An Inconvenient Truth

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

An Inconvenient Truth

Today’s reading – seven verses from the first chapter of Matthew — is the story of Joseph of Nazareth – in fact, almost the whole story of Joseph. Oddly, this account of Joseph and his dream does not appear in any of the other three gospels. Bible scholars contend that at least two other gospel narratives once existed’ but are now lost.  Matthew likely drew from one of these now-missing sources for his story about Joseph.  Regardless, only Matthew contains the account of righteous Joseph and his, shall we say, dilemma.

Have you thought much about Joseph?   Afterall, he is a prominent figure in the Christmas narrative.  Each year, we carefully place Joseph in our manger scenes.  He stands humbly beside the manger, hands clasped, an adoring look on his face.  Mary sits or kneels on the other side of the baby.  Baby Jesus, of course –is in the manger.  Elementary teachers tell me that children often believe that teachers actually live at school.  Well, in the same way, it would be easy for children to assume that Mary and Joseph and all the other nativity characters actually lived there in that stable, their whole lives spent frozen in that adoring posture beside the baby.  The shepherd, the sheep, the camel frozen forever in time!

Although we follow Mary through the next 33 years of history, Joseph more or less disappears.  We see him make the desperate journey to Egypt; we know that he then took his family back to their hometown of Nazareth; we read that he was present among the pilgrims who journeyed to Israel when Jesus was 12.  But then Joseph, husband of Mary, drops out of our Bibles all together.  Scholars speculate that he died young, but we really don’t know what became of Joseph; and we know practically nothing about who he was prior to his engagement to Mary — only that he was the human father of Jesus Christ; he was Jewish, a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and David. We believe he was a carpenter.  And Matthew tells us he was a “righteous” man.  But, for us, Joseph is a somewhat one-dimensional character, standing by the manger or hammering at his workbench.

Renaissance painters assigned almost god-like stature to the parents of Jesus.  In almost every painting, St. Joseph is deified, with a halo glowing above his head.  An exception, however, is the gorgeous and moving The Dream of Saint Joseph on the cover of your bulletin.  Artist Anton Raphael Mengs shows a very human Joseph. His body is muscled, his face lined with worry. Joseph’s posture is heavy, exhausted, defeated.  In contrast, the angel over his shoulder, is active – gesturing a definite command. “Go,” she seems to say, “take Mary as your wife.”  But Joseph remains inert, reluctant.

You see, Joseph thought he was wrestling with a no-win decision.  He was betrothed to a beautiful young woman, a woman he loved and trusted, a woman approved by his family.  They were to be married at which time they would consummate the union – but not before.  But then he was side-swiped, never saw it coming, didn’t have a clue.  “Joseph, I am expecting a child.”

At the very least, it is an inconvenient truth — at worst, the end of his world!  His own betrothed an adulteress?  Joseph knew the legal penalty for adultery.  By law, Mary could be publicly stoned to death.  If he were a legalist, that is what he would do.  But both families would be disgraced — both his and hers.  And Mary . . .  (the woman he thought he knew), could he really do that to Mary?

So Joseph ponders the other alternative:  to quietly divorce her, to walk away from the problem.  Mary, whose reputation was ruined, would not find another husband; she would return to her father’s family is they would take her.  Joseph would cut his losses and move on.  Matthew says this is the choice Joseph makes. “Being a righteous man, he planned to dismiss her quietly.”

And then God –in the guise of an angel– visits Joseph in a dream and gives him a third choice:  “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.” Now Matthew quotes the angel’s speech verbatim.  And perhaps those were the exact words of this heavenly visitor but, more likely, they were the gospel writer’s interpretation of the conversation –since no one was present except Joseph, and the setting down of this speech on paper didn’t happen for years.  I do know that, for me, God’s communication is seldom that poetic or articulate.  It is usually barely a word or two, and often just an unbidden idea or impulse.  What Joseph may have heard could have been simply:  “Help her.” “ Love her.”  “Stay the course.”  “I am with you.”

Whatever the angel said, Joseph heard it, and he heeded God’s instruction.   Faced with a very inconvenient truth, Joseph could either (1) oppose it—and rail against it— even despise the messenger who delivered the news, or he could (2) walk away from it, dismiss Mary and be done with it, go on with his life. But he chose Door #3: To see God’s will and purpose in this dilemma.

