Fourth Sunday of Advent texts here, audio version here.
When I was about fourteen years old, I was driving my brother and me to school—now I know some of you won’t get past the fact that in North Dakota you can get your license at fourteen, but I promise there’s more to this story. I was driving my brother and me to school, and as I backed out of the driveway, I didn’t watch the nose of my parents' massive 1976 Chevy pick-up, and I knocked over the mailbox at the end of the driveway…a quality brick structure, not some little mail order tin thing on a stick. I put my head down, looked up, and saw my mom standing at the door to the house, watching the whole thing.
The feeling I had at that moment can only be described as a mixture of panic, guilt, and inexplicably wanting to become invisible. The sort of feeling that causes your stomach to sink right down to your toes…your hands go numb, and you’d maybe cry and your cheeks would flush if all the blood hadn’t drained from your face just a few seconds earlier. There are many levels to it and lots of causes.
It doesn’t have to be necessarily knocking your mailbox over—or being fourteen. Perhaps for you it’s seeing those flashing lights in your rearview mirror when you know you’re going too fast. Perhaps it’s letting it slip that you voted against something your political party wanted, because you thought something else was actually more right. It’s probably a little radical to even mention that—voting. Oh, I can feel the tension rising—it’s almost crackling in the air. You’re maybe starting to wonder what angle I’m going to work next. What’s going on now. What I’m going to say next. What I’m going to say is I think maybe now you know the feeling I mean...that "oh no, now what?" feeling.
Maybe now you have an idea of the feeling Joseph would’ve experienced in our story today. Mary’s pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. The law is pretty clear about what should happen in these situations. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states that the punishment for this is to bring the pregnant woman to the town gate and throw stones at her until she is dead, and by doing so purge the evil and cleanse the community. Joseph knows the law; being a righteous man, this is what he should do. There is another way out, however. Since Mary is technically Joseph’s property, he disown her by presenting to her a writ of divorce, and let her go quietly—disgraced but alive. Whatever he decides, the law and the social expectations are clear—he is to have nothing more to do with her, and both of them are in big trouble.
Something happens, though. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and speaks to him. There is no mistake in this, because angel calls Joseph by his name and heritage—Joseph, of the house of David, the royal line—do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. The angel takes the situation and names it for what it is—fear. Fear—undiluted and unrestrained fear.
The angel then sorts out the truth of the matter, saying this is not just some random child, but the Son conceived from the Holy Spirit. Pure and simple education—knowing the facts rather than assuming the worst—sorts this mess out. The angel points out that it is what the child will eventually do that is important. Jesus, Jeshua, will save his people from their sins. Fear is turned to hope.
As Christians, we understand everything through this life story. We say that Isaiah points ahead to it, that Paul’s letters—like Romans, reflect back on it. In Scripture, then, we have both prophecy of and affirmation for the significance in Jesus’ life. In worship, we confirm our belief in it. In our daily lives, even our calendar has been set to it. And in a little town halfway around the world, it depended on one man’s rejection of society’s expectations. All I can say is, God must have known what God was doing in choosing Mary and Joseph. Mary had to accept this life, and Joseph had to protect it.
Joseph wakes from his dream with the angel, and (in my opinion) a miracle happens. He is given the faith to believe the angel’s words, and the courage to let his faith show through his actions.
What will the neighbors think? If Joseph had brought Mary out to be stoned, they might have pitied him—thought him righteous for upholding the law. They might have even been grateful to him for cleansing the community. If he had dismissed her quietly, they might have respected him—thought him betrayed but somehow kind in spite of it by letting her live at all.
But Joseph marries her! He is foolish, stupid, an idiot in the eyes of the neighbors…and worse—he ignores the law! What is going on? Joseph takes Mary as his wife, thereby protecting her from death and exile—he acts as the advocate for this woman who would be condemned. Joseph goes even further, though, claiming the child as his own by naming him Jesus. In naming him, Joseph steps up to take this role as Father, protector, guardian, Dad. You thought talking about voting was radical—this is insane!
And maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson for us in there as well. We hear the Christmas story over and over again, until the Good News becomes Old News. Most of us are not like the Romans being addressed in the Second Lesson, when they articulate their faith for the first time or send greetings (as Paul does here) that retell the entire story of Jesus. We don’t need to be told, like Joseph, how important Jesus will be by an angel in a dream.
We forget sometimes that the challenge of Jesus’ ministry began long before his first miracle or even his baptism. Even before his birth, Jesus’ very existence challenged a family to act outside of the social expectations and beyond the status quo. There had to be an advocate for the condemned but not guilty people. We still need that. There are a thousand and one organizations I could name here or situations I could suggest, but you likely already know them. If you don’t, I’m more than happy to go through a list of them with you later. The point is, there are still people condemned to being cold, being hungry, having no control over wages, housing, marital status or life situation not by their own fault, but because someone higher up in the system decided that they don’t get a voice. The point is, we need to see what happened here not as happy news, but as good news that was costly to all involved. The point is, we need to stop being afraid of what the neighbors will think and just do what’s right.
I wonder what the world would look like if we were all a bit more like Joseph when discerning the truth—if we listened to the facts rather than jumped to conclusions. If we heard the Christmas story every year with new ears and saw this humble—humiliated—family and tiny baby with new eyes. If we saw the system not as something we should try to get the most from for ourselves, but as something that should support and advocate for all—especially those without power. If we recognized justice rather than status. If we had courage to show our faith through our lives outside of these walls and make our lives ones ruled not by the fear of what might happen, but by the hope of what could be. The angel says, “Do not be afraid,” and so we too may listen and live our lives with courage and hope. Amen.