Monday, 20 December 2010

Joseph's Dilemma

We need to appreciate the major dilemma that faced Joseph – and how interesting that Matthew largely tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. Let’s put this into the context of the times. We need to do that to understand what is going on. Though Mary and Joseph have only reached the point of being engaged, their relationship has reached the point of no normal return. It was the custom of the time for women to be married at a very early age, even around 12. They would then often spend a further year or so in their family home because they were so young before moving to that of their husband. During this time, even though they were not living together, the couple would be regarded as man and wife, not merely ‘engaged’ in our modern sense. So, when Mary turns up pregnant, there is only one conclusion that Joseph can reach – that Mary has broken the marriage bond – in short, that she has committed adultery. And we shouldn’t gloss over the implications of this situation. Mary is in a dreadful position. She is a young girl, 14 or 15 at most, about to get married, leave her family home, and she’s pregnant – shamefully pregnant, it would appear. If the full rigour of the Law is applied, she is liable to be stoned as an adulteress. Except that an angel appears to Joseph to explain that things are not as they seem. Why are we so afraid of angels? You might think we are not – but we seem to be. So often the angels who appear in the Bible begin by telling those to whom they have appeared not to be afraid. Angels, by definition, are messengers from God. Why are we so scared of God’s messengers? The angel in Joseph’s dream tells him, ‘don’t be afraid!’ But here it is not about not being afraid of the angel appearing. It is about not being afraid of marrying a pregnant woman – Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife. For it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived. As the Gospel continues, this is a theme that recurs. Jesus has things to say about fear and courage – and the words ‘do not be afraid’ are spoken at least five more times in Matthew’s Gospel, and four of those times it is Jesus speaking these words. He speaks them to the disciples during a storm. He says them to Peter, James and John during the Transfiguration. He says them to the women outside the empty tomb. And, encouraging the disciples as they are being sent out on mission, he says: do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows. Like Joseph, we are waiting for Christmas. I wonder what we wait with. Is it with excitement? Is it with trepidation? What will we experience? Will it be wonder? Will it be love and forgivness? The Christmas story, with its donkey and stable, with its angels and shepherds, with its wise men and their gifts, is one that we know so well. And, yes, we know that, in many senses, Christmas has been hijacked, taken over – because now it is also about a rotund man dressed in red, and reindeer, and tinsel, and mistletoe – and turkey and mince pies, and so many other things. I don’t like it when the baby at the centre of the celebration gets lost – but I don’t mind that there are lots of things that we do to celebrate his birth. After all, what bigger event could we be celebrating? And I do want us to remember that, as that newish carol written by John Bell and Graham Maule puts it, “God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas day.” Do you like Christmas surprises? For sure, let’s be ready for those surprises that God springs on us. And the one other thing I really want to take from this particular bit of the story is the need to hear and apply to ourselves the words of the angel to Joseph in his dream and of the angels to the shepherds, ‘don’t be afraid.’ Christmas is all sorts of things – but it is, most certainly, God saying to us: ‘don’t be afraid; I’m with you!’

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