BOUND FOR BETHLEHEM-THE HONORABLE JOSEPH
December 3, 2017….1st Sunday of Advent
Joseph is bound for Bethlehem. A census is required by the hated Roman government.
It is a grueling southbound 90-mile trek which this honorable man must make from his hometown of Nazareth way down to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. And yet the difficulty of this voyage pales in comparison to the surreal journey Joseph has ventured upon during the previous 9 months.
Indeed, they have been a 9 months filled with grit and grace, with shame and shadows, with rage and resolve– a soul-stretching journey confused by an angelic apparition in a dream and infused by an abiding, undying love for a young woman betrothed to be his wife.
This morning let’s put our Precious Moments nativity figurines back in the curio cabinet and spend some time up-close and personal with the real Joseph. And in this encounter you and I just might find some inspiration and insight for our own lives…
IF YOU WERE IN JOSEPH’S SANDALS….
It’s so hard for us in our 21st century culture to grasp the gravity of the scandal surrounding Joseph and Mary. Each year over a million teenage girls give birth out of wedlock in America. It has become so commonplace that our local high schools provide daycare.
And yet, Joseph and Mary are dealing with a social taboo that has seismic repercussions.
Jewish marriage in 1st century Palestine is a 3-step process: Often it is the custom of families to do the E-Harmony thing and arrange for their sons and daughters to be married. We can assume that, in the close-knit community of Nazareth, Joseph and Mary have probably known each other for years and their families have encouraged their courtship.
Once Joseph has the blessing of Mary’s family, he then enters into a year of betrothal with her. This is kind of like our modern-day engagement, yet with much more binding rules. The year of betrothal could only be broken by death or legal divorce. And any intimate relations between the couple, and certainly not with anyone else, are absolutely forbidden.
Now if all goes as planned, a wedding celebration will take place at the end of the year that makes our 5 hour, $40,000 nuptials at Cross Keys Vineyard seem like a slum event. Following the marriage ceremony, the couple will be paraded around the village, ending up at their home where there will be a two-weeks long feast with family and friends from all over the region arriving to hang out and party!
For Joseph and Mary, not all goes as planned. During this year of betrothal, Mary discovers she is with child. What do you do when your bride-to-be is pregnant, and she is making the outlandish claim that God is the baby daddy? Now Joseph is a man of great faith, but this is beyond belief! What would you do if you were in Joseph’s sandals?
It appears he has two options: By Jewish law, Mary has committed adultery. If Joseph desires, he can bring charges against her, and she will be thrown into the bowels of a rock quarry and punished by being stoned to death. That extreme thought never enters Joseph’s mind.
Instead, the gospel writer Matthew tells us in that Joseph is a good and righteous man. He will not resort to such a harsh thing.
In fact, he doesn’t want Mary exposed to public scrutiny at all. He chooses a second option—He will break the betrothal vow quietly, behind-the-scenes, with a simple divorce. It is true that Mary, in time, will not be able to hide the social stigma-the baby bump- of bearing an illegitimate child. But Joseph will be relieved of all responsibility in the matter. His good name will remain intact within the community.
Now that seems like a lawful and just and reasonable solution, wouldn’t you say?
But then God intervenes, presenting Joseph with…
A THIRD WAY—DOING THE GRACE-FILLED THING…
We read further in the gospel of Matthew:
20 But just when Joseph had resolved to dismiss Mary quietly, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Yes, God presents Joseph with a third option- compassion. Have you ever had a dream so vivid that when you woke up you had trouble separating sleep from reality? This angel, this messenger from God, must have been mighty convincing! For now, in Joseph’s heart and mind, compassion trumps law and tradition. He is willing to give Mary the benefit of the doubt. There is something supernatural going on here that defies anything this humble carpenter has ever experienced!
Joseph decides to stick by and stick with Mary, his espoused wife. He will not abandon her. And yet, doing the grace-filled thing will indeed cost Joseph his good name, his good reputation in the community will be forever tarnished.
He could have taken the easy way out—but he chooses to share in Mary’s shame. No one will believe their story of a Spirit-conceived pregnancy. Yeah… right! As her tummy grows, so grow the rampant rumors, the insidious innuendo, the snarky gossip. The community treats them as sinners, as outcasts from God.
When the decree comes from Caesar Augustus that all male heads of households must return to their ancestral home for the census, Joseph refuses to leave Mary behind in Nazareth. Her due date is fast arriving. He will make sure she is spared the contempt of the hometown folk, giving birth alone while he is away. This is love—God given, grace-filled love.
As they make their way, bound for Bethlehem, Mary looks so extremely uncomfortable riding upon that donkey. Every step is jarring agony. His eyes meet hers. She makes no complaints. His heart hurts for her. He cannot imagine the aching in her lower back, the sapping fatigue, the pervasive fear she is enduring. Yet, these two rural teenagers press on. Bound for Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary and the soon to be born Son of God.
While plodding along, Joseph’s mind wanders back to that dream that fateful night. What did the angel say to name the child – Jesus—a Greek form of the name Joshua – meaning he shall save?
As he recounts the dream again, Mary raises a faint smile. Believing beyond where their eyes cannot possibly see, trusting that this journey they are on is part of some greater plan of God, they move wearingly forward, bound for Bethlehem, bound for that O Holy Night that will forever alter the course of all humankind.
Joseph, that quiet, humble, honorable young man with calloused hands and a compassionate heart, has done the grace-filled thing. He has chosen to stand by and stand with his espoused wife, Mary….and he will answer the destiny of becoming the foster father of the very Son of God.
When you and I walk out the door of this sanctuary into a new week, we will be confronted with people and issues and decisions this week in which the responses appear so cut and dried, so black and white, so zero tolerance.
And we can justify ourselves with an obscure law here, a prooftext of the Bible there, a consensus of public opinion above…all supporting us. We are within our rights to lower the boom, to throw under the bus, to exert our self-righteousness and moral superiority.
But is what seems to be this best way the only way?
Maybe, just maybe, could God be showing us a third way—a more compassionate way—a grace-filled way—a Joseph way?
That is certainly worth pondering as we make our way to Bethlehem….