Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…in the bleak midwinter, long, long, long, ago.
Around him, Joseph’s word looked hard as iron. His outlook was bleak. The news had just reached him: the woman to whom he was betrothed, Mary, was pregnant. The baby was not his.
He loved Mary and he thought she loved him back. This was not supposed to happen; especially not this way. The legalities were all done. They had promised to marry each other and spend the mandatory year waiting, what their culture called betrothal. That meant they would spend the year without living together and certainly without relations.
Joseph had looked forward to their marriage day very much. He loved Mary. How could she do this to him? To go and get pregnant while they were betrothed?
Let’s read together our scripture for this morning: Matthew 1:18-21: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+1%3A18-21&version=NRSV
As he sat with the news, the world around him seemed hard as iron in this bleak midwinter long, long, long, ago.
Joseph doesn’t get much attention during the Christmas season. There are little statues of him in nativity sets but that’s generally about it. Jesus, rightfully so, is the star of the show. Mary gets tons of attention. Christmas carols talk of Mary, Jesus, shepherds, wise men, oxen, donkeys, angels, everyone it seems except Joseph.
Perhaps that’s because only here, only in Matthew, does Joseph play any central role. It’s to Joseph, not Mary, that the angel appears to announce the good news of what will happen. It’s Joseph, not Mary, who shows us what obedience looks like as he agrees to what the angel tells him in his dream.
But let’s not move too fast in this story. For consider, before Joseph hears from the angel in his dream, he’s engaged to a woman who has just become pregnant, not by him, living in a small town.
A small town not unlike Eastman.
We all know how news travels, especially when there’s scandal involved. Imagine a couple in this town that everyone knows. They’re engaged. Everyone’s excited. In typical fashion that still makes me scratch my head, they’ve put an ad in the newspaper inviting the whole town to their wedding, while secretly hoping that only the actual invitees show up. They both come from good, solid, families who have been here for generations. They’re madly in love and waiting, eagerly, for the wedding day to arrive.
Then the woman ends up pregnant. The proverbial phone switch board suddenly lights up. People are calling around. Have you heard the news? Do you think Joseph’s the father? Did she cheat on him? Will the marriage still take place? Will she keep the baby? How could she?
There’s nothing like scandal to get the gossip train a-movin.
Especially in a small town like Nazareth, like Eastman.
It’s no wonder that, for Joseph, this was a bleak midwinter: he’s the topic of town gossip. Just as I’m sure all of us have been the spreader of gossip at some point, we’ve also all been the person being gossiped about. There’s little that hurts more, that feels more like betrayal, that cuts deep, than knowing people are talking about you behind your back.
I hear stories like that all the time. Wounds still unhealed from when people were the victims of gossip decades ago. Especially because so often the gossips are church-going folk, of whom we expect better; especially when the victim finds out that people they thought were their friends have been talking about them behind their back.
It’s a terrible ordeal to feel like the whole town’s talking about you. It’s easy to imagine that Joseph is feeling the same way after he learns Mary is pregnant. Small towns have been small towns since the dawn of time: up in each others’ business for good and ill. After Mary ends up pregnant, the gossip train is a-movin, and Joseph knows it’s directed at him.
And when you know that the gossip train is directed at you, when you know the whole town is talking about you, as you go about your daily life, it suddenly starts to feel very lonely. You wonder if you have any real friends, people who choose your defense over gossip. You wonder if anyone really cares about you. If people are willing to talk about you behind your back, were they really your friends to begin with?
Life feels lonely. You walk into stores and wave at people you know, wondering if they’re talking about you. Customers would have come to Joseph’s carpentry shop just as they did before, probably treating Joseph just as they did before, leaving Joseph wondering what they were saying when he wasn’t around.
Life gets lonely. You worry about your reputation. You fear what could happen if people start saying things that aren’t true. Like if people start assuming that you’re responsible for something that you didn’t actually do; like starting to think that Joseph is actually the father.
Instinct in cases like this says the best thing to do, the right course of action, is to step out and defend yourself. Joseph needs to ensure that his reputation stays in tact. After all, is there anything that matters more in a small town than your reputation?
