Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek + December 7, 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew:
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. (Matt. 1:18-19).
I’m going to pause the reading here for a moment, and I want you to pretend as best you can that you don’t know the rest of the story. Instead of looking ahead to angels and the sweet scene at Bethlehem, try to fit your feet into Joseph’s shoes.
First, imagine yourself as Joseph engaged to young Mary. Imagine being engaged to her in that time, in the first century. Their two families had formally agreed to the match, and the official ceremony was in the works. In a culture as communal and family-centered as Mary and Joseph’s, and in an economic position where each person in the family had to work hard just to meet their basic everyday needs, the marriage was part of a plan to strengthen and support the basic well-being of both of their families. We can add to that picture our best guesses as to what may have been going on in Joseph’s head and heart: Was his mind filled with plans of what his adult life would be like, now that he would be a husband, a father, head of his own household? Did his heart do a little flutter every time he thought of the young girl who would soon share his day-to-day life?
Then he finds out she is pregnant, and the child is definitely not his.
That news would be heartbreaking in our time and place. I would feel betrayed and furious and broken and who knows what else. But again, this was first-century Israel. It was a culture where adultery was a very serious offense, not just against Joseph but against the community; it was a culture where shame was a much more public phenomenon. Mary and her family would be disgraced; Mary may even have been in danger of being stoned.
Joseph, the reading tell us, was a righteous man, and decided that rather than seeking out revenge or at least public acknowledgement of how he had been betrayed by his betrothed, he would try to minimize Mary’s shame and punishment. He would cut off the marriage as quietly as possible and go on with his life.
At the moment of that heartbreaking decision, God sent Joseph a message.
The reading continues:
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. (Matt. 1:20-25).
Notice that God doesn’t exactly make Joseph’s life easier. Joseph’s original decision to quietly dismiss Mary was probably the best for him and his family, and it was fairly kind to Mary as well. It was a good, balanced, moral decision. When the angel told him to trust that the child was God’s and to take Mary as his wife, that angel was not only asking for Joseph to take a huge leap of faith. He was also asking Joseph to adopt a child that wasn’t his as his firstborn, to perhaps take on some of Mary’s disgrace.
And he would have to defend his strange decision to his family. Would they believe him when he said, “No, it’s ok, the child is from the Holy Spirit”? I can’t imagine many people buying into that without the help of about a dozen more angelic visits. And from what the gospels tell us, it seems that certainty about Jesus’s divine conception didn’t make it past Mary and Joseph. Later on in the Gospel of Matthew we read that the people of Jesus’s hometown, Nazareth, were offended that Jesus made himself out to be a religious teacher and a miracle-worker; they said, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt. 13:55). The Gospel of John says that “not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5). An angel may have visited Joseph in his dream, but God did not clarify Jesus’s identity to the rest of the world.
When we are in the midst of a confusing and even heartbreaking situation like Joseph’s, seeking to know what God would have us do, it can be very frustrating that our dreams are not visited by angels with clear directions. But even Joseph’s story reminds us that God works in humble and not-so-obvious ways.
God asked Joseph to make a hard and maybe even crazy decision based on faith, based on trust in the grace of God. And the grace of God works in a very upside-down way. If a god-king were being born into the world, we might expect something grand and obvious: a worldwide announcement, a descent straight from the sky – something that would make everyone immediately fall to their knees. Maybe something that could be caught on video tape in such a way that there could never be any doubt that God had come into the world. Something so big and clear would be a much better way to get lots of people to believe and go along with the plan.
But the grace of God was better shown to the world by working through quiet, lowly means. By coming into the world through a young, poor, unmarried mother; by reassuring her fiancé through a private dream. The grace of God was shown in the life of Jesus as he hung out with the common people and the most needy people: with fisherman, with tax collectors, with the poor, with the sick and injured. And ultimately the grace of God was shown in Jesus’s arrest and public execution. It is through that most upside-down of God’s moves, Jesus’s crucifixion, that Christians best understand how God works in the world.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that in the midst of our own painful confusion, when we are searching hardest for God’s guidance, we have to listen for God’s voice through that pain and even in what feels like the absence of God…because, paradoxically, that is where God is most surely present.
A reading from 1 Kings:
God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking 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 sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
And that is when Elijah heard God.
Let us pray. O God who brings comfort and joy, when the world baffles us with conflicting messages and puzzling events, speak to our confusion. Comfort us with the knowledge that you are with us in times of clarity and times of confusion. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
 Emily Hartner, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy: A Midweek Advent Series,” Sundays and Seasons, Year A 2016, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 27.