Written for the annual Installation of Officers & Christmas Observance of Dallas Commandery № 6, K∴T∴
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Tomorrow is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. Christmas is right around the corner! The scripture readings for tomorrow reflect that in many ways. They are Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7 & 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.
Our Isaiah reading sets up a profound contrast for our Gospel reading. In it, Ahaz, King of Judah, is facing a brutal war from the northern kingdom of Israel, and the kingdom of Aram. Ahaz is afraid, but God sends Isaiah to speak to him. Isaiah, as a messenger of God, commands Ahaz to demand a sign from God. Ahaz refuses, citing religious tradition. Isaiah then announces the Immanuel prophecy, which is one of the most important prophecies in the entire Bible, and foretells the coming of Jesus. Isaiah also tells Ahaz that even though he disobeyed God, he will still be victorious in the war against Israel and Aram, but will be vanquished by Assyria.
Our Gospel reading presents us with a similar situation which turns out completely differently. Let’s read it:
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.
Normally, when we think about Advent, or Christmas, we think about Jesus as a baby, or perhaps Mary herself. However, we rarely think of Joseph! He isn’t what we would consider to be a “speaking role” in most cases. This Sunday, though, we shine the spotlight on him in a mighty and powerful way, telling the story of the “other annunciation.”
In this reading, Joseph is here to teach us, lead us, and hold a mirror up to our faces. In writing these passages, there are certain things that Matthew wants us to know about Joseph:
- Joseph is righteous.
- Joseph is faithful.
- Joseph is ordinary.
These ideas about Joseph light our way in the dark and serve as driving character influences.
Joseph is righteous. He was a religious and observant Jew, so being righteous, in a very big way, entails listening to God, particularly by following the laws and commandments of God. Matthew lays Joseph’s knowledge of the situation out pretty clearly: his fiancee, Mary, who he has not lived with yet, is pregnant, and he knows that he’s not the father. This is a bad situation, made worse by the fact that now, Joseph has to follow the law, if he wants to remain observant. Jewish law regarding an unfaithful wife provided two options: a public accusation and trial, or a more quiet divorce. The idea of staying with Mary, or just leaving her, without having some sort of punishment enacted, would have been unthinkable to Joseph. Standing by a decision like that would be saying that Joseph valued his relationship with Mary — or maybe his own pride — was more important than God’s laws and commandments.
Laying charges against Mary publically would have been a death sentence. In that day and age, women were explicitly second-class citizens, and in many cases, not even allowed to testify in court. It wouldn’t even have been his word against hers — it would have been his word alone! After being found guilty, she would have been violently executed by public stoning — a messy, slow, and terrible death.
Instead, Joseph sought the path of mercy and kindness, which is a type of righteousness in and of itself. He decided that he was going to divorce Mary by privately serving her with the equivalent of divorce papers. Betrothal was the first part in a two-step system for getting married, and was considered legally binding, so it had to be formally dissolved. This could be done by either party in the betrothal, by serving papers in front of several witnesses. Some folks would still find out why he was divorcing her, but it wouldn’t be many, and her life would be spared. This teaches us that Joseph is both righteous by the law, but merciful.
Joseph is faithful. A scene has been set for us: Joseph has decided to follow the law as best as he can, and move on with his life. However, on the night that he makes his decision, he is visited in his sleep by the Angel of the Lord. The Angel starts off the conversation by reminding Joseph that he is a descendant of King David, strengthening and encouraging him, and then tells him not to be afraid of taking Mary as his wife. The Angel then gives Joseph a stunning revelation: the son she will bear was conceived by the Holy Spirit and will save the whole world. Joseph’s prophetic dream ends with the Angel reciting from the prophecy of Isaiah, and he wakes up.
Joseph trusts the Angel of the Lord. Without any questions, without any pushback, and with seemingly no doubts, he changes his mind completely. When he laid down the night before, he was ready to divorce Mary and leave, never to see her again. When he woke up, he finalized their betrothal and took her as his wife. He stays with her, adopts the boy as his own son, and names him Jesus. This little child grows into Joseph’s heart, and the world is forever changed.
Yes, Joseph is righteous by the law, but he is also faithful, and listens to the Lord. Contrast that with King Ahaz from our Isaiah reading! King Ahaz was also visited by the Angel of the Lord, and given a command. Unlike Joseph, King Ahaz rejected the revelation from God, and abided by dogmatic religious tradition instead. What Ahaz did is almost like standing in the kitchen, smelling a pie burning in the oven, and deciding not to take action, because the recipe calls for five more minutes!
