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Dec. 7, 2016 — Joseph
I would like to return to the theme of “silence” in the Advent narrative. Last week we looked at Zechariah’s enforced “silent retreat” (Luke 1: 6-25, 57-79). This week we find another episode of extremely awkward silence. This time for Joseph. At the start of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1:18-25, we read, “…Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child…” (Matthew 1:18). Right there, only a few words in, are a lot of unanswered questions and some very painful silence for Joseph.
To understand the depths of his pain we need to know something more about the ancient Jewish tradition of betrothal. It was not a simple engagement as we understand it today but a much more elaborate process that brought both parties into a covenantal relationship. During this period that preceded the actual marriage ceremony, the groom and bride were considered to be man and wife, legally and religiously. In Joseph’s understanding he has been utterly betrayed by the woman who he had committed to care for and be faithful to for the rest of his life. On Mary’s return from visiting her cousin Elizabeth for three months, the child growing within her now became evident. The scandal of Mary’s condition brought disgrace upon them both and their respective families. For Joseph, there is betrayal of the heart, broken hopes, the pain of a lost future… all laced with the arsenic of public humiliation.
The betrothal was a binding agreement and it gave Joseph legal remedies for such a betrayal. It was now his prerogative to become Mary’s widower – to publicly divorce Mary on the grounds of adultery, claim the dowry and have her stoned to death. This action would publicly clear his name, provide a little financial restitution for his trouble and dispose of the infamy of Mary’s continuing presence in the community. At this moment, Mary's life (and Jesus’ life) lay within Joseph’s hands. And yet in the silence of his pain, something different rises up in Joseph’s heart. “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:19). In the spectrum of possibilities open to him, he chooses the most merciful.
How is this possible? Matthew deliberately tells us that Joseph was a just man (or as other translations have it, a righteous man). Like Zechariah, this does not mean that Joseph was perfect or without sin. What we find here in Joseph is a man who wants to be right with God; a man who understands that if he is to be right with God then he needs the mercy of God. Joseph’s righteousness is founded upon the mercy of God. He is living his life under the mercy of God. Joseph would have been familiar with the long history of the sins of Israel; indeed, how those sins were spoken of within the ancient scriptures as the unfaithfulness of an adulterer. And yet, throughout that unfaithful history, God’s unrelenting resolve was to show mercy. In all his pain, Joseph comes to a fork in the road and he chooses mercy. Joseph is not in denial. He does not pretend that these events have not taken place, but from within this crucible of pain he clings to the character of God, acknowledging his own ongoing need for God’s mercy. And from the heart of Joseph’s pain comes not vengeance but God’s tender mercy.
So should we ever find ourselves sitting in the dark and all there is is pain and silence, I guess we have a choice. We can, as was suggested by Job’s wife, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9b) or we can remember that we live under God’s mercy. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:10) Certainly if we are in an abusive situation then we remember that God, in His mercy, would take us out of that situation. Mercy would not put us in harm’s way. But as we sit in the darkness and consider our next step, mercy will always tune our hearts to the frequency of God’s heart. And this is exactly the frequency that broke the silence. Joseph began to hear an echo of a voice that he recognized; a broken heart became an open heart. An Angel comes to Joseph – and again it is mercy that distinguishes the Lord’s voice. “But as he considered these things, behold, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” (Matthew 1:20) Had Joseph held on to his anger, if he had been hell-bent on vengeance and the need to clear his own name and shame Mary, would he have been able to receive the dream? Would he have discounted it as some piece of cruel, wishful thinking? It was the mercy of God that again helped him to recognize God’s voice and plan.
Out of the dream, Joseph is blessed with a wholehearted trust and confidence that God would see him through. There is not a shred of ambivalence that this is God’s plan and that he is part of it. His love for Mary and for Jesus was wholehearted. Joseph leads Mary and the infant Jesus to safety in Egypt and it is Joseph who brings them safely home again. Joseph stands by her as a faithful husband and is faithful to Jesus as a stepfather. Such wholehearted obedience did come at a cost to Joseph. Because Joseph married Mary, outsiders would have assumed that he had gotten her pregnant before the wedding. There would always have been the lingering scent of scandal and shame around the couple.
How interesting that Joseph’s wholehearted obedience kept safe the one who would endure all our shame. “…Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) It cost Jesus everything and yet He went wholeheartedly to the Cross. Jesus went to the darkest place to pay the price for the forgiveness of our sins so that in our times of darkness, those times of pain and silence, we can remember His mercy, recognize His voice and wholeheartedly take our place in His redemptive plan.