Saturday, 18 December 2010

4th Sunday of Advent - Joseph the Humble


Isaiah 7:10-16
Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-end
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 fulfil 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.


Although it’s still a week to go before Christmas it’s important that we pick up the first of the birth narratives this week because it gives us a new perspective. Over Christmas itself we tend to use the deep mysticism of John’s Gospel; ‘In the beginning was the Word’, or the beauty of Luke’s account showing the passivity of Mary in terms of receiving God’s call to bear the Son of God and agreeing to do so.

But here in Matthew’s Gospel we get a very different perspective as we meet Joseph and see his point of view which is far more action dominated. Matthew’s nativity is full of testosterone and underlines that our role in God’s plan is not just to sit back and let God do his thing, but to be deeply involved.

What do I mean by that? Well if we read this narrative alongside the ones that follow we find that three times Joseph is visited by an angel, and each time the angel asks him to do something. On this first occasion the angel asks Joseph to take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. Later on in the nativity the angel asks Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt because Herod was about to try and kill Jesus...

...And finally the angel visits Joseph once more when they are in Egypt to call them home again once Herod has died. In each case Joseph responds with obedience. What this highlights for us is the holiness of the man and his willingness to do what is right. Indeed that desire for righteousness comes over even in the way he intended to treat Mary when she was found to be pregnant. But what we find here may not be what we have always supposed. Let’s see if I can explain.

According to Jewish law, as you will find in Deuteronomy 22, Mary was guilty of a capital crime. Now under the Romans, no one could be executed unless it was on their say-so, hence Jesus himself having to be tried by Pilate even though the Sanhedrin had already found him guilty of the capital crime of blasphemy.

We often think of Mary’s pregnancy outside of marriage as being akin to the shame that was perhaps felt back in the 1960's if such a thing happened, but in first century Jewish culture it was a far graver issue than an embarrassment to the family. It is with that in mind that we interpret Joseph’s decision to quietly call off the betrothal.

We assume that Joseph was deeply hurt at Mary’s apparent adultery, yet because he was a kind and merciful man he didn’t wish to cause her even more agony by calling attention to her crime by a public dismissal. ‘Good old Joseph’, we think; ‘What a good man.’

But what if it was more than that? Certainly that is the usual interpretation that we have, and it’s called the ‘suspicion theory’. However, in my reading around this passage I’ve found that this is not the only reading, and there is another way that alters our perception of Joseph still further, that not only is he active in the early of life Jesus, ensuring his survival, but perhaps he was deeply holy in a way we might never have considered before.

This other interpretation is called the humility theory. Let me remind you what the text says, using a modern translation: ‘When Jesus’s mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’

Those final three words are vital. It’s not that Mary was found to be with child, but that Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. We usually assume that Joseph discovered her pregnancy, immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion and was then talked out of divorce by the angel. But what if instead that Joseph discovered that she was with child by the Holy Spirit and was so humble that he dared not marry someone who was carrying such a holy child?

In essence her womb had been made sacred by the work of God, and who was he, a mere man, to marry and have sex with a woman whom God had chosen? Now if this is a true interpretation it makes us realise just how holy and humble Joseph was. He was right there with Mary, supporting her, knowing that she carried a very holy child within her.

This would probably make sense of why Matthew includes the sentence, ‘...Joseph took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.’ If he was that much in awe of what God had accomplished inside Mary he would not have wanted to have embarked on a physical marital relationship with Mary until the child was born.

So this different understanding suggests to us that, far from being the silent partner in the relationship that we normally assume because of our traditional use of Luke’s Gospel which focusses on Mary, instead Joseph was a hugely holy and deeply God-fearing man whose humility and servanthood were integral for the plan of God.

He would have fathered Jesus with great care, tenderness and awe, knowing that God had entrusted to him a supreme burden, of caring for the child in his care and for his young wife.

Now you may be wondering where this new interpretation of events comes from. Well in fact it’s not new, but is very ancient and supported by Origen who was perhaps the first Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux.

And it also issues us a very deep challenge. Mary’s model is one of passivity, of a type of holiness which allows God to have his way. Joseph’s, however, is of a radical, humble holiness, and a deep regard of the things of God, desiring always to do that which is right, and willing to change his intentions according to the command of God.

So I wonder, how do we compare to that kind of holiness? How carefully and reverently do we value the things of God? Yet more questions to add to our advent self-examinations. Amen.

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