So there he is, betrothed to Mary. The way betrothal works in those days was that the husband and wife, or often the husband and the wife’s parents, enter into a marriage contract. From that point on, the couple is considered married for all intents and purposes. Any breaking of the contract would require a divorce. During the betrothal period, the man prepares financially for his marriage, and the woman grows a bit more into womanhood, since she usually enters into the contract right after beginning puberty. Some time later, the couple completes the marriage process with some sort of celebration or feast; then, the groom takes his wife into his home and the couple is considered fully married.[i]
Joseph had done everything by the books. He is a righteous man, which means he follows the law to the letter. Everything is heading in the proper direction, going as planned, according to schedule. And then he gets the worst possible news. Mary is pregnant. Since Mary and Joseph are betrothed, but not yet in the stage of marriage where they have consummated the union, there is no way Joseph is the father of the child. He can only assume Mary has been unfaithful. Joseph has two options: he can have Mary stoned or he can divorce her.[ii] He is well within his rights to utilize either path, and would not receive criticism by other faithful Jews. But Joseph is one of those rare treasures who not only knows the letter of the law, but also understands the spirit of the law. Instead of a brutal, public punishment for Mary, he decides he will divorce her quietly, hoping to help her avoid the full force of cultural judgment.
Joseph makes a well-informed, respectable, and compassionate decision. He makes his decision and then rests his weary mind and body. That is when life changes yet again. God appears to Joseph in a dream, and explains that Joseph’s decision cannot stand. This child in Mary’s womb is special, and not only is Joseph not to divorce her, he is to legally claim the child as his own by naming the child. So what does Joseph do? He bends even further than he already has, and takes Mary as his wife.
When most of us think of the Holy Family or even that holy night, we have a pretty romanticized picture of their life. Our joy about the Christ Child seems to erase the reality of that poor family. In fact, the Holy Family was a bit of a holy mess. Mary is in the extremely vulnerable position of having her body taken over by the Holy Spirit and this child, all without the promise of a willing partner. And Joseph is in a legal and cultural predicament. I am sure that anyone in their community could do the math about Mary’s due date and wonder why Joseph stays with her, let alone assume ownership of the child. Despite being obedient to God, I cannot imagine that Joseph’s dream wiped away all the tension between Joseph and Mary.
Of course, we are no stranger to this kind of messiness in families. We all have experienced tensions in our relationships with parents, partners, siblings, and extended family. Sometimes the tensions are from minor issues that eventually get resolved. But sometimes the tensions break down communication, create broken relationships, and have ripple effects in our families. Just this week, I have had conversations with people about an aging mother who is creating tensions among her children; a couple struggling with infertility; parents navigating the sexual orientation of their child; and a single person who feels lonely and hopeless. We all know the messiness of life – in fact, we may have begun to wonder whether our dreams of peace and concord among our families is just a pipe dream. Or maybe we would rather just divorce ourselves entirely from what our lives have become.
In the midst of messiness, another way emerges. Joseph, a man who we know to be righteous and faithful makes a choice. He had nothing to do with the messiness in his life, and he has every reason and right to just walk away and find a much neater, tidier life and a more conventional wife. But Joseph makes a choice to believe God. Joseph chooses differently. “He claims the scandal, he owns the mess – he legitimizes it – and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.”[iii] Joseph’s choice is unconventional, a bit radical, and perhaps even a bit illogical. But Joseph, having no idea where the choice will lead him, or how he will navigate his relationships once his decision is made, chooses to believe and to follow God right into the heart of the messiness, trusting that God will sustain him in the messiness and make something beautiful out of the mess.
Of course, Joseph had reason to believe that God could make a way through the messiness. Just a few verses before the text we hear today in Matthew, Matthew lists the genealogy of Jesus. In that genealogy, Jesus’ heritage begins with Abraham, goes through David, and ends with Joseph. But in that list of forty-two fathers, four women from the Old Testament are also listed – all of whom had a history either before marriage or childbirth that made their story either strange or scandalous. Take Tamar for example. She was found to be pregnant long after her husband’s death. Her father-in-law denounced her until he realized that he was the father. Or look at Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. She became pregnant not by her husband Uriah, but by David.[iv] Joseph comes from a long line of messiness and scandal, and yet, God moves through the messiness to create something new and powerful every time. Perhaps a family history of messiness and divine action leads Joseph to take that leap of faith with Mary.
I wonder how all of this messiness resonates with your life. We are still wrapping up Advent, and not quite yet to Christmas. Like Joseph, we are not quite at the manger, finally arriving at our destination. Now I recognize that some of you will be blessed by a blissful, picturesque Christmas with nothing but familial harmony. That kind of reality may be entirely due to some good luck, and if that is what your Christmas looks like, then praise be to God. But most of us probably are approaching Christmas with our fair share of messiness. There are relationships to navigate or perhaps relationships that have entirely crumbled over the years. You may have lingering questions about how God will act and what kind of goodness can come out of your mess.
Our invitation today is to remember that God still speaks to us in the messiness, and that God can still work not in spite of our mess, but through our mess for goodness. And if you not convinced, perhaps then Joseph might be your best companion in the coming days. Perhaps Joseph can journey with you as you wade into the messiness of your life, praying to hear God’s words for you. Perhaps Joseph can fill you with hope and promise that your messiness, which may or may not be as severe as some of the Biblical messiness we have heard about today, has surely been seen by and blessed by God. Perhaps Joseph can hold your hand at the stable, like he did with Mary, inviting you into a sure, steady trust that your God can do infinitely more than you can ask for or imagine this Christmas. Amen.
[iii] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Jesus’ Other Parent,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 31, no. 1, Advent 2007, 35.
[iv] Raymond E. Brown, “The Annunciation to Joseph,” Worship, vol. 61, no. 6, November 1987, 483.