Scripture Text: Matthew 1:18-25
This morning, we hear the story of Jesus’ birth as the Gospel of Matthew tells the story. It’s not the one we’ll hear next week on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We’ve got no census, no trip to Bethlehem, no inn, no shepherds, no angels. Instead, there’s a young girl and her fiancé and an unexpected pregnancy that causes a crisis. The key to our story this morning is that Joseph, the aforementioned fiancé, is righteous.
We’ll start by taking a look at what that word righteous means. Then, we’ll explore how Joseph’s righteousness plays out in this story. And finally, we’ll take a look at how we are called to live righteously in our own lives.
Righteous and righteousness appear in the Bible 579 times! That’s 344 times in the Old Testament, 109 times in the Apocrypha, and 126 times in the New Testament. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel alone, the word righteous appears 77 times. And, in the much shorter Gospels, righteous appears 32 times. That’s a lot of righteousness! Noah is the first person described as righteous in Genesis 6, and the righteous are encouraged to continue their righteousness in the final chapter of Revelation. It’s safe to say that righteousness is a concept that is shot through our Bible from start to finish. But, the problem with churchy words is that they often wind up defining themselves. It's not super helpful to say that be righteous is to live in righteousness. So, what does righteous really mean?
The most common definition of righteous is living a life pleasing to God. This most often gets demonstrated in how a righteous person cares for others. Here’s an example from Isaiah, chapter 33: Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights; their refuge will be the fortresses of rocks; their food will be supplied, their water assured. Later, Isaiah describes righteousness as something we can put on like we do an article of clothing. We are called to be righteous - to live lives that are pleasing to God, as demonstrated by how we care for others.
What does all this have to do with our story this morning?
Mary’s fiancé Joseph was a regular guy living an un-extraordinary life when an unexpected thing happened. All we know about him, according to Matthew, is that he was righteous. He was living a life pleasing to God. He cared for others and he was not interested in oppression.
Joseph learns that his fiancé is pregnant, and he knows that there’s only one reasonable explanation for a pregnancy. And he knows that he was not a part of that reasonable explanation. So, Joseph draws a logical conclusion – that his fiancée Mary has been unfaithful to him. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion.
In first century Palestine, marriage practices were different from ours. At the moment of betrothal, the couple was already considered married, although they were not yet living together. The legal system of patriarchy favored males. Joseph would have been well within his rights to make a big public fuss. He could have made a public accusation, and divorced Mary in a way that would have caused her great public shame. In fact, it might well have led to her death. It certainly would have destroyed her social standing – and likely would have forced her into slavery or prostitution.
If their marriage, like so many in the first century and throughout the ages, was something that had been negotiated by their parents, then Joseph might have even taken a great deal of pleasure in shaming Mary. After all, his male reputation would have been at stake. So, Joseph could have salvaged his ego and his pride at the expense of Mary, her child, and the future the mother and child might have together.
Instead, Joseph stopped. He took a breath. He didn’t act oppressively. Matthew says it’s because he was righteous. His righteousness prompted him to decide to quietly divorce her, another legal option open to him. In this scenario, Mary and her baby would still have a difficult life, but Joseph would not have violated her.
Joseph’s pause makes all the difference. Because in that moment, God intercedes. An angel, a word which simply means messenger from God, appears to Joseph in a dream and communicates and unexpected and decidedly illogical reality about this child Mary is carrying. It doesn’t make any sense. And yet, Joseph believes this messenger and takes his righteousness to a whole new level.
So, what does all this have to do with us?
It seems to me that the options open and available to Joseph are very much part and parcel of the human condition. As we move through this thing called life, we are given countless opportunities to serve our egos or to serve God. We are given countless opportunities where we can act rashly or we can act righteously. The choice is ours.
Except that it’s rarely that easy, right? We’ve been shaped and formed by experiences that don’t always bring out the best in us. We’re busy. We’re stressed. We’re broken. We look out for ourselves first, almost by instinct. So what hope is there?
For me, the first step is always awareness. I know what God hopes for from me and from each of us. Righteousness. Living a life that is pleasing to God because of how we treat others. We can take that quote from Isaiah 35 that I referenced at the beginning, and put it in contemporary language: Walking righteously. Speaking truth. Despising oppressing. Being honest in our economic practices. Not gossiping. Turning away from evil. This is what living a life that is pleasing to God because of how we treat others looks like.
And, when I can’t do it all on my own, which is regularly, I plead with God in my prayers to give me these gifts. I ask God to send angels who can guide me in living this way. And when I realize I’ve blown it, I ask for forgiveness, and move forward to try again.
Our world today could use more righteousness. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me in using Joseph as your model. AMEN.