This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place: His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married and living together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph was righteous, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, so he planned to break the engagement quietly.
But as soon as 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 give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, which means ‘God saves’; for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: “See, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (which means “God is with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took Mary as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.
Advent is the blue season. It wasn’t always; when I was growing up, and probably for those of you who grew up Lutheran or Catholic, it was purple. It was meant to be a time like Lent – a time of fasting and preparation, of self-examination before the coming of Christ. Then we shifted, as we do with traditions when they need new life: Advent became blue, for royalty, for anticipation, for moonlight on snow, for the color of Mary’s robe.
Mary gets top billing during Advent, because she gets the best role in the pageant: she gets to say Yes to the miracle, Yes to Gabriel, Yes to God. She gets to sing: “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God.” The Magnificat. And for centuries we prayed “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”
Mary gets top billing, and Advent is blue for her robe. But I think Advent could just as well be blue for Joseph. We dress him in browns, in most nativity scenes, but he’s a blue collar kind of guy, really.
He was a carpenter, we think, or maybe a stoneworker. The word is tricky to translate but we know he worked with his hands. Hard, backbreaking work, pounding out a living in the desert of Galilee, finding his way in the hot sun and the hard granite and the skinny trees. Mending fishermen’s boats. Fixing doors. We could think of him in beat up work boots, with a hammer in the sling of his jeans.
He worked with his hands. A hard life. A life where righteousness is shown not in words but in actions. A man of strength and purpose. Trustworthy. The kind of guy who could fix things. The kind of guy who snowblows his own driveway and then takes care of the next door neighbors’, too.
He paid his taxes, demanded from him by the Roman empire. He turned his face away when he passed crosses on the side of Roman roads, the punishment for insurrection, for riots and protests, for refusing to follow Caesar’s rule. With his neighbors he quietly mourned the oppression of Israel, the empty throne of David. It seemed, at least, that God’s promises of a land and a people of Israel, a free people, a light to the nations – that those promises had all gone dark. The Jewish people were freed from Egypt, they returned from Babylon, but still they are not free.
Joseph was an ordinary man, living day to day, in a poor town called Nazareth. Like most ordinary people of his time, likely couldn’t read. He probably couldn’t write. He didn’t know what the Torah, the Law of Moses, looked like. But he went to the local synagogue on Saturday, and he journeyed to the Temple each year for Passover, and he did the best he could to be a righteous man – a follower of the Law. A trustworthy man, who trusted God.
A simple and hard and humble life. A blue collar life.
And into this simple life has been given joy, in Joseph’s engagement to Mary, a fellow resident of Nazareth. Marriage could happen as soon as a woman had entered puberty, and so we often think of Mary as a teenager; Joseph is often depicted as older, but he could have been as young as she was. As long as he was old enough to make a way in the world – a world that did not know or care about high school diplomas or college education – he could have begun his life as an adult, a husband, a father.
Marriage was a central social contract of Jewish life. It bound two families together. Before an engagement was entered into, the families would break bread together, making sure they were compatible, honorable, worthy of trust. After the engagement, the man received a dowry from the young woman’s family, usually including a piece of land so he could build a house and start a small farm, preparing a new home for his new family. It was a community affair, this marriage business.
Joseph has been building this house, tilling the land, shaking hands with new neighbors. Working twice as hard in the hot sun, staying up late and rising early. He dreams of the wedding, of the day he will bring Mary home, of how their children to come someday will fill the house with shouts of laughter.
And into that dream comes a gut-wrenching truth: Mary is pregnant.
Dishonor. Betrayal. Shame. Mary has broken the marriage contract. It is awful to imagine the pain that Joseph felt in that moment when he saw his dreams die. For he is a righteous man, and the Torah was clear: a woman who was not a virgin was not fit to be married. The law even permitted her execution. But Joseph is a righteous man, who knows the meaning of mercy, and so he plans to end the engagement quietly. He will not expose Mary to public disgrace and humiliation. Only her family will know. She can escape to another town, maybe to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and have her baby in secret there.
Joseph is a man of strength and purpose. A trustworthy man, who trusts God. He is committed to the religion of his ancestors and faithful to its traditions. He makes a decision, commits to a course of action; he is resolved.
And into that strength breaks the word of God. Into that resolution and righteousness, and into the fear and pain of a broken engagement, comes the divine promise: “Do not be afraid.”
So Joseph must wake and ask himself: What now? Do I follow the law, and end the engagement? Do I disobey tradition? Do I forget my religion? Do I dare question the practices of my elders, passed down over thousands of years?
Do I risk shame and scandal, taking an uncertain path, becoming an outcast, accepting the rejection of my family and the laughter of my friends, putting myself even farther to the fringes of society, because I think that what just happened was more than just a dream?
What does it mean to be righteous? What do you do when the truth runs counter to your whole life?
What do we do?
What do we do when we come to the edge of everything we know and finally have to say:
“I love you.” “I can’t live like this.”
“I quit.” “I’m gay.”
“I’m going back to school.” “I need help.”
“You have hurt me too much.” “It’s over.”
How do we speak the truth, in that moment, when it seems like the whole world speaks against it – when we know it will turn our lives upside down?
Something in us, somewhere, has this strange and unexplainable sense that the truth is bigger than our fear. Something in us is plucked, like a string on a violin, when the angel says “Do not be afraid.” Because Joseph knew, right in the center of his chest, just above his heart, that what he’d seen in his dream was more than a dream. That – that is trust. Even when the truth seems unbelievable. Especially when the truth is impossible, and yet we know it to be true.
The miracle of the Christmas story is that God came to earth, but there are a hundred small ones, tucked into the story like straw in a manger, and here is this one: Joseph says yes.
He says nothing to the angel, but he takes Mary as his wife. And in that, Joseph says Yes. Yes to being the stepfather to God. Yes to the whispers and judgment. Yes to having a son who will always be more than a carpenter. Yes to the son whose ministry he does not know that he willnot live to see. Yes to the messiness of God. Yes to his life turned upside down.
And sometimes we get to stand there too. Sometimes, truth breaks into our lives, and we have the opportunity to say Yes. In that moment, at the edge of everything we know, we fall into the truth, because it is bigger than us. Because what that truth has the power to do is to break through our fear and our pain and drop us into this deep cradle of love and mercy.
Falling into truth, speaking it and believing it when the world seems against it, is a radical confession of faith. A terrifying kind of obedience to the new and beautiful movement of God. After the longest night of the year, there’s a new dawn, and the days start to lengthen. And we’re reminded that just when life turns upside down, God shows up, sometimes in the smallest of ways – a flicker of light – a warm glimmer of hope in the cold, a tiny baby born into the life of an unwed mother and a blue-collar kind of guy.
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