So Joseph trusted God and God’s messenger.  You know the rest of the story.  They traveled to Bethlehem, the gospel tells us, and there –in a less-than-ideal setting– Mary gave birth to Christ.

Humor writer Erma Bombeck says that during all the truly important moments in life, husbands are out parking the car!  Well, to Joseph’s credit, he was not out parking the car; he made the decision to be fully present.          Because of that decision, Joseph not only witnessed, but may even have delivered, the infant Messiah. Can you imagine that!  For that decision, he became the protector of the infant Jesus — saving him from Herod’s pogrom that killed baby boys throughout Judea.  For that, he is forever memorialized as the human father of Jesus Christ.  And, for that decision, the figure of Joseph stands in every creche – his head bowed humbly at the manger — the righteous servant of God.

Was it an easy decision?  No.  The right ones seldom are.  There were questions –What would he do now?  Could he believe Mary’s story?  What would people say?  There was disappointment – this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be!  There was fear — Who is this child she carries in her womb?  What does it mean for our family?  But he faced the truth, trusted God, and sought God’s purpose.

Mary’s divine pregnancy is not the only inconvenient truth in the mankind’s history.    In fact, we encounter disturbing truths, as well.  A spouse asks you for a divorce. You realize with shame that a habit has become an addiction.  A child is born with an congenital abnormality. There’s a sudden death.  Your son tells you he is gay. You’re handed an unexpected responsibility.  You are side-swiped by a terminal diagnosis.  You are let go at work.   Inconvenient truths.   You don’t want that right now! You don’t have time for that!  What do you do with that new information?

The author of the Gospel of John says, “The truth will set you free.”[John 8: 32].  But James Garfield wryly added, “But first it will make you miserable.” So true.  Confronting a new truth often makes us miserable.  Yet, truth cannot be hidden.  “The truth will have out,” says Lancelot in The Merchant of Venice.  A friend of mine puts it another way:  “There is no hiding true love or ripe bananas.”

So the issue is what to do about this truth?  I would propose that Joseph’s response gives us an important lesson. When we acknowledge a truth, knowing in our gut that it is absolute, we must ask three questions:

  1. Question #1: Is this truth, this dilemma mine to address? Am I being called to this? Is it me, Lord? Or is it beyond my power to fix?
  2. If so, there’s the big question (#2): What is God’s will in this dilemma? Discerning God’s will requires prayer, and lots of it.  Not talking but listening. Reading God’s Word.  Listening some more.  Seeking the counsel of wise friends and mature Christians, being observant of the influences God puts around us. And then praying some more.
  3. And, third, will my actions be righteous and compassionate? That, too, is a big question.

Wednesday, I took a phone call here at church.  It was one of dozens of calls from people seeking assistance – with their utilities, their rent, gas for their car, food for their table.  The woman on the other end began her litany of woes – my husband left me, I have two children, my son is handicapped, we have no money, no car, tomorrow they will shut off my electricity.  The bill is $400. She began to cry.  Can you help?

We were busy on Wednesday, the phone rang off the hook; I was getting ready for Wednesday night, and trying to plan two services.  It was an inconvenient interruption.  But I listened, took the information, and asked the usual questions:  Have you called Union Mission?  Yes. Salvation Army? Yes, they are out of funds. What about churches in your area (which was Oakvale)? I called. No help. Can your family assist? No, there’s just my mother. How will you pay next month’s bill? I don’t know — more tears.

I called AEP to make sure she was telling the truth, and hoping they would accept a modest pledge to forestall her cut off. But no, it had to be the entire amount.  The compassionate action was to keep her heat on when the next several days promised to be brutally cold. And, reluctantly, I knew it was mine/ours to do – I knew that much. God tugged on my heart so strongly that I could not say no. “We will pay her whole bill,” I told AEP.  And, thanks to some very generous donors here, we have it covered.

When I called her back, she broke into tears. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” she said.  “I can’t thank you enough.”  And then added, “Please tell your pastor how much I appreciate him.”

So, an annoying phone call led to a powerful ministry that YOU were able to provide to three of God’s children. An inconvenient truth led Joseph to become the father of Jesus.

The decisions we make in the face of hard truths are ultimately the ones that define us. Praise be to God, and thank you, Joseph, for standing beside Mary and her baby. Amen.