Every three years on this day, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our scripture readings take a few moments to remember a crucial character in the birth we are about to celebrate, a character who soon fades into the background and is rarely seen again.
I’m talking, of course, about Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, a man whose life undergoes a radical change in the passage from Matthew’s gospel we heard just moments ago.
Just a few days ago life was good for Joseph. He was engaged to a beautiful young woman. His work as a carpenter was going well. His dreams of the future were bright.
Just a few days ago Joseph was looking forward to setting a marriage date with the woman to whom he was engaged.
Actually, legally they are already committed to each other. The marriage contract has been negotiated with her parents, a legally binding arrangement. But Mary, his betrothed, is still living in her parents’ home.
Joseph has never spent a moment alone with her, and he won’t be allowed to do so until he is able to support and provide for her himself.
That should be soon. His business is going well. Joseph has been looking forward to the day when he and Mary can truly be together, when he can begin knowing this shy young girl who will be his wife.
Although he does not know her well yet, Joseph senses that he will grow to love her. He imagines that his life with her will be happy, that their home will be filled with children and laughter and love.
But now everything has changed. Mary has come to him with news that has shattered all his dreams for the future.
This shy young girl, who as far as Joseph knows, has never spent one moment alone with a man, is pregnant.
At first Joseph thought Mary must be joking. But she convinced him that her news was true, even though she would not tell him who the father is.
Joseph is devastated – both by what this news means for his dreams and by what it means for Mary.
Joseph has always been a faithful man. Scripture calls him righteous, meaning that he is a man who always follows the word of God as it is revealed in scripture. He prides himself on always living by God’s law.
And that law is clear on what he must do in such a situation.
A woman who is pregnant outside of marriage is guilty of adultery and legally can be stoned to death.
That harsh sentence is not always carried out, but even so law is clear that Joseph must break the marriage contract, must, in effect, divorce Mary before they have ever lived together as husband and wife.
It doesn’t matter how much Joseph loves Mary, or how much he has looked forward to their life together. It is now his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract.
And Joseph always carries out his religious obligations.
As confused and angry and devastated as Joseph is, he has compassion on Mary. Having her stoned to death is out of the question. He could still demand a trial to find out who the father is, and under what circumstances this tragic pregnancy occurred. It is his right to do so.
But a trial would mean humiliation for Mary, and would not change or improve the situation. So Joseph has decided to divorce Mary quietly, without a public trial.
Of course, everyone will eventually know what happened, but at least Mary and her family will be spared some of the more public gossip and scorn.
Joseph isn’t truly happy with his decision, but it seems the best way to deal with a bad situation. It allows him to be obedient to God’s law and as compassionate as legally possible to Mary.
With his decision made, Joseph falls into a restless sleep, which brings with it a very strange dream. An angel appears and tells Joseph to disregard the law and make Mary his wife; that the child she is bearing is of the Holy Spirit, whatever that means.
“She will bear a son and you will name him Jesus,” the angel tells Joseph.
When Joseph wakes up, he feels like a great burden has been lifted from him. He knows that most people would dismiss such a dream as ridiculous.
He knows that if he marries Mary there will be snickering and gossip, that there will be those who will accuse him of being unfaithful to God, of rejecting tradition and scripture by marrying this tainted woman.
But Joseph is not only a righteous man; he is a courageous one. Without further question, he does what the angel commanded.
And when the baby is born, Joseph lets everyone know that he is naming the child Jesus.
Jewish tradition is for the mother to name the child. By naming the baby himself, Joseph is declaring that Jesus is legally his son. And that just as he, Joseph, is of the line of the great King David, so is his child Jesus.
It is Mary who gets the most attention in the stories of the birth and life of Jesus. Joseph is the forgotten man, never mentioned again in scripture after Jesus is 12 years old. We have no idea what happened to him.
But this brief story, these seven verses of Matthew’s gospel, remind us that Joseph is as important in the birth of Jesus as Mary was.
Just as Mary had to courageously consent to bearing Jesus, so Joseph had to consent to being his legal father.
If either Mary or Joseph had said no to the angel, which has to have been a possibility, then everything would have been different.
I think this brief story also gives us a glimpse into another way in which Joseph was important in Jesus’ life.
Joseph shows us that being faithful to God does not always mean following the letter of the law or of the Bible.
There are some Biblical commands that many communities of faith, with deep reverence for scripture, simply do not obey – not just commands such as stoning a woman to death for adultery, but commands such as prohibitions against divorce, or those that condone slavery, or that order women to be subject to their husbands or silent in church, or seemingly condemn same sex relationships.
In each of these and other similar situations, the church has not cavalierly dismissed scripture, but has struggled to adhere faithfully to the supreme command of love and compassion to which Christ calls us.
Jesus himself was one who put love and compassion above the letter of the law.
He ate with notorious sinners, with whom the law says he should not be in contact. He healed people on the Sabbath, in violation of the law. He treated women with respect as equals, when the law and culture dictated otherwise.
I suspect that maybe Jesus learned these things from his father Joseph, that maybe it was Joseph who taught him that what is legal and what is right are not always the same thing.
That maybe it was Joseph who taught him that compassion and love are truer to God’s will than any law.
Joseph, the father and teacher of Jesus, now stands as a model for all disciples of Christ who find themselves in tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commands and the new thing that God continues to do in Jesus.
Joseph lived the heart of the law, not its letter.
In a difficult moral situation, he listened to the voice of God, and was willing to set aside his previous understanding of the law in favor of a new word from the living God.
May we have the courage to do the same.