No, awkward in the first place because Joseph had found out that his fiance’, Mary, was pregnant and he knew for a certifiable fact that he, Joseph was not the father.
This was more than just awkward for Mary. It was deadly. We’ll get back to that in a minute. But it was awkward for Joseph too.
From now on, for the rest of his life, whenever Joseph walked through the village square, people would whisper. “Oh, there’s Joseph. Do you remember how he was engaged to Mary but ran off and got pregnant by somebody else? He he. She must not have found him very attractive. Maybe it’s the way he walks. Look at him, swinging his hands back and forth that way. Kind of looks like a dweeb, don’t you think?”
Joseph could have made it less awkward for himself. He could have stopped the laughter before it started, because Mary and Joseph were not just engaged. They had made out a marriage contract. Actually their parents had probably made out the contract. According to Jewish law, anyone who slept outside of a marriage contract was guilty of adultery. And the law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy stated that adultery carried the death penalty. You would be stoned to death.
Joseph could have replaced the jokes with horror, the smirks with a shudder. People could have said “He had her stoned,” or, “He sued to have her stoned.” More than just an awkward situation, this was deadly for Mary.
When we are in awkward situations, when our relationships are coming apart, when we’re working three jobs and still can’t pay the bills, when the whole world seems to have gone crazy, it is easy to wonder, “Where is God?” We don’t necessarily feel God’s strength, God’s assurance that things will be all right. We don’t always sense God’s absolute beauty that drives us to live with integrity toward ourselves and compassion toward others. God can seem very far away when things are awkward. God can seem nonexistent when we are surrounded by betrayal and ridicule and stoning.
Now, the Gospel of Matthew does not ask how Mary felt about this—whether she felt abandoned by God or angry at Joseph or what—but the Gospel of Luke does. In Luke, Mary connects with a support system. She trusts God’s promises of freedom and life. And she sings this song that roars about the blessing of the poor and the overturning of oppression:
“[God] has scattered the proud in the delusion of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. . .”
Luke focuses on the power of God in Mary.
Matthew focuses on Joseph. In Matthew, our Gospel lesson for today says Joseph is a righteous man. Interestingly, this righteous man does not insist on following the Law of Moses in all of its particulars, with its stoning and so on. Instead, Joseph moves in precisely the opposite direction.
Now, the rabbis over the centuries after Moses and before Joseph and Mary, they were righteous too. They had backed off on the stoning. Perhaps they had realized that maybe you don’t need quite as much of the stoning going on as you might have thought at first, that, in fact less stoning was probably better.
So they only required a public disgrace and shaming. But Joseph doesn’t really want that either, does he? No. Don’t make a big public humiliation out of it. Just let it die quietly.
Jesus will describe righteousness later on in the Sermon on the Mount: Do to others as you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. This is the foundation of right and wrong. I can imagine Joseph asking himself, “If I were Mary in this awkward situation, how would I want to be treated?”
How often do we do that? Ask ourselves, especially if we have been hurt or victimized, or if we feel we have been betrayed, “If I were the wrongdoer, how would I want to be treated?”
Also later on, somebody asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus says “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . .’ And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This is the basis of right and wrong.
Now, notice, Joseph does not just say “Oh, it’s okay if I’ve been betrayed. I’ll just open myself up to being hurt again. I’ll pretend it didn’t happen. I’ll find a way to blame it on myself. I’ll just let myself be hurt because that’s what God wants me to do.” No, Joseph does not say that because God does not want that. Joseph does think about his own well-being.
Joseph is trying to do the thing that is most loving to God, himself and his neighbor. So again, he decides to let the engagement die quietly. Yes, people in the village will talk. It will be awkward. So what.
He goes to sleep. He dreams. An angel comes to him in the dream, says “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. . .” Do not be afraid of an awkward situation. Do not be afraid of people whispering, laughing. Do not be afraid of the stones.
Mary has not betrayed you after all. Rather, she is pregnant from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a boy, and you will name him.
If you named a person in those days, you adopted that person. Joseph adopts Jesus into his own family, the lineage of King David, the great king from of old. Jesus is an adopted child.
“You will name him Jesus.” “Jesus” was a common name in those days. It was a form of the name “Joshua,” or, in Hebrew, “Ya Shua” God saves. “You will name him Jesus, Ya Shua, God saves, because he will save the people from their sins.”
“All this took place to fulfill 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.”
Here at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, God is with us. What are the last words in the Gospel of Matthew? “Behold, I am with you,” Jesus says. “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of the age.” At the beginning of the Gospel and at its end, Jesus is with us.
That is good news, because we find ourselves in an awkward situation too. We are unlike Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph have done nothing wrong. You and I, I’m not so sure. I suspect we have indeed made a contribution to the situation in which we find ourselves. We are the people doing the stoning. We are the people doing the laughing. We, along with everybody else, are those sinners Jesus came to save.
You know what I find most difficult to believe about this story, most awkward to wrap my mind around? It’s not the idea of angels coming to people in their dreams. It’s not the idea of women having babies without sleeping with a man. The truly preposterous assertion of this story is that there is a reality in this world that is deeper and more powerful even than our own relentless bondage to our own point of view, our own pride, our own resentment, our own hurt, our own self-loathing, our own despair, our own fear. There is a reality in this world more powerful than we are. That reality has a name. Ya shua, God saves. Jesus. And that reality loves you. Jesus loves you.
Isn’t that the most preposterous thing you have ever heard in your life? But it’s true.
So don’t be afraid of an awkward situation. Don’t be afraid to say “I was wrong, I’m sorry. I sinned, please forgive me.” Don’t be afraid to say “This is the truth,” even if people laugh at you. Don’t be afraid to say, “No, you may not treat these people that way,” even if people threaten to stone you. Don’t be afraid to love.
Beautiful? Holy? Maybe.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.”
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Yes, righteous. Oh yeah.