If you’d had the opportunity to sketch out the map of your life, how would it turn out, I wonder? Imagine for just a moment if you could time travel back to important scenes from your life and make different choices? Smooth out bumps in the road before they even formed? Redirect your past self and explore a different path? Perhaps you would have chosen a different career path. Married sooner or later or a different person altogether. Had children sooner or later or not at all. Avoided a certain romantic relationship, caught yourself before you made a big mistake, changed the way you took care of your body or spirit. Valued a relationship before it was too late. Perhaps you would be a different version of yourself. You may not have major regrets about your life, but I’m sure all of us might do things a little differently if given the choice.
It's easy, from this vantage point, to see how you would do things differently. From this place, you can see where you went wrong, and where you went right. Life is a series of choices- sometimes choices with clear rights and wrongs, but many times we are given possibilities with equally unknown outcomes, and at times, we are forced to choose from a buffet of bad options. And of course, as we come into our story for this Sunday, we see that Joseph, the man who planned to Mary, was faced with quite possibly the hardest choice of his life.
You see, Joseph had learned that the young woman he was supposed to be married to was pregnant, presumably with another man’s baby. Obviously, this is horrible, shocking, painful news for anyone to hear. We don’t know the way in which Joseph learns this news. If we combine last week’s story from Luke with this week’s story, it seems possible that Mary comes home from her time visiting Elizabeth and Zechariah with a “baby bump.” But Matthew simply tells us that Mary “was found to be with child.” It implies that Mary’s pregnancy was obvious and well-known. Let’s not pretend that this would not be the object of gossip and ridicule, even now when much has changed about marriage, relationships, and having children. If a woman shows up pregnant and the baby daddy isn’t the man she is supposedly with, there’s going to be some drama.
But in Mary and Joseph’s day, the consequence for such events wasn’t just public shaming, as awful as that can be. The consequence could very possibly be death. It would essentially require Mary to be pushed out of public life, shoved to the shameful edges of society. Not to mention Joseph’s own hurt, shame, and embarrassment. His honor and reputation are in question now too. Matthew tells us that Joseph is “dikaios,” often translated as righteous, but what it also means is law-abiding. Those things are the same in a world where the law and religion are the inextricably linked. Joseph is law-abiding, and the law says Mary cannot be his wife. Joseph is law-abiding, and the law says she deserves to die. Joseph is law-abiding, and the law has not left room for grace. And yet- Joseph seems unable to stomach the thought of Mary’s life being utterly destroyed. He sees his choices and decides that the one he can live with is simply releasing Mary from their engagement. Remember, in this time, being engaged was not a verbal agreement between two adults. Engagement was a public contract negotiated between two families. It was legally binding and not easily altered. Joseph has made his choice and he goes to sleep.
And in his sleep, he dreams. Joseph joins a long line of people in the Bible who experience a divine dream. An Angel of the Lord- a messenger from God, comes to him, saying “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” The angel says more about this very special baby, including that he should be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” It’s a big request. Don’t be afraid to blow your life up, Joseph. Don’t be afraid to let people think the worst of you and Mary. Don’t be afraid of what others will think or if you can manage this. Don’t be afraid to shape a family out of the broken pieces of your hopes and expectations.
The angel tells Joseph that the baby should be named Jesus, the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua. It means “God saves” and was a common name, but not one Joseph had any say over. Before the angel goes, he references something from the prophet Isaiah. Centuries before Joseph was born, the prophet Isaiah visited King Ahaz with a message that despite his failures as king, God would send help to him and the nation of Judah in the time it took a young woman to birth and wean a very special child. God’s promise to Ahaz was fulfilled, and the angel quotes Isaiah’s words to Joseph as a way of saying that God is still working, God is still using people, God is still with us.
Joseph wakes up and accepts the angel’s message. I can’t imagine he didn’t fear a little, but nonetheless, he reevaluates his options and he chooses differently. He chooses Mary and her baby. He chooses the messy, hard, beautiful life that lays out ahead of him. He chooses what is over what could have been.
As you may know, traditionally, each week in Advent follows a theme of the story. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Generally, we work to weave the theme of the day through all the elements in the worship service. Today is the “Joy” Sunday, or if we want to get fancy with it, Gaudete Sunday. It’s the Sunday of Advent when we light the pink candle- a reminder to us of the invitation to “rejoice in the Lord always.” This week, as I mulled over Joseph’s story, his call to not be afraid to marry Mary, to make a family with Mary and Jesus, I couldn’t figure out how to entwine joy with Joseph’s story. I had just about given hope- I didn’t want to force it. If it’s not a joyful story, I couldn’t make it one. But then, I saw a piece of art that helped me to understand that Joseph’s story was and is joyful.
It's a mixed media piece of art by an anonymous online artist. Joseph is a young man with dark hair and a thick beard. He holds baby Jesus who looks to be no more than a year old. Both of their heads are surrounded by a radiant halo of gold. Jesus’ tiny fist is grabbing on to his Daddy’s tunic and his sweet head is tucked under Joseph’s chin, burrowed into the comfort of his father. Jesus’ warm and serious eyes look out of the frame, but his body language is that of sheer comfort and peace. He is utterly safe here in his father’s arms. Joseph’s eyes are closed, savoring the soft warmth of his baby, perhaps breathing in the perfect smell of an infant’s head.
That’s it- that’s Joseph’s joy. He gets to hold this tiny, wonderful creature in his arms. He gets to be his Dad. Joseph gets to show Jesus how to use his carpentry tools and how to be a good big brother, how to be righteous and to listen for the voice of angels. Joseph gets to cuddle Jesus before bedtime and splash him at bath time. When Jesus falls and scrapes up his knees, it’s Joseph’s kind face and loving touch that gives him comfort. It’s Joseph who gets to teach him how to be a man and he gets to watch Jesus “grow and become strong, filled with wisdom” and bear the favor of God as the Gospel of Luke puts it. With Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph’s life and his plans are shattered into a million pieces. But in choosing to heed the angel’s advice, the pieces of his life are mended with joy.
This is not the warm, fuzzy Christmas story that we get on television and the movies. Joseph’s story is much rougher and tougher- and more like our own stories. Joseph didn’t get to choose his choices. He certainly wouldn’t have chosen this. But he chose to put one foot in front of another, to say yes, to listen to the angel, to push away his fear, and to keep his heart open to joy and love.
Here is what I know: so much of what happens to you has nothing to do with you, with your plans, your hopes. You are in control of so very little. It is terrifying, honestly. We grow frustrated with long lines and grumpy people. We’re irritated when we don’t get what we need when we go to the store, sitting in traffic makes us apoplectic. But it’s more than that too- it’s the ways our families grow and shrink, fall apart, and heal. It’s hard diagnoses with unclear treatment plans, it’s growing to see the reality of who someone actually is. It’s being treated badly or beautifully, unfair or privileged. It’s the messy, awful realities of being a human.
And yet the angel messenger comes to us saying, do not be afraid. One of our dear Presbyterian saints, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.” You cannot choose much, but you can choose to carry on, to say no to fear. You can choose accepting what is over what will never be. And in acceptance, in the grace that accompanies it, there is joy. In acceptance, we may, like Joseph, see that God is with us- surely a cause for great joy. Amen.