There are problems with everyone's family tree and Matthew is at pains to preface his story of Jesus' birth by showing that some of the very best in Israel's history were of dubious origin. And he does so because of course the 'problem' of Jesus's legitimacy haunts his ministry and the early days of the church. It does not go away. There were rumours, there were whispers that must have surrounded Jesus from birth to grave.
So Joseph has a problem, and like most of us faced with a problem he seeks to solve it himself. He makes a plan. And it is a very kind plan in the circumstances. He plans to dismiss Mary quietly - not to have her stoned as would have been his right, or even to throw her out on the street, but to dismiss her quietly. Some scholars suggest that a legitimate translation of the word 'quietly' here would be 'leniently', that is to say not involving the full strength of the law, but bringing mercy to bear by perhaps issuing the bill of divorce on some lesser ground than the charge of adultery. Mary would still have been left destitute and unmarriageable, taken back into her parents home if she was lucky. But nevertheless Joseph chooses a path of mercy and non violence. This is very important. For this is the human being that by his words, his actions and the stories he tells is going to shape the life of the infant Jesus. And Joseph even as he makes his human plan, shows himself to be not just a righteous person, but also a kind and merciful person. The sort of person we might seek to emulate.
But God is looking for something more than righteousness or even mercy from Joseph. He is looking for another Abraham, another father for the race, another human being prepared to stake everything on the promise of God. That's what Abraham did, setting out not knowing where he was going, and Matthew's readers would have been well aware of that. That is what Joseph is asked by the angel in his dream to do. To set aside his good and kindly human plan, and respond to the promise that God would once again be with God's people - and would indeed be with them in a new and far more intimate way, born as a human child, adopted by Joseph as his own son, when he gives him the name prescribed by the angel, Jesus.
Joseph's 'yes' to that promise is just as momentous as Mary's. He did not know how it would turn out, but he must have known that he would be judged by his family and neighbours and found wanting. That his own righteousness would be called in question. That in protecting Mary and her unborn child he was letting go of control of his own destiny.
And this is where we have to ask ourselves how we respond to the prompting of God. When we have a problem, in our family, in our church, let alone the wider world - how do we respond? Do we do the easy thing - bring out the rule book, listen to the rumours, judge another human being without a second thought? Or like Joseph, have we some righteousness tempered with mercy, that might suggest a kinder plan? I do hope so.
Yet God asks more of us. God asks us to go into the dark of night, into the depths of our dreams, into the heart of our prayer and listen for the voices of the angels that tell us there is a yet more daring solution. A solution that always comes down to a deeper loving, a more complete surrender of our own desire for control, a greater trust in the promises of God.
A week today it will be Christmas Day. The every day problems and plans that attach to our annual festivities over for another year. But in the midst of it all will we have taken time to rest in the promise of Emmanuel, God with us? For this alone can transform us, as it once transformed Joseph, from good and kind people, to the people of God, through whom God can once again bring to birth the prince of peace. For God's work is not done yet.
As we ponder these things let me conclude with some words of poet-Pastor Steve Garnass Holmes, reflecting on the response of Joseph:
Imagine how often we dismiss the holy
because we don't see it as holy.
How often we judge,
come to our conclusions
and make our plans,
without knowing we're dealing with God.
How easily we dismiss or avoid
people or relationships,
issues or awareness
unmindful that God is present,
unbelieving that something unseen
and possibly glorious
may imminently appear.
The door you close
may open of itself.
The Unexpected One may emerge
from that one, or another.
Learn to expect the wholly unexpected,
the holy unexpected.
Look on your disappointments and discouragements
with eyes of faith.
God is coming.
God is already here, gestating.
God is not done yet."
So let us share in that work, that joy, that love: in the Name of the One who was born among the least, who continue to help us magnify God and share God’s love with all: in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Advent 4 Year A, Sunday 18 December 2016