He needs to defend that and the best way to do that is to divorce Mary and humiliate her in the process.
Then, no one could think that Joseph was the father. He wouldn’t humiliate the woman carrying his own child. Then, Joseph can distance himself from Mary and the gossip train can just be directed at her.
Then, too, Joseph will be living into social expectations. In his day, women who got pregnant through infidelity, especially when engaged, were supposed to be humiliated. The law actually said they were to be beheaded, but by Joseph’s day, rabbis and scribes weren’t as interested in beheading. Instead, they simply humiliated the woman, casting her out of polite society, gossiping about her, keeping her outside of religious rituals. There would be penance involved of some kind, ways to make it right religiously, but it would be quite a while until her reputation in the community was restored, if it ever was.
And all of that would be started, would be instigated, by the man to whom the woman was engaged; in this case, Joseph.
It would make sense for a Joseph to act in this way. In a small town, you live and die on your reputation. Joseph needs to maintain his. He’s got a carpentry business that is his livelihood. He can’t afford to have his reputation muddied by this affair because it could hurt his business. Plus, no one likes to have people think untrue things about them. That gossip feels threatening. So if he will divorce her and humiliate her, he will save his reputation, his business, and then he can move on with his life assured that all is well in his relationships with this small town folk.
It’s what any of us would do in Eastman facing scandal that could be unfairly put on us. It’s perhaps what some of us have actually done to ensure that people don’t get wrong ideas about us.
But not Joseph. He resolves to divorce her, as the law demands, but rather than humiliate her as social convention would dictate, he moves instead to ensure the divorce is handled quietly.
This means that he will opt out of his rights to do things that will restore his reputation. It means that he will go and petition the rabbis and scribes to go easy on Mary; to not punish her but, rather, to simply put through the divorce and leave it at that. No penance, no public trial, no humiliation.
It’s crazy because divorcing her quietly leaves Joseph wide open for people to think he’s the father. He takes no action to restore his reputation. He leaves the door wide open for his small town to talk about him, to make up their own minds that he’s having sex before marriage, that he’s violating customs and norms. This could impact his business. This could tarnish his reputation and his family’s reputation for generations to come.
We all know, based on our small town living, that this is a foolish way to go about this business.
Instinct says self-protection, self-preservation. Take care of yourself because no one else is going to. Do what you have to in order to ensure your reputation is maintained, that your standing with the community is intact. Do whatever you need to and don’t worry about the people who might get hurt along the way, people like Mary; you have to take care of yourself.
But that’s not at all how Joseph acts. It’s not at all how he behaves.
In his bleak midwinter, this season of discontent, this time of potential ruin to his reputation, this time of threat to his business and standing and family; in this moment where all feels on the line in his small town of Nazareth, Joseph acts out of love for Mary.
He shows tremendous love and mercy. When he makes this decision to divorce her quietly, he doesn’t yet know the truth. The angel hasn’t yet come to tell him how she got pregnant and what a miraculous thing is happening. All he knows is the women to whom he is engaged is pregnant and he didn’t do it. That’s all he knows.
All he knows, except how much he loves Mary. He is merciful, for he could have brought down the proverbial house on Mary. He could have ostracized her to the extent that she would have had to move in with her cousin Elizabeth, in another town, where maybe she could find new relationships that would support her. He could have, and maybe we think he should have, done something to preserve and defend his reputation.
But he thinks first of Mary, not of himself. He considers her before himself. That is the definition of love. Selflessness ahead of self-protection; selflessness ahead of self-preservation. Selflessness even ahead of reputation.
Joseph doesn’t get much attention this time of year, but I think he should. He acts just like his adopted son, Jesus: he shows unconditional love. It doesn’t matter what he thinks Mary’s done, it doesn’t matter what he thinks might happen to him, all he knows is that the just thing to do, the merciful thing to do, the loving thing to do, is to divorce Mary quietly, so that she can go on with her life. He acts not out of self-protection but out of an instinct to protect the woman he loves. In doing so, he puts his reputation, his business, and his family on the line in his small town.
