When I was younger, I didn’t mind complicated and messy – especially things that were puzzles to explore, solve, or unravel. I enjoyed things that provided creative moments in which new, imaginative solutions might emerge. But alas, I am no longer as young as I once was. I feel a part within me that longs for quiet, uncomplicated, resolved, still interesting, but not so messy and complicated as before.
King Ahaz from our first reading must like things complicated and messy. He is king of Judah and is trying to walk a tightrope of regional politics between the the 10 northern tribes of Israel, the Syrian kingdom and the regional bad actor and conquering bully – the Assyrian Empire. There are three things the one who occupied David’s throne is not to collect wives, horse or gold. (1) Don’t collect wives – a means of cementing allies who would be obliged to fight for you; (2) Don’t collect horses – a way of saying, don’t build up an army to defend you when your alliances fail; and (3) Don’t collect gold – that is, don’t build up a treasury so that when the other two things fail, you can buy your way out of trouble – and maybe keep your throne. The Prophet Isaiah is on the scene to remind him of the one thing, the only thing, he needs to do: to trust in God and God alone.
Ahaz refuses, offering up the red-herring excuse that he does not presume to test God. Isaiah replies that Ahaz will have a sign whether he asks for it or not, and the sign will be the birth of a child, and the child’s mother will call it Immanuel, meaning “God-with-us.” Now the choice facing Ahaz is even more complicated. Ahaz has already turned away from the God of Israel seeking complicated and messy in other religions to satisfy the demands of his many foreign wives. He sacrificed one of his children, defiled the Jerusalem temple with statues of foreign gods, and things much worse – not suitable for a homily. Because of his wickedness he was not buried in the sepulcher of the kings. He is an ancestor and listed in St. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. It is a messy family tree.
The gospel offers us a counterpoint to Ahaz – Joseph the husband of Mary and father to Jesus, the Immanuel, “God with us.” The Gospel describes Joseph as a “righteous man,” which is to say, a man devoted to God, and concerned with moral, ethical living. I imagine Joseph did not like to make waves, call attention to himself, or brush up against controversy. He’s honest and hardworking. He follows the rules. He practices justice and fairness, and all he wants in exchange is a “normal,” uncomplicated life. Is that too much to ask?
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me. In reading and reflecting upon the Gospel I found a new affinity with Joseph. It made me wonder and consider this largely silent figure of Scripture. Right at the moment he wants simple and peaceful, like Ahaz, he too gets a sign not asked-for and is brought to a moment of choice – of the obedience of faith St Paul describes in the second reading. And his sign is complicated and messy. His fiancée is pregnant, he knows for sure that he is not the father, and suddenly, he has no good options to choose from. If he calls attention to Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she might be stoned to death. If he divorces her quietly, she’ll be reduced to begging or prostitution to support herself and the child. If, on the other hand, he marries her, her son will be Joseph’s heir, instead of his own biological child. The rumors of all this will forever be whispered … and what about Mary’s account to him – that the child is Immanuel – “God with us!”
In choosing Joseph to be Jesus’s earthly father, God led a “righteous” man with an impeccable reputation straight into doubt, shame, scandal, and controversy. God’s call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness, and purity. It required him to become the talk of the town — and not in a good way. It required him to embrace a mess he had not created. To love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son.
In other words, God’s messy plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most. The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable. So much for living a well-ordered life. And yet, he has a willingness to lean into the impossible, to embrace the scandalous, to abandon his own notions of holiness in favor of God’s messy plan of salvation, that allows the miracle of Christmas to unfold.
No wonder that the angel Gabriel’s first words to Joseph were, “Do not be afraid.” If we want to enter into God’s messy story, then perhaps these are the first words we need to hear, too. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid when God’s work in your life looks alarmingly different than you thought it would. Do not be afraid when God upends your cherished assumptions about holiness and faith. Do not be afraid when God asks you to stand alongside the scandalous, the defiled, the suspected, and the shamed. Do not be afraid when God asks you to love something or someone more than your own spotless reputation. Do not be afraid of the precarious, the fragile, the vulnerable, the impossible.
Do not be afraid of the mess. The mess is the place where God is born.
Joseph, silent as he is, inspires me. He gives me hope. Hope that even though I want quiet and peace, perhaps I too can summon up enough holy courage, be not afraid, accept the complications, the randomness, and the chaos of God’s call.
And what I will accept is not a puzzle to be solved, but a salvation and grace to be received gratefully and to watch God’s imaginative redemption be accomplished.