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Joseph

Stories
Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit
Series VI, Cycle A
What a mess! Put yourself in Joseph's sandals. A simple man, a carpenter. He is about to be married. It would be the normal Jewish three-step procedure. There was the engagement, which was often made when the couple were only children, usually through the parents or a professional matchmaker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other. Marriage was considered far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart. Then there was the betrothal, which was the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. It lasted for one year during which the couple was known as man and wife, although they would not live together. Betrothal could only be terminated as a full-blown marriage could be -- by death or divorce. The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.

Joseph and Mary were at stage two. Suddenly, Mary turns up pregnant. And the baby is not Joseph's. Joseph knows it is not his. What a nightmare!

What a jumble his feelings must have been! Rage? Unquestionably. Fury at her unfaithfulness. Fury at whomever had defiled the marriage bed with her. Embarrassment? Of course. Half his friends would think he was a fool for having been cuckolded, and the other half would think that he did not have enough self-control to wait until after the marriage feast. Sorrow? No doubt. His life was planned out -- it was going to be with Mary. Now that would not be possible. Sorry for her, too, even though this was something she had brought on herself.

Now what? Jewish law allowed stoning as the penalty for adultery, but that was a sentence not often carried out in practice. Joseph could have made a public spectacle of Mary to prove his own innocence in the affair. No, finally, the decision was made to handle the situation quietly, to give her a Bill of Divorcement in the presence of two witnesses as the law required, and then let her go her way. Perhaps she would return to the home of her cousin Elizabeth to avoid the shame of having the child in Nazareth. One way or another, the nightmare would be over.

But we know the story does not end there. He was asleep, but sometime during the night, was awakened with a start. "Joseph. Joseph. Wake up."

"What?" He looked around in the dark of his room, the only light from the moon beaming through the window. He saw the silhouette of a man. But there was something about him that told Joseph there was no reason to fear.

The silhouette spoke. "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."

Joseph had no chance to reply -- the visitor disappeared. What would Joseph have said anyway? We can see him lying there thinking until morning, then, at daybreak, trying to figure out what had happened. Had there really been anyone there the night before? Perhaps it had been a dream. Just a continuation of the nightmare? No. The message was from the Lord. It was too strange to have come from anyone else.

We know the rest of the story. Joseph came through. The betrothal was resumed. There was that trip down to Bethlehem for the Roman census, not much fun for a very pregnant young lady. The baby came. Joseph named him -- that was the prerogative of the father, and Joseph accepted this child as his own, "of the house and lineage of David," as the old King James has it. Good man.

Howard Chapman is a Presbyterian minister in Iowa. He tells of an exercise he has used with his confirmation classes. He begins by letting them know that scholars think that Mary was the same age as they were, about fourteen or so. He then shows them Deuteronomy 22:23-24, where according to Jewish law Joseph could have brought charges against Mary, and if found guilty, she could have been put to death. He then divides up the class with all the boys on one side and all the girls on the other. The girls' assignment is to list all of Mary's options, while the boys are to list Joseph's.

This usually generates a lively discussion, especially once they realize they do not have to stick to nice, neat, happy-ending choices. With not much prompting, they generate quite a list. Mary could have ... had an abortion, claimed she was raped, committed suicide, run away, and so on. Joseph, on the other hand, could have ... brought her to trial, quietly sent her out of town, left town himself, eloped with her, made up a story, and the like.

In one particular class, when all of these options were listed on the chalkboard, Howard stood back. He asked, "What does all this tell you?"

The class was very quiet for a moment or two. Then John, the worst troublemaker in the bunch, said, "Wow! Look at all that could have gone wrong. God was really taking a risk."

Smart kid. Indeed, since the beginning of creation, God has been willing to risk. But note one thing: this very first story in the New Testament, this story about Joseph, this story about the nightmare his life had become, this story about the angel's midnight message, this story ... is really God's story. From the first story until the last, the essence is caught in something as simple as a name. Emmanuel. God is with us. Remember that the next time your own life has become a nightmare. Emmanuel. We are not alone. God is with us.
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