Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when 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 bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Those of us who have spent many years in the church smile and nod when we hear this familiar passage. This is the Joseph part of the story, told in the Gospel According to Matthew. It’s not quite as familiar as Mary’s part of the story, told in Luke’s Gospel, but still we recognize it and smile. We are neither surprised nor bothered by it. If someone unfamiliar with the story asked, we might say, “Oh, this is the part where Joseph is going to quietly divorce his fiancé Mary because she got pregnant before the wedding and it’s not his. But an angel tells Joseph that she got pregnant by the Holy Spirit so it’s ok.” And our friend would respond, “Say what?” We forget how startling this story would be to someone who doesn’t already know it. I think it also would have been startling to the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, though for different reasons. Virgin births were not uncommon claims among political and religious leaders in the ancient world. What might have been more surprising to Matthew’s Jewish audience was Joseph’s response to the situation.
In Joseph’s time and culture, the engagement was a social contract. Theirs was a society of arranged marriages, and the betrothal or engagement period was the period of time between the contract being made and when the couple moved in together. The engaged couple was considered married enough that it took a divorce decree to end the relationship. If it was discovered that the girl was pregnant, and if the man knew the child wasn’t his, he could publicly accuse her of infidelity, which could result in something as dramatic as her being stoned, or something almost as bad in their culture, which was being shamed. It would ruin her family’s reputation and her chances for a future, unless the man who got her pregnant stepped up. When Joseph hears that Mary is pregnant, of course he assumes she has committed adultery. “The law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.” Joseph was a righteous man so he should divorce her. He could do it publicly or privately, but he didn’t really have a choice.
Until his dream. The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, that the child conceived in her is from the holy spirt, or from a spirit of holiness. Then, we are told, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” One dream, and bam, that’s it, problem solved! It sounds so simple, and this is one of many times that I wish we could see the struggle before the obedience, because surely he struggled, right? Surely he didn’t just wake up and think, “okay, I guess I’ll ignore what the law and tradition say I should do, and do what the angel in my dream said instead.”
That takes faith, sure, but it also takes courage. Courage to go against the rules. Courage to go against the flow. Courage to take a chance. Courage to love.
Did he wonder if he had what it takes? Did he wonder, during the rest of her pregnancy, if he’d made a mistake? Did he wonder if he would be able to love this child who wasn’t his—who wouldn’t have his eyes or his mother’s crooked smile or his father’s skinny legs. Would he be able to love this child enough? Did he have the courage to see this through?
I was reminded this week of a poem about the questions people ask foster parents. It goes like this:
I met you at the grocery or the restaurant or the bank
it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same
I can answer them before you ask.
Yes, we’re foster parents.
Yes, it’s a lot of work.
No, we don’t know how long we’ll have him.
No, we can’t tell you why we do.
And yes, of course of course we get attached.
And yes, we fall in love.
And yes, absolutely, it will be hard to let them go.
And no, I don’t suppose you do know how I can do it . . .
because I just saw how you looked at me
the look you thought I wouldn’t recognize
maybe you didn’t even recognize
the split-second speculation
that I couldn’t possibly love the way you do, if I can let go.
And that’s when I have to smile and say nicemeetingyouhaveagoodday
because otherwise I will tell you exactly how it feels
to wake up every wee-hour morning to feed someone else’s child
and how he searches for a breast that has no food for him
because the one that has the food also has drugs or just not enough love.
I will tell you how it feels to love him as my own
because this child deserves to be loved as someone’s own
while knowing that I do not own him and cannot determine his fate.
Can you do what I do? I don’t know. Maybe you can.
Can you love fiercely? Because that’s what it takes.
Only fierce love will last when this child faces whatever comes next.
Can you love, knowing your love will not be returned
may not even be remembered or one day recognized
as the reason he’s always loved the smell of lavender and Tide?
I don’t know if you can do what I do,
or if you can let go like I will have to,
which is perhaps the most painful part of loving.
“Good luck,” you say as you walk away
and I say “thanks” because it’s polite,
when we both know it isn’t luck I need.
It takes courage to love, for love is always a risk, and we have no idea at the time what love will demand. Joseph certainly didn’t know. Alright, so he knew more about this child than most expectant parents do, but he had no way of knowing what it would mean, where it would lead, how it would hurt.
Joseph disappears from the narrative before Jesus grows up, but we can presume that he was around long enough to teach Jesus some important lessons. “For where do you think, except from Joseph, that Jesus got the idea that a father always gives good gifts to his children [as he says in Matthew 7:11]? Where, do you imagine, did he get the image of the father running to welcome home his prodigal son?”
The Rev. Janet Hunt puts it this way:
“I have to believe that Jesus drew from his own experience growing up with Joseph as his father here. Joseph who abandoned his own pride, his own long-learned sense of right and wrong. Who set aside his fear and worked through the stone in the pit of his stomach. Who stretched his own sense of what and who he was responsible for, to give earthly legitimacy to this child of Mary’s from the Holy Spirit and to help shape Jesus’ life and his vision in such a way that some of his best teaching was informed by his own experience of an earthly, loving dad.”
Joseph had the courage to break tradition and law in favor of mercy, the courage to risk ridicule in exchange for redemption. But first he had to wake up. It’s a simple act, not to mention a natural one. Of course he would have to wake up. He couldn’t sleep forever. But he had to wake up metaphorically, too. He had to open his eyes. With so much stacked against him, Jesus needed a father who was fully awake.
Joseph woke up to the truth that righteousness might mean breaking the law.
Joseph woke up to the possibility of an improbable promise.
Joseph woke up to the miracle that saved his soul.
Joseph woke up and allowed himself to be changed by a dream.
“It was the decision of a lifetime for Joseph. It was one he could never have expected to make and yet, it is also a dilemma which will parallel one we will probably all face at one time or another as we are called to do the right thing in a situation that at first seems all wrong. And when you do that—when you step up and do what is right and good in the face of earthly ‘wisdom’ or advice which would urge you otherwise; when you act with forgiveness and hope and trust; well then, the world changes. It surely did with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. And it does every other time, too.”
When was the last time you were changed by a dream? When was the last time you chose mercy over righteousness? When was the last time you said “yes” to God’s irrational call? The world needs more love, and that means we need courage: the courage to love people who may not share our genes, people who may not look like us, or talk like us, or think like us; the courage to love when we do not know where it leads.
As humans, some of us already do this really well, and some of us not so much. Some of us need to learn that we’re not the center of the universe, and some of us need to learn that we, too, deserve to be loved and safe. I’ll let you and the Holy Spirit figure out which one you are. But I will tell you this: the world needs your courage. Whether, like Joseph, you are called to welcome someone else, or whether, like Mary, you are called to give birth to something holy, either way it can be scary. But, ready or not, Christ will come. Let’s be ready.
  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1936