(A Reflection on Matthew 1:18-25)
Advent is a time of decoration and tradition, a prelude to worship on Christmas Eve and the party on Christmas day.
It doesn’t begin that way for Joseph, poor guy. He has no reason to celebrate his fiancé giving birth to a baby that is not his. He is a righteous man, a keeper of commandments, a follower of the Law, a man of tradition. The book of Deuteronomy is clear about what to do with women who let these things happen. Joseph is a kind man and has no desire to harm Mary. He will fulfill the demands of the Law simply by dismissing her quietly.
The irony, of course, is that this child’s coming is also God’s coming. God defies the expectations of Joseph’s Law. How could Joseph know that? How could he possibly know that something that seems so wrong is of God’s doing, according to God’s will? Happy Advent traditions sometimes make us forget what a scandal this news is. Lovely music and colorful lights can obscure the truth that at first the news of Christ’s coming is a moral outrage and a break with sacred tradition.
The Gospel of Matthew presents Joseph as a role model for two reasons. First, he is to be admired precisely because he is “a righteous man” who wants to fulfill the Law and honor the traditions of his faith.
Second, Matthew presents Joseph as a role model because he is willing to be wrong. This second virtue is what keeps this righteous man from being self-righteous. Unlike some of religious leaders Jesus later will face who are equally determined to honor the Law and keep the traditions, Joseph let’s God’s Word change his theology. He ends up accepting the messiah as he comes, not as he is expected to be.
An angel comes to Joseph in a dream. The angel tells Joseph that the baby comes by God’s design and he is to take Mary as his wife and give her child a name. In other words, the angel tells Joseph to take what seems to be an ungodly Advent in his life and accept it as something of God.
Joseph does as he is told and names the baby “Jesus,” which means “God saves.” By naming the baby, Joseph claims the baby; making a child that is not his by blood his by adoption.
Joseph’s lesson of Advent is that we should be prepared to have some of our settled notions about what is right to be proven wrong.
A husband asks for God to come and change his wife so their marriage will survive. Then God comes in some meaningful way, and the husband realizes that change needs to begin with him.
A woman asks God to help her support her family. And then God comes in a meaningful way and she realizes that she is trying to maintain a standard of living that is more about maintaining appearances than providing for her family.
A nation at war prays for victory. But then God comes in a meaningful way, and a nation is reminded that lasting peace isn’t won by guns but is secured through justice and mercy.
I hear a great deal being claimed in God’s name which I suspect will be upended when God comes in a meaningful way. Sometimes, I remember that much of what I claim in God’s name will be upended too. Joseph wanted a son by birth. He gained a son by adoption, and the son was a gift of God’s. He was blessed, but on God’s terms, not his.
This Advent, may Joseph serve as a role model for our being willing to have our minds changed and our hearts redirected.
Dr. George C. Anderson is Senior Pastor at Second Presbyterian Church. Visit them on the web at www.spres.org