Honouring reality: Joseph and blessing when everything goes wrong
‘He Gives Sons (Joseph) was a man of honour. He did not want to bring her trouble and open shame, so he thought about secretly releasing her from the marriage promise.’ Matthew 1:19
When we meet Joseph for the first time in the Christmas story, He Gives Sons, as he is named in the First Nations translation, does not have many sons. In fact, he’s just discovered that the woman he was engaged to marry is pregnant with a child that is not his, and is mulling over what to do.
He is a quiet man. In the gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth, not one word of Joseph’s is recorded. The legal father of Jesus is quiet. A quiet man who planned to quietly break off his marriage.
Our translations into English make Joseph seem pretty calm about this news, telling us ‘he considered it’. But the Greek word is the same that gets used about Herod when he discovers the wise men leave Bethlehem without reporting back to him. We read there, that Herod ‘was in a rage’. It’s reasonably safe to assume that Joseph was pretty upset about Mary’s news.
As he fumed, I wonder what ideas Joseph might have been confronted with about what he’d expected his life would be like?
His parents had named him after Joseph, one of the founding fathers of their people, a dreamer and a visionary who saved his family from famine and ensured the future of the Israelite people. That Joseph’s father, Jacob, had blessed him ‘with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb,’ blessings perhaps the first century Joseph’s parents had hoped would carry on in the life of their own son. His name meant ‘add’, a prayer for many sons.
All these blessings, all this promise, all this long-held expectation, lost in a moment.
And then there was all that was lost from his future. Joseph and Mary had been committed to one another, in preparation to spend the rest of their lives together. Mary wasn’t someone Joseph didn’t know or didn’t have a relationship with – he would have been thinking about his future together with her, making plans, imagining the children they’d have together.
For all his silence, Matthew assures us, Joseph was a just man. Not in the sense of legal justice – which would have called for Mary to be stoned – but the justice that is tempered with compassion. He mulls over how to save his own reputation, how to ‘do justice’ by the law, while also trying to be fair to Mary.
Perhaps he was considering in that moment how he could still live up to the idea of himself as a father of many sons. It’s here that God’s voice breaks into Joseph’s decision making. He is shown that there is something more important than legal justice, his reputation, or even fairness at stake.
The messenger of God says: ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins.’
From this point on Joseph, the just man, decides to stick with Mary. He chooses to marry her as she is, going into their future together with his eyes open. He gives up the hopes and expectations he had for his life together with her, he gives up his right to retribution, and he also gives up the chance to avoid bringing shame on himself by association with her.
He honours the reality of what has happened to him, and trusts God to bring the blessing and make it meaningful. The big idea is this: sometimes being blessed looks like God honouring who we are, and the reality of our lives, as they are. Rather than receiving some fantasy wishlist version of our lives and counting it as blessing, when we give way to reality, it makes space for God to turn up in surprising ways.
Joseph became like his namesake after all. Though he was born more than a thousand years after the original Joseph, their lives mirror one another: later in the story Matthew tells us that the newborn Jesus, like Moses, is in peril from a cruel king. Like Moses, Jesus has a (fore)father named Joseph who goes down to Egypt. Like the Old Testament Joseph, this Joseph has a father named Jacob, and both Josephs receive important dreams foretelling their future.
Although Joseph did become the father of his own sons, we consider him blessed because of how he cared for the one who was not his son, the one who was promised to be a blessing to the whole world.
May you, when all is not as you had hoped or dreamed, hear the surprising voice of God.
Johanna Derry Hall