December 18, 2022, Joseph’s Compromise, Matthew 1:18-25 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

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Carroll and I have a creche that we have set up every one of our 49 Christmases together. It’s older than I am, because it’s the creche my parents bought when they started a family. They didn’t have very much money, so they bought a wood-and-pasteboard stable and collected the figures a few at a time from the five-and-dime store. Some of the figures are plaster, and some of them are plastic, and they don’t all match each other perfectly. Also, as things do, especially when children are involved, some of the figures have gotten broken over the years and been repaired or replaced, so that now even though we have only one of our three camels left, our Magi now have a wonderful carved elephant, and our little plaster donkey has been replaced by both a stone donkey and an iron one. We have assembled a very eclectic assortment of angels over the years as well, and a wide variety of sheep for our one surviving shepherd boy to care for.

But we still have the same holy family I remember as a little girl, Mary robed in blue, looking down serenely at her child, and the infant Jesus, his arms outstretched, and his face wise beyond its years. And then there is Joseph. Growing up, of all that cast of characters in the Christmas story I loved so much, I’m pretty sure I found Joseph the least compelling. Reading between the lines of the gospels, it is generally assumed that Joseph died fairly early in Jesus’s life.. We are pretty sure Mary was a very young girl, probably somewhere in her early-to-mid teens, when Jesus was born, but we mostly picture Joseph as an old man, his beard streaked with gray – when we think of him at all. The only tradition related to Joseph that I personally have ever heard is the superstition that if you want to sell your home you should get a little statue of St. Joseph and bury it upside-down in the backyard. I think people don’t often pay a lot of attention to Joseph, even though he is the man our Lord called “Abba,” father, as a little child growing up in Nazareth.

But today I want to look at Joseph with close attention, and with honor. Because God chose Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Matthan, of the tribe of David – out of all the possible men of Israel, he chose Joseph to be the husband of Mary, and the earthly father of his own Son, Jesus. No human being is generic and interchangeable like Lego blocks, so we know that Joseph was uniquely chosen by God. And today in the gospel reading we get a rare glimpse of what kind of a man Joseph was, and maybe even more importantly, we see what God asked of him, and how Joseph responded..

When Joseph found out that Mary, his betrothed bride, was expecting a baby, which most certainly was not his, he was forced to make a terrible choice. Matthew tells us two things about Joseph. He tells us first of all that Joseph was a righteous man. That doesn’t just mean that he was an all-round good guy. As a Jew, it meant that Joseph lived his life according to the standards and requirements of the Law of Moses. It meant that he rigorously avoided anything or anyone who did not abide by the Law of Moses, because contact with unrighteousness or uncleanness was like the Covid virus – it made a person unclean, unfit to worship in the Temple, unacceptable to God. Righteousness, according to the Law, and as Joseph understood it, required a kind of quarantine, a separation from everything the Law marked as sin.

And that meant that Mary’s pregnancy presented him with a double problem. First of all, her adultery, as he had to assume it was, meant that he could no longer have anything to do with her. He couldn’t go through with their marriage, or he would himself be contaminated by that sin, not because he was a self-righteous prig, but because he believed that he bore a responsibility to God to remain pure. On the other hand, Matthew also tells us that Joseph was a kind and compassionate man. To his great credit, he didn’t have it in him to expose Mary to public shame and humiliation. In fact, according to the Law, the punishment for adultery was execution by stoning. According to how Joseph decided to act in that moment, Mary’s life – and so, the life of her unborn child as well – was literally in his hands.

And Joseph came up with a course of action, a compromise, by which he hoped to satisfy both his righteousness and his compassion. He couldn’t go through with the marriage, clearly, it seemed to him – but he could quietly and privately write a certificate of dismissal for Mary. It would be a legal divorce, but without making any public accusations against her. It would certainly cast a shadow over Mary, but it would shield her from the most harmful ramifications of her sin. It was the best Joseph could do in a very difficult situation, or so it seemed to him.

In our day, we often call this kind of Joseph-style compromise “Hating the sin, but loving the sinner.” We want to extend grace to another person, but only insofar as we are able to do so without becoming contaminated or associated with their wrongdoing or failing. Any mercy or love we offer to them, we are careful to temper with an equal measure of judgment or disapproval, to separate ourselves from the sin. Sometimes we are afraid of contamination. Or we are afraid that people will think we are “that” kind of person too, afraid of being too “soft” on sin. We are afraid of failing to uphold God’s standards of perfection.

But that sort of compromise is doomed from the beginning. The love we offer is spoiled by our condemnation. And our judgment is spoiled by our attempts at mercy. because by our failure to separate ourselves entirely from the sin we fail in our righteousness, which is absolute and inflexible in its demands. Compassion served with judgment, as it turns out, is poor judgment, and no compassion at all.

God sent his angel to Joseph to show him a better way. To this righteous, compassionate man, loved and deliberately chosen for this moment, God said, “Don’t be afraid.” “Joseph, son of David,” the angel spoke in his dream, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” Don’t be afraid of contamination. Don’t be afraid of public scandal or humiliation. Don’t be afraid, most especially, don’t be afraid of angering or displeasing God.” Don’t be afraid, the angel told Joseph, because this whole situation is in God’s hands. You are free to love, without fear.

The message of this holy season might be summed up perfectly in the words of John the apostle, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, who was neither sinless nor perfect, but a simple small-town girl, and said, “Don’t be afraid, God is pleased with you.” The angel came to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, men who had a reputation for being rough and uncouth, and brought them this message, “Don’t be afraid, I have good news for you, and for all people everywhere – for you a child, a Savior has been born” And to Joseph, the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! The child that Mary is carrying is going to be called “God with us.” We never have to be afraid, because God has come to show us that he loves us all perfectly even though we are all imperfect, even though every one of us is certainly a sinner. In his perfect holiness, God didn’t decide to maintain a careful distance from us, sinners though we are – exactly and entirely the opposite, he came to share our lives with us. We say in the Eucharistic liturgy, “when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” God with us, getting himself mixed up in our messy lives; God not keeping his distance. That is what love looks like.

In the Incarnation, God became a flesh-and-blood example of what it means for us to love each other. Love is without fear. Love is without condition. Love risks everything for the beloved. And love doesn’t maintain a careful distance; love closes the distance. God didn’t send his Son into the world to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Jesus came to love, to love absolutely, to love unconditionally – God truly with us – and by his love to heal a world overshadowed by sin. We read today how Joseph, facing what must have been the greatest challenge of his life, took the risk of love, taking Mary as his wife, letting go of fear and judgment, without compromise. How are you being challenged right now, to love the people in your life? Can you hear God calling you today, to close the distance between yourself and some other person, calling you to love them the way he loves you – without fear…without judgment…without compromise?

Christmas, and this whole bright, festive holiday season, can be a dark and lonely time for a lot of people, for those of us who are reminded most painfully of loss at this time, for those of us who are alone and feel forgotten, for those of us whose memories of family and holiday are painful rather than joyful. But the solid reality of the Incarnation, of Love made human flesh, is life and health and comfort to us all, to those who are living under the shadow of sorrow and loneliness – and to all of us who, like Joseph, are struggling to maintain their integrity in a broken world.. John said it perfectly: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

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