During Advent we will continue to hear stories from characters present at the birth of Jesus. This week we heard Joseph’s story.

Matthew 1:18-25 Common English Bible (CEB)

Birth of Jesus

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.[a]

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

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This is our second week of Advent. Advent’s a season of waiting, expectation, preparing. In a couple of weeks we’ll talk about Mary literally expecting a child, but this week we’re going to focus on Joseph.

Joseph and Mary are engaged. At the time you didn’t break an engagement. It was as final as a marriage. She’s living with her father and it’s his job to guard her “purity” until she goes to live with Joseph.

And then Mary gets pregnant.

And she says she hasn’t slept with anyone. She’s got this wild excuse about the Holy Spirit.

It was unbelievable then, and for most of us it’s unbelievable now.

I want to pause here for a minute because this virgin birth thing is so hard for so many of us. The traditional doctrine is that Mary and God made Jesus who is therefore literally human and divine. It’s sort of a math equation: 1 human + 1 god = 1 Jesus. It’s got some logic. For folks two thousand years ago the shocking part wasn’t that Jesus came from God. Special people were said to come from gods all the time, people like Caesar Augustus, people with lots of power and status. But here a poor woman living in occupied Palestine with no status is said to be carrying God’s son. The radical part for folks back then wasn’t that it happened, but who it happened to.

For us, though, even if that’s neat, it may not be enough to overcome our skepticism and discomfort with a literal virgin birth. How does it even work? And if Jesus is conceived in a way that’s different from every other human, then how is he really human? Instead of reinforcing the incarnation, it ends up undermining it. Fair questions.

Here’s what I think: I don’t think there’s a bad interpretation here. Aside from an interpretation that elevates virginity and says that’s the most holy state for a women. Besides that, though, I think any interpretation you take here can be fruitful. If you love the traditional interpretation that this is a wild miracle, an affirmation of God’s power and God’s solidarity with the poor, then that’s beautiful. Hold on to that. But if you think it’s more likely Mary got pregnant the usual way, with Joseph, or with some other man, then that affirms that God is born even in scandal, and every child born is from the Holy Spirit. That’s pretty amazing, too, that this is how God comes to us—in ordinary birth and scandal. So, honestly, I don’t think there’s a bad way to turn.

Of course, all of this is philosophical speculation. At the time it was just a mess. Mary was pregnant, and she shouldn’t be.

This is a horrible assault on Joseph’s honor. Even if this pregnancy isn’t the result of infidelity, even if it’s the result of Mary and Joseph fooling around before they were supposed to, when it gets out it’s still an assault on Joseph’s honor. She should not be pregnant before she lives with him. And it’s an assault to her father’s honor, too.

Joseph has the right, legally, to bring her out of her father’s house and have her killed.

But he chooses not to do that. He swallows some of his pride, and decides he just won’t marry her. He’ll break the engagement. Of the choices he had, this is the kinder choice. But it still has consequences. It’ll be harder, maybe impossible, for Mary to make another match. The child will be born a bastard. Mary’s father may cast her out or kill her himself.

What she’s done—getting pregnant right under their noses—is so offensive, so shameful for Joseph and her father, that the only way they can re-enter society is to distance themselves from Mary.

We don’t stone people anymore. But we do have this dynamic where our ideas or culture limits us, and when someone violates those limits, we don’t really have any option but to distance ourselves from them.

I’ve been thinking about when a politician makes a comment that doesn’t toe the party line, and then members of their own party attack them. Because they’ve threatened the image, the integrity, the purity of the party. This happens on both sides. The integrity, the image, the identity of the party has to be maintained. So when someone challenges that, they have to be attacked. There’s just not another option.

Joseph had to divorce Mary. There just wasn’t another option. If he didn’t reject her, he wouldn’t be accepted back into society, not by his family, his town, or anyone who hears what he’s done.

Culture constrains us all, in all sorts of ways. It limits our options. It limited Joseph as much as it limited Mary, maybe more. We don’t talk about this very often, but our culture, like Joseph’s, limits men, just as it limits women.

A male friend of mine told me about an experience in seminary of being asked to form two circles, one with women in the center and another with men around the outside. Women were asked to talk about all the things they loved about being women and then all the things they found difficult. Then they switched spots, and it was men’s turn. My friend said nearly every single man said his greatest pain in being a man was how difficult it was to form close, vulnerable friendships with other men.

