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.
Ahhh…those words…”Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” After weeks of reading about John the Baptist and the Assyrians and people in exile and stories of years upon years of people waiting and waiting, we FINALLY get to one of “the stories”. Doesn’t it sort of stop you in your tracks? This is it. This is that for which we’ve waited, that for which we’ve prepared, that for which we’ve hoped. This is the beginning of the story that we love. Now I know what you’re thinking. This is about Joseph. Where is Mary? Where is that Annunciation story to which we’re more accustomed? [Advertisement: That is tomorrow!] So, today, we’re going to look at the other side of the manger.
Poor Joseph! He really doesn’t get much of the spotlight. In fact, the lectionary only has us read this passage once every three years, and, technically, this is not one of those years. In the Gospels, the writer known as Matthew is the only one that even talks about him. So Joseph is usually relegated to supporting cast status and we often just skip him. It’s easy to do because he doesn’t even have a speaking role. There’s no “how can this be?”, no offering of his opinion, no shaking his fist in utter disbelief. He’s actually almost rendered speechless. So we really know very little about him. We know he was from Nazareth, a sort of no-name town in Galilee. We can surmise that he was a carpenter because Jesus is described as the son of a carpenter several times in Scripture. And we know that he was engaged, or actually betrothed. to Mary. Now understand that this is not like our notion of an engagement. This was a marital contract. It just wasn’t consummated. They were not just dating. They were really pretty much considered husband and wife. And you know what? Joseph had plans. He had some idea laid out of how his life would go.
You know, when you think about it, Joseph had to be hurt, probably even angry at Mary. But he had apparently already decided what he was going to do (a plan that it should be noted in the face of the tradition was EXTREMELY merciful and compassionate). He was going to quietly dismiss her and, I suppose, Joseph would have faded into the pages of the story. Maybe Mary could have gotten help from her cousins. Maybe Jesus and John would have grown up like brothers. It could have all worked out. And then came the dream.
It was apparently a wild fit of a dream. I mean, the Lord came. That cannot have been a comfortable situation. And, true to form, God tells him not to be afraid. “Oh, no,” Joseph thought, “I have read this before. When the Lord tells you not to be afraid, things tend to happen–things like the floor of your world on which your standing giving way and you falling uncontrollably into something that you never imagined and for which you certainly could never have planned. Hold on!” And the Lord hands him a story that doesn’t even make sense. Joseph is being asked to step back into the story. And oh what a story it has become! Joseph is being asked to raise the child that IS the Messiah. Joseph is being asked to love him and guide him and discipline him (Good grief, how do you discipline a Messiah? I mean, does he get like some sort of Divine time out?) Joseph is even told what to name the child—Emmanuel, “God With Us”.
Well, I’m betting that Joseph’s first thought when he awoke was that he had eaten some bad lamb or something. He probably laid there for a few minutes processing it all. I mean, remember, we know from the verses before the ones we read that Joseph was descended from a long line of dreamers. In fact, old Grandpa Jacob (like 34 “greats” ago) had fought back, wrestling until the break of day! Remember that? And then Joseph got up and moved out of the way and followed. He had plans. He had a reputation to think of. He had a face that he had to present to the temple. He had a life. But Joseph moved aside and fell speechless. And then, and then God gave him his voice.
The name “Joseph” means “God will add” or “God will increase”. God called Mary as the God-bearer; but God called Joseph to also respond, to add to the meaning of the story. After all, it is the Joseph side of the story that once again upsets the social and religious expectation apple cart, so to speak. It is Joseph that must break the ranks of laws and righteousness and instead become human. This beautiful nativity story is both wondrous and scandalous at the same time. We tend to relegate it to a star-lit evening. Mary had made a choice that would change her life forever. And so, somehow Joseph had to trust this strange news that he, too, was being drawn into the story. Somehow Joseph had to get on board with God turning his whole life upside down.
So, are you ready? Are you ready for what comes next? I’m not talking about whether or not you’ve cooked everything, or finished your shopping, or wrapped the gifts, or finished trimming the tree. Are you ready for what comes next? Are you ready to birth the Christ into your life? Are you ready to add to the story? Are you ready for the unexpected, for your plans to be shattered and your world turned upside down? Are you ready for the floor of what you know to give way? Are you ready for the night when the angel comes? So what will you do? Most of us don’t go running through the darkness to Bethlehem. We hold back or we wait or we cower in the darkness hoping that someone else will do it. But heading into the darkness, into the unknown, is the only way to see the Light of the World. And if you pay attention, you will have a night when an angel comes and asks you to turn your world upside down. And if you let yourself fall into it, THAT will be the beginning of everything that God has in store for you.
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell
Grace and Peace,
One thought on “The Other Side of the Manger”
The story of Joseph and Mary is a beautiful love story. We Christians believe that it is a star kissed love story that birthed the Savor sent by God to redeem the world. Given the times in which we live, this story takes on great importance. Thanks for your wonderful retelling.
Yours in Christ,