What would it look like if we did the same in our small town? When we feel our reputation is threatened? When our instinct says to act out of self-preservation and self-protection when the gossip train is directed at us? What would it mean to act out of love?
Think back in your history here to a time when you or your family were the topic of gossip; when someone did something and the thing they did made you worry that people would think wrong things about you. Perhaps a family dispute over property. Perhaps a relationship gone afoul, whether marriage or dating or business. Perhaps a legal dispute. Maybe even infidelity like is assumed in this story. Whatever it was, what would it mean if you acted like Joseph? If you acted first out of love for the other person, rather than self-protection or self-preservation?
That’s a tremendously hard question to answer, if we’re willing to be honest this morning, because it means throwing caution to the wind. It means allowing people to think whatever they will about you. It means not trying to control your reputation in town but letting it be, for a time, whatever the gossips decide that it will be.
And it’s so hard to choose to do like Joseph did. And yet, that is our example this morning.
When the actions of someone else threaten your reputation and standing in Eastman, act first out of love for the other person. Choose love; choose selflessness over self-protection.
That’s the example Joseph set. And not only Joseph, but Joseph is previewing what Jesus would do. As Jesus was nailed to the cross, the average person’s opinion of Jesus was that he was crazy, an usurper who thought he was a king or maybe even thought he was a god. They thought he was a rabble rouser, a threat to good order. Some even thought he was evil, trying to raise up a rebellion or, worse, demon-possessed.
The vast majority of people on Good Friday thought God himself, come down to earth, Emmanuel, was evil. There’s never been a reputation more maligned, more thrown into the gutter, more trampled upon, than Jesus’s reputation.
And yet, Jesus never acted out of self-preservation for his reputation. He never sought to restore his reputation. He never shows any signs of worry about his reputation. And when others, including the disciples, worry about his reputation on his behalf, Jesus scolds them, rebukes them, and forbids them from doing anything that would seek to restore Jesus’s reputation.
Jesus didn’t care one iota about his reputation. And, it seems, neither did Joseph care about his. Both of them, instead, were far more concerned to show unconditional love.
And in the grand scheme of life, past the moments of pain, past the hardships when our reputations are threatened, past the times when we feel the gossip train will run us over; those moments amount to little if we have shown unconditional love in our lives. People can malign us all they want, but if we have loved unconditionally, the impact of gossip to our reputation will be but for a moment. When we are gone, the memory of our lives will be of that unconditional love, not whatever the gossips had to say for a moment.
The promise is there; a promise of restoration of reputation when we act out of unconditional love. No one thinks about Joseph in anyway except that he was a good father to Jesus and a good husband to Mary. All the gossips in Nazareth are long forgotten. All the controversy is lost to us. What remains is Joseph’s right action and example for our lives.
Let that be the case for you: that what remains, long after you’re gone, is that you did the right thing. And the right thing, always, is to act out of unconditional love.
Which means this as well: gossip is never okay. There’s much of that in this town. Scandal creates excitement within us and the temptation to tell someone else. But that’s just what it is: temptation. Which means the proper response to that temptation is to say no to it, pray and tell God that we feel tempted, and then move on with our lives without opening our mouths. Gossip does a ton of damage.
So don’t gossip, ever. And don’t fear for your reputation. The unconditional love you show will carry you through those times when the gossip train threatens to run you over. There will be justice for you one day; there was justice for Joseph and for his adopted son, Jesus. God will restore you; in the mean time be obedient, do the right thing, show unconditional love.
As you go through this Christmas season, as you encounter all the reminders about Jesus and Mary and shepherds and angels, don’t forget Joseph. When you’re tempted to gossip in the future about scandal, don’t; remember Joseph. When someone is talking bad about you, remember Joseph. When you see or hear of someone else who is the target of gossip, remember Joseph. When you fear for your reputation, don’t; remember Joseph.
Remember Joseph for in him is a powerful example of unconditional love, the greatest gift of all.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.