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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV).
Churches around the globe will, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, light a candle for love.
As many have observed, love is a term, use so broadly that it begins to lose meaning. Any term that can refer to the relationship between myself, ripe pears, U2, going barefoot, the Brumbies rugby team, my country, my wife and children, and indeed, to my God will eventually become unclear. Love is simply used in too many ways to maintain its meaning without further clarification.
Perhaps today’s gospel reading can take us more deeply into the meaning of love. Sometimes the best definitions come, not in well crafted words, but in well crafted people.
I have often thought of the character of Joseph in the story of Jesus as exemplary. His is a story of faith, obedience, and true devotion to Mary, the baby Jesus, and of course, to God.
Despite the view that people living in Bible times were not scientific enough to reject the miraculous, our passage suggests that Joseph knows very well what his fiance’s pregnancy indicates. There is good reason for Joseph not to marry Mary and he knows it.
As is often the case, the plan reveals the man. Joseph, essentially, does not seek to publicly defend his honour but to privately defend Mary’s. Dismissing her secretly will avoid her public disgrace, but do nothing to vindicate his shattered pride. He will disappear quietly from her life and bear the shame of her rejection.
But plans – even good , noble, and righteous ones – change.
For Joseph an angelic vision was enough. This messenger from heaven reveals God’s plan not only for Mary, but also for Joseph. He is not to act out of fear but is to wed Mary in the knowledge that this child is the work , not of a rival lover, but of the very Spirit of God. He is told that Mary will bear a son and that he is to name him.
Indeed, this angel is entrusting Joseph with the very essence of this God-initiated mission: ‘…you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
Joseph’s response is as remarkable as it is understated: ‘When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.’
It is one thing to dream a dream. It another to act on it so uncompromisingly.
But can we call this love? I think we can. Joseph is self-sacrificing, willing to serve, humble enough to change, and surprisingly obedient and open to the strange plans of God.
Perhaps Joseph can be best described as one who loved God and loved others.