Because our culture values strength and self-sufficiency and stoicism in men, any sign of vulnerability is just kind of embarrassing. That makes forming close friendships hard. Men just aren’t conditioned to form close, vulnerable relationships.

There are a lot of you here who have formed those close, intimate friendships, and it’s beautiful. And I think we all know it’s rare and counter-cultural. Our culture can really limit us.

That’s what this need to preserve honor or appear strong does to men. It’s limiting. One of the men in our congregation has told me that in his experience anger is the only strong emotion that is culturally appropriate for men to express in public. Anything else is weak. That’s tough. Our culture limits us. The same dynamic underlies the difficulty men can experience in having relationships with women, or gay men, or transfolks. And it perpetuates rape, abuse, and violence. There are so many ways our culture shapes us and limits us.

We’ve discovered this in the world of children’s clothing. Dynamics of gender, shame, honor, and weakness are alive and well in children’s clothing. I have a boy and a girl. Zoë can wear anything she wants to. I can shop for her from the boy’s section or the girl’s section. Nobody bats an eye. But shopping for boys is different. It’s almost inconceivable to put a boy in a ruffled, shimmery top. We often put Isaac in glittery leggings because he absolutely loves them. And, I mean, glittery leggings are pretty awesome. We should all be wearing them. But when I pick them out I wonder if people will laugh. He used to have pink tennis shoes. They were darling. I will be delighted the next time he picks out pink tennis shoes. But I watched older boys laugh at him on the playground for wearing pink shoes. He was 2. He didn’t care, or notice. But how limiting is our culture when 2 year old’s can’t wear certain colors? Because they’ll look like a girl? And that’s bad? They’ll look weak? I don’t know. I don’t really understand it. But it is clear something about our culture is limiting our options, particularly for men—just as much as Joseph’s culture limited him.

Fred Rogers is one of the most unquestionably good people I know of. The documentary about him was great. It gave me hope for the world. But in the documentary they tell the story of François Clemmons who played the police officer on the show. François was gay. When he was outed, Mr. Rogers didn’t fire him. He could have. Some told him he should’ve. But he didn’t. Fred was a good man. What he did do, though, was require François to stay quiet, to not go to clubs, to not live as himself publicly, in any way. If he wanted to keep his job, that’s what he had to do. This had painful lifelong consequences for François. Fred Rogers didn’t fire him. That’s something. But even so, he couldn’t risk being associated with someone who so violated the norms of the day. He would have been tainted by association, and the whole show, too. I think Fred Rogers felt like he didn’t really have another option.

That was Joseph’s problem, too. I think he’s a genuinely good man. But the only option he could figure out that would preserve his honor, not make him look weak, was to break the engagement, even though it was going to hurt Mary. There just wasn’t another option.

That’s when the Spirit breaks in. Because God wanted more options for Joseph—not just the ones his culture gives him. Joseph has a dream, a wild dream. In the dream the Spirit opens a whole new possibility for Joseph. He could choose Mary. It became an option. In spite of the shame. That shame would only define him if he let it. The Spirit reminded him of what was always true—he was free, profoundly free. He didn’t have to live by any rule or custom that he didn’t consent to. They had options. There would be consequences, of course. He and Mary would live on the margins, with other radicals and outcasts. But those weren’t the only consequence. Because the Spirit gave him options, he also received love, and life, the gift of fatherhood, and a relationship with Mary of freedom and mutuality.

The Spirit arrived and set Joseph free. The Spirit still does that. She blows through and blows away the habits and constructs and values that limit our options.

So, the question for us this week as we prepare for the birth of Jesus, is how do you want to be set free? What’s holding you captive? Where do you feel like there are just no good options? How do you want to be set free?

If you want to be free to wear glittery leggings, well then, by all means. If you want to be free of being a man in a certain way, or being a woman in a certain way, the Spirit can set you free. If you want to be free to be vulnerable—no matter your gender, the Spirit can do that, bit by bit. If you wish you could be free from shame, then breathe deep and feel the Spirit cleanse you. If you want to be free to speak the truth, then stand tall and feel that fierce Spirit in every word you speak.

The Spirit comes to set us free. Jesus was born to liberate us. He was liberating Joseph even before he was born. That gospel power of liberation is still at work.

So, how do you want to be set free?