The Gospels go on to demonstrate how important Joseph’s role as a “listener” to God is three more times. Joseph’s second dream from the Lord is a warning to protect his family, leave Bethlehem, and flee to Egypt, because King Herod is sending men to kill the infant Jesus. When Herod dies, but before the news reaches Egypt, Joseph receives his third dream, letting him know that it is safe to return to Israel. Finally, he receives a fourth dream — another warning to protect his family — and settles in Galilee, instead of their original destination of Judea.
There’s one more thing that we need to know about Jesus’s earthly father: Joseph is ordinary. Joseph has hopes and dreams, just like all of us. He has — or had — plans to build a normal life with Mary, have a normal family, and be a normal builder. When he found out that Mary was pregnant, and knew there was no way he was the father, he was hurt. Joseph — and therefore the Holy Family — is also broke. After Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary go to the Temple and sacrifice two turtledoves. According to Levitical law, parents were supposed to sacrifice a lamb after the birth of a child, but there was a hardship exemption: if your household couldn’t afford sacrificing a lamb, you could instead sacrifice two turtledoves or two young pigeons. This helps paint a picture of the Holy Family’s life, and the humble origins of the King of Heaven.
All of these aspects of Joseph are what he and Matthew use to hold a mirror up to our faces. Just like so many other characters from Scripture, Joseph is meant to be us, and we are meant to be Joseph. One of his strongest functions is echoing God’s invitation to participate in a holy life of righteousness and faith, through praying, listening, and acting.
The first lesson that Joseph teaches us is that we need to listen to God. Listening to God can happen in many different ways — there are all sorts of avenues that God uses to speak to us, and the vast majority of them aren’t life-shattering prophetic dreams from angelic beings. God speaks to us through prayer, through religious liturgy, through fellowship with both believers and non-believers, through the beauty of the sun’s rising and the sun’s setting, through the destructive fire that rips through a forest, and through the healing rain that raises new trees. When my son hears my voice, he’ll turn his head in my direction, and smile or laugh, and in that moment, I can feel God. Most often, God speaks to us quietly. One of the best examples comes from First Kings, Chapter 19:
Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
This is why prayer — and silence — is so important for us. Prayer and active listening not only gives us an opportunity to hear God, but also teaches us how to recognize His voice in the first place! Without retreating to prayer and holy silence regularly, it becomes much harder.
Listening to God is only part of the equation, though. Just like Joseph, we have to not just listen, but respond! We have to learn how to act on the commands given to us by that still, small voice. The act of praying regularly helps prepare us for that. Living a life of faith and Christian practice on an everyday basis lays the groundwork down for taking tough steps and responding to God in times of challenge. We may, from time to time, even be called by God to break with tradition, whether it’s “capital-T” Tradition of the religious sort, or just cultural knowledge we’ve grown up with. After getting that call, what matters most is how we choose to respond. Will we stay bound up by self-importance and tradition, to reject God’s word, like King Ahaz, or will we humble ourselves, listen faithfully, and see the plan through, like Joseph?
The last lesson that Joseph teaches us is that Jesus grows into our hearts, just how Jesus grew into Joseph’s heart. When we clear space in our hearts for God, listen to Him, and act on His commands, we also create room for Christ in our hearts, and let him grow in ourselves. It’s also one of the reasons why God gave us children. We are created in the image of God, and when we learn to love our children unconditionally, we learn to love God unconditionally. This is one of the many ways that the still small voice of God speaks to us!
All this is to help open God’s great invitation to us. Joseph was asked to be the caretaker and legal father of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Mary herself was asked to physically give birth to him and put her life at risk in many ways! Together, they raised God on Earth, loved him unconditionally, and kept him safe throughout his childhood. When it comes to tall orders given to people other than Jesus Himself, those pretty much take the cake. The Holy Family — Joseph, Mary, and Jesus — accomplished God’s will on Earth in a way that has never been replicated, and will never be, until the coming of the New Jerusalem. We ourselves will never be called to tasks of these magnitudes, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be called to monumentous, world-changing tasks of our own. Every God-directed action that we take changes us forever, and affects everyone around us. These effects ripple out into our communities, and even our countries. To listen to God, and respond to Him, is to change the world.
Advent is a season of reflection and preparation. On our way to Christmas, let’s make sure that we’re prepared to think and pray, to listen and act, to change the world, and, most importantly, to do so by loving the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our strength, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves.