Joseph was a stand up guy. We don’t hear much about him, but I think we should give him a huge amount of credit during our time of the anticipation of Jesus birth. They say that character is doing the right thing when no one is looking. Joseph definitely did the right thing while living in a time when he could have acted much differently.
Mary and Joseph lived in the small town of Nazareth where most of the inhabitants were farmers. There was probably a synagogue and a marketplace with a few shops. There might have been a potter, a weaver, a dyer, a blacksmith, a carpenter. Joseph was a carpenter, so he was probably a flannel shirt kinda guy with calloused hands and work boots. He might have smelled of saw dust, and he had a real skill. Joseph was a well-respected man admired for his craft and his hard work.
Joseph was engaged to Mary, and anticipated a simple life of work, prayer, and love for family, maybe bowling and a beer once a week. At the time when Joseph and Mary lived, engagement was a process. Betrothal usually lasted about a year, and a couple who were betrothed were never together without a chaperone. Betrothal was as legally binding as marriage.
Joseph probably didn’t think much of it when Mary said that she was going to go visit her cousin, Elizabeth. She was gone quite awhile, but he still didn’t give it a second thought. When Mary finally returned home, she dropped a bomb…she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Egads. That’s a lot for Joseph to take in, and a lot for him to process. Adultery by a bride makes divorce mandatory, and gives the community the right to stone her to death. By stoning her to death, Joseph would have restored his own reputation.
All of a sudden, Joseph was a jilted lover betrayed by the love of his life. This is the making of a “somebody done somebody wrong” song. Joseph must have felt rage at the perceived betrayal, but he still loved Mary, and decided he would divorce her quietly, sparing Mary the experience of shame and character assassination.
But something else happens….the angels are back, and an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying to Joseph, “Joseph son of David do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When he awakened, Joseph did as the angel requested, and took Mary home as his wife. Joseph showed himself to be a righteous man who did the right thing, but more importantly, Joseph evolves as a man of great and tender love.
However, this is not where the story ends. Many of you come from small towns. They have their good qualities and their challenging characteristics. Gossip is a big pastime in small towns, and I would imagine tongues wagged when Mary’s pregnancy became apparent. And yet this couple persevered, bonded, and became a family unit for the sake of Jesus. Angels must have been considered in-laws or at least distant relatives.
There are a lot of famous couples in our collective memories: Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, Archie and Edith Bunker, David Furnish and Elton John, George and Amal Clooney. We have some longstanding couples at Black Mountain. I’m sure that any of you who have been married for a long time would testify that it’s not all a walk in the park, harmony, fun or laughter. Relationships take some courage, some persistence, and some stubbornness if they are to persist and flourish. Many of you have experienced these characteristics for decades. Many of you can relate to Mary and Joseph.
Can you imagine Mary sitting Joseph down and saying, “We need to have a conversation.” Those words can strike terror and make the heart stop beating!!! Can you imagine how stunned and dazed Joseph must have been to try to take in this information? Can you imagine the courage it took for Mary to share her news? Every relationship requires trust, and Joseph might have assumed that all trust had been broken and betrayed. Joseph needed a minute. He needed a minute just to breathe before the angel appeared.
Joseph was, indeed, a stand up guy, a guy who demonstrated qualities of character, qualities that are desperately needed in today’s world. Some of the qualities of character are integrity, honesty, loyalty, self sacrifice, accountability, creativity, courage, flexibility and resilience. Joseph, the creative carpenter, certainly demonstrated his integrity and resiliency, and his huge love for young Mary and her unborn child. He demonstrates one of Martin Luther King’s greatest dreams…that people would be judged by the content of their character. He did the right thing when no one was watching.
This year, in particular, I find myself pondering the necessity and the challenge of maintaining hope, of being a positive force in our increasingly negative world. Joseph could have easily immersed himself in despair, hatred, disgust, blame and negativity, and yet he made a different choice. Maya Angelou shares “I am convinced that the negative has power…and if you allow it to perch in hour house, in your mind, in your life it can take you over.” Harvey Mackay, a writer for the Arizona Republic, comments, “That’s why I don’t hang around with negative people. A negative person brings you down. A negative person sees the difficulty in every opportunity while a positive person sees the opportunity in every difficulty. A positive mind anticipates happiness, joy, health and success.”
Things will not be like they used to be this year. Just as Mary and Joseph faced new situations, we, too, will find ourselves creating new traditions, relationships, and ways of doing things. If we look to the past for our happiness, we will lose the joy of our today.
Some families who are separated by distance will connect through internet face time, something that did not exist in Christmases past.
This may be the first holiday your children go off to celebrate somewhere else. We might really miss our offspring as they develop new traditions. For some newly-weds, this is the first year of double meals, trying to balance to keep everyone happy. Sometimes a sense of obligation overshadows a sense of joy.
Kids in foster care can struggle this time of year as they are bombarded by talk of family and are poignantly aware that they are only visitors. Feelings of not belonging can be sharp.
There are also those who are estranged from family, and there is pain whether they want to see family members or not. There can be hurt, guilt, anger and a sense of loneliness.
Sometimes people from other cultures feel left out, and they can feel ostracized or shunned.
What can we do to widen our circle during the Advent and Christmas season? We can begin by dropping expectations….by gagging ourselves when we begin to say, “We always did it this way.” Or “We used to do it this way.” We can start new traditions to fit our new times.
We can include a favorite dish or tradition of a person who might be missing or we can lift a glass to toast them. I would raise a glass to my cousin, Eric, who wished he could avoid all of the hoopla of Christmas, yet went with me to Toys R Us and purchased a truckload of toys for the children of my inmates. However, I draw the line at the god-awful Norwegian tradition of lutkevich.
We can include other traditions in our celebrations.
Cry. Just let ‘er rip. Admit to ourselves that the holidays can bring up emotions that are dormant during the rest of the year. Tears can be cleansing and are nothing to deny.
Laugh. It has incredible healing power. Laugh at the absurdity that surrounds us on a daily basis.
Face the fact that there will be some holiday chaos. Unless you live on a desert island, there will be more activity, longer lines in the store, more noise, more commercialization, more of everything. Just go with the flow, allow a little extra time, and schedule in quiet time.
Create your own family of positive people who are grateful for what they have rather than being resentful for what does not exist.
Write down your feelings, and turn them into a prayer. God will listen carefully to each and every feeling.
Bear in mind that the holidays are here, so we might as well enjoy them in our own unique ways.
Remember that Joseph faced a reality that no one could have predicted, and he came around to accept and celebrate what could have been devastating and destructive circumstances. I have been blessed in my life to know men like Joseph, and some of you are sitting in our pews this morning.
As we continue our journey into the Advent Season, let’s celebrate the fact that Joseph was a stand up guy.