Malachi 2:17-3:4; Matthew 1:18-25
2nd Sunday of Advent
St Barbara’s; 5.12.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If you have wandered round the extraordinary Catholic metropolitan cathedral in Liverpool you will have seen the Chapel of St Joseph.
When I saw it for the first time a few years ago, I found it a profoundly moving space. Its simplicity was what struck me. The walls are made entirely of plain pine wood, no decoration, no stonework, just pine wood. And carved into the wood are scenes of Joseph’s life, just discernable, but merging into the walls: the angel appearing to Joseph in his dream, the journey to Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt. And of course the pine wood points to the kind of world Jesus was born into, a world where he would have grown up amongst wood shavings and the smell of resin, a world where he would have been taught the family trade.
The simplicity of the chapel is a symbol for me of so many of the stories that we encounter around the Christmas story. Over the next few Sundays we will be exploring different people connected to the birth of Jesus. Today, we will be thinking of Joseph; next week, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist; the week after, Mary; and then on Christmas Day, the shepherds. We encounter in these stories humble, ordinary people, people we only know about because of their connection to Jesus’ birth, but would otherwise have only been known by the people in their village and no one else. Lives of simplicity, lives with little outward adornment to attract our attention, lives of ordinary people like you and me, the type of people we pass every day when walking to work or pass in the supermarket aisle, people who merge into their surroundings like those carvings in the chapel of St Joseph.
So what do we know about Joseph. Well from the long genealogy, the list of Joseph’s descendants that come before our Gospel passage, we know that his ancestors could be traced all the way back to Abraham. But that was hardly unique. All Jews of that time should have been able to do that. If the genealogy tells us anything, it tells us that the glory days of Israel, of King David and his kingdom, were long since gone, Israel still struggling to recover from conquest and exile. Israel would have been viewed by the superpowers of the day as Mali in West Africa may be viewed today: 700 years earlier one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world but now viewed almost as an irrelevance in terms of world geo-politics.
Imagine how hard we may find it to accept a role of huge international significance being given to a person from such a seemingly unimportant country, especially when that person had rarely travelled beyond their own village and whose trade was not as a diplomat or a soldier or a politician but as a wood worker. No one would have expected that the role of protector and earthly father-figure to the Son of God would be given to someone like Joseph!
But as we will see time and time again in the story of Jesus’ birth, it is ordinary, un-noticed people that God calls to do his extraordinary work. I’m aware that for many of us we may feel at times as though we are onlookers on the work of God. That others, more holy, more prayerful, more bold and articulate about faith, are the ones that God uses, whilst we watch on. For how could God possibly use us? And yet Joseph shows us that it is precisely people like us that God does use. People with ordinary jobs, people getting on with ordinary life.
In our celebrity focused world, it can feel as though you have to be known, even famous, in order to make a difference. But Joseph, like most of us, was far removed from that celebrity status, an unknown carpenter in an unimportant part of the world. We are all involved in God’s kingdom work, whether in school, or the workplace, amongst family, friends and neighbours, and in our engagement with the wider world. Like Joseph, God uses each of us to be part of bringing his salvation to the world, of bringing his hope, compassion and love into all the situations we are part of.
But like with Joseph, that calling takes place within a messy, complicated world.
I am struck by how this story touches on both the most transcendent and holy of encounters with human kind – the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary – and yet the hard, deeply hurtful and painful aspects of human experience – feelings of betrayal and shame.
For Mary and Joseph were betrothed to one another. Far more than modern-day engagements, betrothal was two-thirds of what it meant to be married. The equivalent of a legal deed would have been signed by the families; and money would have been exchanged. The relationship only required a third step for it be fully marriage – the bride leaving her parent’s home to live with her husband. So Mary’s pregnancy before that third stage is a major problem.
Joseph would have been convinced that there had been adultery, unfaithfulness. That Mary had broken her promises. That her parents, her guardians, had failed in their duty. The hurt, the shame, the grief, and poor Mary unable to convince him that a miracle had happened, that all was not as it seemed. One can only imagine the strained conversations, the sadness in trying to unpick the mess, the inability to trust.
Joseph, as an obedient synagogue-going Jew, plans to do what he sees as the right thing. For although rabbis of the time hugely differed on the interpretation of the Old Testament divorce laws, some taking very liberal approaches, others much more conservative ones, all agreed that adultery merited grounds for divorce. But to give Joseph his due, he wants to do this quietly. He is not going to make a scene; he is not going to point fingers; he is not going to expose Mary to public disgrace.
And its at this point that we see the intervention of God in Joseph’s life. In a dream an angel appears to him and tells him to take Mary home as his wife, because her pregnancy really is from God. She will bear God’s son.
And so, remarkably, that is what Joseph does. He does what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. Rather than walking away from Mary, he marries her. He commits himself to her, to loving her, to caring for her.
We know very little more about Joseph’s life. We know that he and Mary were forced to go on a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to the demands of the Roman occupying force. We know he was present at Jesus’ birth, the only member of either set of families to be there, in a time when with no hospitals or state provision, families were the only support network there was. We know that in response to another dream, he fled with his young family to Egypt, to escape the murderous clutches of Herod, and only later did he return with them to his home village of Nazareth. And we know he acted as a typically anxious parent when he discovered that the 12 year old Jesus had gone missing in Jerusalem. But after that, nothing, to the point where the assumption is that Joseph must have died before Jesus’ public ministry began.
But those little snapshots show us something important. Life didn’t really get any less messy or any less difficult after Joseph obeyed the angel’s message. Responding to God’s call didn’t mean that everything all turned easy, that life was transformed into existence on a higher plane. Indeed the opposite. One can imagine that those next few years were immensely difficult, trying to protect and look after his family, first in a foreign-occupied country and then as a refugee, cut off from wider social support networks. But, like with Joseph, God’s call on each of us is about how we respond to the situations we find ourselves in.
For Joseph, it was to respond with love and compassion, to do all he could to protect and look after the fragile family he had been entrusted with. That may be part of our calling too, to love and care for those who are closest to us, even when life gets messy and goes in directions we would not choose, to nurture, protect.
And if there are times when we don’t feel able to respond to that call, we are to place ourselves in God’s hands and ask for his help. For the God who helped and enabled Joseph is the same God who does the same for us.
We may be ordinary people, but we are called and enabled to do extraordinary things. We too are called to love and nurture and support those entrusted to our care.