God is with us: exploring Joseph’s unorthodox dream

Luke tells us how an angel appeared to Mary saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you”.  Like any of us who might see an angel, Mary was greatly perplexed and wondered what that meant.  The angel -proclaimed, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,”  and how Mary would give birth to an amazing child, Jesus, who would change the world.  This all seemed unbelievable and Mary asked “How can all this be?”  The angel is a bit short on the details, answering, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  Facing considerable risks Mary stepped into the holy mystery promising, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be so with me according to Your word!”  When facing the cross, Jesus repeated a prayer much like his mothers, “Lord, take this cup away from me, but not what I want. Lord, Your will be done.” (Matthew 26) Jesus offers us that same kind of model prayer, perhaps rooted in his mother’s prayer: “Lord your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in Heaven”   (Matt. 6)

Matthew’s Christmas story is very different from Luke’s, telling us very little about Mary except that “she was found to be pregnant” before she married Joseph. Joseph was not the father. Given the strict laws of premarital separation and careful chaperoning it is not surprising that Joseph and Mary told two lived two different experiences of the same event.  Each of our four Gospels give us slightly different perspectives on Christ.  

 When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he knows he is not the father. Joseph did not choose what Luke described as the ancient “public disgrace” of a pregnant fiancé: the whispers around church and jokes around the union shop.  What do we do when we are stuck with few good options? The ancient law afforded Joseph almost total power over Mary’s body and her life. The law called for her to be stoned to death. Although rarely enforced such ancient “honor” laws, Deuteronomy 22 does not say you can “choose to” or you “might”, but demands that in these cases of public shame “you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Let’s be clear, Deuteronomy 22 threatened Mary and Jesus’ lives. Joseph and Mary are stuck inside a sinful, oppressive, patriarchal Levitical system.  Additionally the puritanical culture did not permit Joseph and Mary to be alone to chat.  If we dig into the context of Matthew’s Christmas story we find a deep desperate stuck-ness.  

You may not feel as stuck as Mary or Joseph, but life often puts us stuck in moments, unclear spaces where there seem to be no good options.  Do you take the plea deal to get out of jail?  Do you pay the rent of your addicted adult child? Do you forgive for the 776th time? Do you flip over an unjust table or keep working inside  the broken system? Do you risk planting tender shoots in the burned over forest? Do you do good to those that hate you? 

 What to do? Matthew tells us that “Joseph, being a righteous man, was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace and  planned to divorce her quietly.” What is righteousness? Is righteousness upholding  all the “thou shall(s)” and “you shall nots” or more a matter of the heart? (Mark 3).  Does defending Biblical laws make you righteous or offering mercy beyond the rules? Matthew tells us righteousness is rooted in compassion and mercy not legalism and judgment.  As a righteous person Joseph ignores the command “you shall purge the evil (Mary and Jesus) from the land”. ( Deuteronomy 22) Righteousness always chooses mercy!  Years later, confronted by judgy church folks for eating with those called impure, Jesus meets the church’s judgment with a cheeky retort ( an ancient  burn): “Go and learn what this means, ‘God desires mercy not sacrifices’.”  (Matthew 9 & 12) Go learn that God cares more about offering mercy than enforcing rules. Jesus tells us that “weightier matters of the law are justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23) Right now, we have churches leaving the denomination, not willing to affiliate with churches like ours and preachers like me. They break fellowship talking about fidelity to Scripture, as if Belmont does not faithfully wrestle with the Bible’s harder passages. Matthew names Joseph as righteous precisely because Joseph intends to ignore the verses demanding “purge the evil.” Joseph knew a pregnant Mary was not evil.  Being righteous, Joseph chooses mercy over the law.   

Joseph resolved to break the law, quietly getting out of the marriage contract and sending Mary away, maybe to live with her wonderful aunt Elizabeth and uncle Zechariah. With his mind mostly made up, Joseph still has trouble sleeping. Do you abandon those stuck inside unjust systems? Do you disaffiliate with people you don’t understand? Perhaps Joseph was righteous enough, prayerful enough, spiritually awake enough to see how the system gave Mary no power and that she did not deserve public shame. Joseph knew how her life as a single mother navigating the patriarchy would be brutal.  Matthew tells us Joseph’s heart: Joseph does not want to expose Mary to shame and yet he is stuck with few good options. 

