Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1: 18-25
Joseph, we are told, was a good man; a man who always did what was right. He kept his nose clean; he worked hard; he stayed out of trouble; he did the right thing by his neighbours; he did unto others as he`d have them do unto him. Joe Davidson, model citizen, all round good bloke. You know people like Joseph; there are lots of them. In fact most people I know and probably most people in this country would happily identify with that description. They might not say it too loudly, for fear of looking a bit too full of themselves, but most people set about living hard-working peaceful lives and doing the right thing by others. Live and let live. Do unto others... That sort of thing. That`s us. Mr and Ms Average Good Bloke and Blokess.
But one day, things begin to go wrong for Mr Average Good Bloke Joe Davidson. His fiancee Mary confesses that she`s pregnant, and although he`s no obstetrician, Joseph has a fair idea how these things happen and he knows that he had nothing to do with it. And when you know that you`ve had nothing to do with it that means that someone else has, and your fiancee has betrayed you. When you`re the sort of bloke who always does the right thing by others, you can`t go getting yourself hitched to someone who has proven themselves incapable of doing the right thing by you. No doubt Joseph had his moments of wanting to tell the whole town how Mary had done the dirty on him, but being the good bloke that he was, he decided to just quietly call off their engagement and not add to the trouble she had already made for herself. Do unto others and all that sort of thing.
But then Joseph has a dream, and in this dream a messenger of God shows up. The Bible refers to angels on numerous occasions but in both biblical languages, the word angel simply means messenger and doesn`t imply halos and wings and harps. The word angel was used to describe anyone who was sent with a message from God. Anyway, the message delivered from God says, `Joe Davidson, go ahead and get married to Mary. She hasn`t done the dirty on you. It was my Holy Spirit who made her pregnant. She will give birth to a boy who you are to raise as your own. He will save his people from their sins.`
Now right here, Joe Davidson, all round good bloke, is standing at the crossroads. This is where he`s going to show the world what he`s really made of. These moments come to all of us, although thankfully they don`t usually come in quite the bizarre circumstances that they did for Joseph. But the ordinary circumstances of ordinary lives throw up situations where we have to decide what we are really committed to. Are we really people who do the right thing by everyone, or does that only hold so long as others do the right thing by us? Do we really do unto others as we would have them do unto us, or does that only hold so long as we know them and can rely on them to return the favour? Are we really ready to obey God no matter what, or does that only hold so long as God doesn`t call us to do anything that might expose us to ridicule, rumour or major inconvenience?
We know what Joseph was made of. When God challenged him to take the hard road, he took it. If he had just walked away, all his friends and relations would have patted him on the back and commended him for doing the right thing, as always. But God asked him to walk away from his reputation instead. Nowadays, fathering a child who was conceived before your wedding wouldn`t cost you much in terms of reputation, but in Joseph`s day, it almost certainly cost him business and the respect of his neighbours. Joseph has to choose between doing the right thing, and maintaining the appearance of doing the right thing. When push came to shove, Joseph proved that his commitment to doing the right thing was not just skin deep; it went to the core of his being.
This is the time of year when the majority of the Australian community are conscious of Joseph and Mary and Jesus, and participate enthusiastically in celebrations that still maintain some identifiable connection with their story. They won`t make it to church or give any thought to the real significance of the holiday they happily celebrate but they will give lip service to the whole thing by singing carols, many of which speak specifically of Joseph, Mary and the birth of Jesus. In this country, being a model citizen who always does the right thing and does unto others etc is still understood as being somehow Christian, and singing the carols is part of the package.
But singing carols is easy. I`ll bet Joseph would much rather the message from God had asked him to prove that he was an all round good bloke by faithfully singing Christmas carols every year. The hard part is integrating the values of those carols into the core of your life. Tragically, the survey statistics tell us that the vast majority of those singing joyous Christmas carols in this country this week are in favour of closing our borders to desperate people seeking refuge from violence and oppression elsewhere in the world. We can sing about Joseph and his family having to flee to Egypt as refugees, but if he tried to flee to Australia he`d be just another middle-eastern `illegal` and we`d send the navy out to make sure he didn`t enter our territorial waters.
When Joseph stood at the crossroads point of his life and God challenged him to do the right thing even against public opinion, conventional morality and good common sense, Joseph proved himself to be a man of integrity. Our nation has stood at the crossroads in recent years and proved itself to be a nation of heartless and godless selfishness. And no amount of carol singing can whitewash that. The wisdom of this season of Advent is that it challenges us to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. It`s about hope, peace, love and joy. Joseph has set us a wonderful example, let`s follow in his footsteps and not take the easy, socially or politically acceptable decisions, but let`s stand up for what we know is right. This week we are going to sing lots of Christmas carols. Let`s sing them with joy and enthusiasm, just like everybody else, but let`s also remember Joseph, and remember that when God calls us to commit ourselves to the Christ-child in the real world, saying `Yes` may not be nearly as easy or popular as singing carols.