Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The readings during the Sundays of Advent traditionally focus on those characters seen as preparing the way for the birth of Jesus. We began with the patriarchs and matriarchs on Advent Sunday itself, moving on to the prophets, then last week to John the Baptist. Now, today, on the last Sunday of Advent, we come to Mary, Jesus’ mother. Did you notice, though, that this morning’s gospel reading – while obviously referring to Mary – actually turns the spotlight much more strongly onto Joseph? Today’s gospel tells what we might call the other annunciation story. Not the one about Gabriel appearing to Mary with a message, but the annunciation to Joseph, the one figure in the Nativity story who usually gets the least attention. Before he arrives at the stable in Bethlehem he is simply a young man who wants to marry his fiancé, settle down, make an honest living as a carpenter, and raise a family. Then the crisis comes! Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and knows that he is not the father. Imagine the betrayal and rejection he must have felt: the engagement must end, and with it the hope this couple had harboured for a happy life together. But Joseph decides to end the engagement quietly rather than subject Mary to public disgrace, risking a good deal of grief for all concerned. We can imagine that Joseph is heartsick. It seems nothing is to come of his love for Mary; she will have no future now, and he does not want the future that probably awaits him. Joseph lies awake at night pondering the apparent horror that has overtaken him. Finally, he falls asleep, but his sleep is not peaceful; it is disturbed by a dream, the sort of dream that is still remembered years later.
In his dream, a brilliant heavenly figure appears to Joseph – the angel of the Lord. The angel calls Joseph by name and reminds him that one of his ancestors was David, Israel’s greatest king. Then the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid, but to keep his pledge to marry, in spite of everything. For the child that Mary carries has no human father, but is from the Holy Spirit. The baby will be a boy, and Jesus – meaning ‘Saviour’ – is to be his name. It will be the right name for this child, for somehow he will bring salvation to the Hebrew people.
Joseph wakes up, strangely tranquil and at peace, because of the dream. He does what the angel told him to do, marries his fiancé as planned, the baby boy is born, and he is indeed named Jesus. People assume that Joseph is his father, but Joseph and Mary know otherwise. There was a crisis; it could symbolize the sort of crisis that can confront us at any point in our lives, when we are forced by circumstances to change track. And what happened? Joseph is not crushed by the events in his life. Instead, he receives a message that changes everything. But that message would have been useless except for one thing: Joseph’s willingness to hear it and act on it. This is just one of a series of dreams Joseph has, and most of them come at a moment of crisis. Just when things seem to be at their most impossible, Joseph is open to the voice of God, and he acts upon it. So today, even as we honour Mary, for a change, ponder Joseph’s story. It seems to me to be a real encouragement for those times when we face our own crises, when things go horribly wrong, when we feel the world – and God – must be against us, or when we have a tendency to feel insignificant or left out of the story. It’s usually Mary’s story that characterises this fourth Sunday of Advent, but Joseph – although, in many ways, seemingly a bit-part in the Nativity story (but in reality vital), has much to say to us as well.
People were asked to write into the newspaper with their stories about Nativity plays. There have been some lovely tales! One reader writes about his two children: For this year’s round of Nativity plays we are contributing a ‘Bauble’, as well as ‘The man who tells Mary and Joseph where to go’ (the innkeeper, I presume). Another reader says his grandson, Jack, is playing a snowman. ‘What do you have to say?’ asked Grandad. ‘Oh, I don’t talk – I just melt’, he replied. A mother writes in saying that her four year old was not quite sure whether she was a shepherd or a leopard. Naturally, this created problems for costume-making, and the dilemma was not resolved when the little girl asked, ‘Which one eats sheep?’ But my favourite story came from a reader in Somerset, who recalled playing the part of a mince pie in her school play way back in the mid-1930s. She says, ‘My costume was two circles of brown paper applied back and front. I was happy and satisfied with this part, as were 40 or so other infants. It meant that a wise teacher had skilfully given the whole class a chance to take part.’ The Nativity story encompasses everyone.
Yes, Joseph might seem like a bit-part, but in reality his presence in the great unfolding drama is vital, and his example is an encouraging one, as he, too, just like Mary, says ‘Yes’ to God. No wonder Matthew refers to him as a righteous man. In the bewildering circumstances of his wife’s pregnancy, Joseph is concerned to do what is right, but also what is compassionate. More censorious types would have allowed Mary’s apparently shameful situation to send them back, licking their lips, to the harsh Jewish law in the Book of Deuteronomy, which prescribed fearful penalties on wanton wives, including stoning to death. As human history has all too frequently proved, and still does today, law and grace do not always go hand in hand. But Joseph certainly opts for the latter.
It is also worth reflecting that he makes only one or two more fleeting appearances in the gospel narratives; then he passes from the story altogether. There is no mention of him with Mary at the cross, so it is assumed Mary was by then a widow. Pious speculation abounds, including the quite strong belief that Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary. Perhaps he did. But what is not a matter of speculation is that Emmanuel was born, God was with us, in a working family. According to Matthew, Jesus is the craftsman’s son. One thing that ordinary people have in common with Joseph is the fact that sometime after Christmas, nothwithstanding angelic visitations, we will have to stagger back to the routine of everyday life and work. Shortly after that first Christmas, Joseph had to do exactly the same. So, as we celebrate Mary as chosen and set apart by God on this Sunday, there are, I think, equally good reasons to celebrate Joseph as someone uniquely called as well. He is a model for handling crises, and he survived his own by opening himself to the voice of God. He allowed divinity to enter into his humanity, and that encourages us to do likewise. Yes, his was, in some ways, a minor role, but it would have been a very different story without him.