant Mary his wife, he had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that almost certainly would begin in a small village: “Joseph could not control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”
If Joseph had been about being righteous before human beings, he actually would have chosen to ignore God. Instead, he followed the difficult path, acting as if God’s will is all that matters.
Most of us gathered here today have achieved some appearance of righteousness in the eyes of other people. Success in worldly matters can make us seem righteous. We are perceived by others as “blessed.”
Even without financial success, we can take on roles in life that carry with them the veneer of righteousness. People in what we might call the “helping” professions certainly have it: Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and maybe even clergy seem to have some sort of special status akin to righteousness, at least until doing something to lose it.
Dedicated churchgoers certainly can have an air of righteousness about them, particularly if they are known for giving and service to others.
Don’t get me wrong. That’s all good, quite worthy of notice.
But what about that next level? What about that radical obedience Joseph demonstrated? What does it take to work on God’s behalf as God alters the world for the better?
Well, first of all, we have to be careful not to get too comfortable in our situations. Biblically, we know contentment is a good thing, but we don’t want to settle into a righteous-looking life as if it were a big, comfy couch.
We miss so many opportunities when we are content to the point of being complacent. I would note the danger of such complacency increases as we get older, when we should have more time and freedom to explore radical responses to God’s call on us.
Beyond getting up off the big, comfy couch, we also have to be alert, listening to what God says to us. Joseph heard from God and recognized God’s truth for what it was. Our righteous praying and use of Scripture should have a result: We should hear from God from time to time, in ways that challenge us.
And of course, we need courage. We often simply need to regain that old-fashioned idea that this life, while precious, may even be shortened or put at risk when we really go to work for God—and that even losing our lives while working for God is not that big a deal, if we really have faith in what comes next.
Buck up, little Christians!
I do not know what each of you might be called to do. I do not know what I might be called to do, or what we as a church might be called to do. I just know there is much more to do as we await Christ’s return.
I pray I have just afflicted the comfortable so we, with Christ as our message and the Holy Spirit as our guide, will do the work of God in radical ways. That’s where the story of Joseph takes me, anyway.