Joseph decided to take the least offensive option of a quiet divorce and a new start in another town. But after settling that, God breaks more clearly into the story. In Genesis, the patriarch Joseph was a dreamer and so to an angel of the Lord speaks to our Joseph in a dream, “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.” What do we do with such dreams, ponderings, or pulls of the Spirit? Did Joseph wake up at 2am in a cold sweat and a clear vision or wake up rubbing his eyes and saying “I need to get coffee with our Rabbi and unpack this weird dream”? Either way, Joseph decides to step into the midst of Mary’s public disgrace. In John 8, we see church folks putting down Joseph’s wife and son. Friends, true righteousness stands with those misjudged, sinfully shamed and crucified. Is this not our standing with the least, the last and the lost the work of Jesus?  At Christmas we sing with Handel, Isaiah, and 1 Peter “Surely, surely, surely Christ has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; carried our sorrows and our griefs: yet we esteemed him stricken and smitten by God and afflicted. But Christ was pierced for our transgressions, (Surely, surely) he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed”.

The dream-born middle name that Joseph will give to Jesus is “Emmanuel” which means, “God is with us.” In the midst of our stuck-ness, with few good options, public shame, systemic injustice, born in a stable, crucified between thieves: “God is with us”.  God is with us as we choose tricky compassion over clear-cut legalism, mercy over the law, justice over rules, hope over suspicion, grace over judgment, forgiveness over fears, compassion over alienation, and hope over shame.  As Joseph takes the best of bad options, God shows up with an option Joseph had not considered: Joseph embraces Mary and raises a child born of the Holy Spirit and in violation of the law’s letter. Remember, how God raises up shoots amid the burned over stumps, makes new paths in the wilderness, and sews compassion amid injustice. (Isaiah 11) 

So if you are stuck this morning, resolve to take the next unclear right step.  Step with an openness to God who may yet show you an unconventional path or an unorthodox dream. Remember that the righteous practice compassion, mercy, faith and justice that supersedes the letters of the law.  And remember to stand with the judged, shamed, and mislabeled “least” for this is our Christmas story and where we always encounter Christ. (Matthew 25)   

One of the Bible’s last portraits of Joseph is at Jesus Bar Mitzava in the Temple.  You remember the story where Jesus does not come home but hangs out with the Temple scholars and Bible moths for an extra day.  An informed reader might notice that Mary and Joseph invested in Jesus’ religious education, taking out time away from the economically productive apprenticing in the family’s carpenter shop to ensure that Jesus acquired the unusual ancient-world skill of reading and writing. Math was necessary for ancient merchants but reading not so much. Mary and Joseph carry Jesus to the synagogue to ensure that Jesus learns to master the difficulties of Hebrew Scripture. When Jesus’ Temple Bar mitzvah was over Jesus, enraptured with rabbinic studies, missed the caravan home.  When they find Jesus, Mary says “Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously looking for you.” Twelve year old  Jesus answers them, but Luke tells us they don’t understand him. Take heart, middle school teens and parents, the Holy Family did not always understand each other and Jesus turned out fine. But today imagine for a minute, the deep pride that Joseph must have felt seeing his child sitting among the leading rabbi’s in the National Cathedral, asking questions and offering insights. Imagine, the Chief Rabbi putting his hand on Joseph’s shoulder and saying “Joseph, what an amazing young man you have raised, you and Mary must be so proud.”  I doubt when Joseph awoke in a cold sweet and resolved to walk the path of shame with Mary, Joseph could have imagined standing in Jerusalem and hearing the leading scholars praise his child. 

Oh beloved uncertain and stuck children of God: “God is with us” , even when our way seems unclear and unorthodox, God is always singing a new song and leading us out of our stuck-ness. God is with us! Amen.

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