St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL December 22, 2013
In this season, we spend a lot of time focused on Mary and the baby Jesus and often overlook Joseph and his role in the very first Christmas; a role that is inspirational and begins to define how we might live in this world, a role that for Mary begins to define her Prince Charming.
As a little girl I bought into the Disney version of a Prince Charming who would come and rescue me some day from the dreary circumstances of my existence”of course, my circumstances weren’t quite so dreary and I really didn’t need rescuing from anything”but I bought into that whole idea that there was a perfect man out there who would ride into the picture on his white horse and carry me off to live a fairy tale life. It only took one or two boys to make me realize I would have to kiss a lot of frogs to find that perfect prince and I became somewhat disenchanted with the whole idea of a Prince Charming.
I’m also not quite sure it was very fair of me to hold the men in my life up to the standard of a Prince Charming. After all, Prince Charming is a fictional character, an ideal dreamed up by romantics that few could attain. Life is messy and Charming cannot simply ride in and swoop a lady away from that messiness, often he has to get off his high horse and get down in the muck of that messiness. Maybe in dreaming about the perfect man, I have to do more than sing, some day my prince will come, maybe I have to think about what he will do when he arrives.
So what makes a perfect man? Well, if Charming has taught me anything, its that the perfect man has to show up and when he does, I want him to be attentive and considerate. A little dash of humility might be nice as well as some humor.
Having integrity would certainly be a plus, as would honesty, and a strong work ethic”though not a work-aholic, I want someone who is going to value me as much as his job, maybe even more so. I would want him to be thoughtful, even a little romantic. He would be a good listener, and instead of trying to always solve my problems, recognize that it’s not the problem I need help solving, its compassion and concern I truly desire.
I need someone I can trust, who is as loyal as a hound dog, and wants to be my friend and partner. The perfect man is faithful and God-fearing, living and upholding his life and that of those around him according to the standard he believes God has designed for him. The perfect man plays by the rules, but is also aware and willing to break them when he needs too. I’m sure the list could, and does, go on and on”but I think you get the idea, the perfect man is not defined by looks and fashion, he is defined by his actions and personality, at least for me.
The qualities and characteristics of the perfect man probably differ depending on whom you ask. And as we are sure to remind ourselves, there was only one perfect man and he lived a little over two thousand years ago before ascending into Heaven. The rest of us, know matter how close we might come, will always miss the mark of perfection, but we try and as we try, we discover that there is no exact way, no perfect set of rules for us to follow in order to achieve perfection. What most of us end up discovering is that perfection is clouded by uncertainty and complicated by the unexpected twists and turns of life.
Joseph discovered just that in his betrothal to Mary. Here is a man who is honest, hard working, a righteous man, we are told, but one who exercises compassion and concern”unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. He has a quiet confidence and a dose of humility”he plans to dismiss Mary quietly, not make a big deal of her supposed adultery, because what else can it be? He has had no marital relations with her and yet, here she is pregnant.
Instead of divorcing her with accusations of infidelity that would lead to her being stoned, he would step out of the picture quietly. Yes, she will have to learn to live with the shame she has drawn upon herself, but he will not be a party to her public humiliation. And he must do this, he is a righteous man”a man who upholds the law at all costs, a man who follows the rules, not to hurt another person, or judge them, but in order to minimize the guilt of sin that could so easily infect the community.
To be righteous, to uphold the law, is to be concerned with the life of the Jewish community”if sin is allowed to enter in one place, how can it be stopped from entering in someplace else and if that continues how can this people be righteous in the eyes of God, the God they have failed so many times in the past, the God they have not obeyed, have not trusted, the God they have wearied as the prophet Isaiah says in the Old Testament lesson.
To live as a righteous man, an upright man, means to act according to the law, even when it is devastating and means the dismissal of one you may love. And so, this is what Joseph plans to do”dismiss the one he is betrothed too, the one he loves”because he is a righteous man.
But, thankfully, this is not the end of the story, because more than just a righteous man, Joseph is a faithful man. He falls asleep and is visited by an angel who, in a dream, tells him that the child his betrothed carries is a holy child, a fulfillment of prophecy for the Jewish people; he is Emmanuel, God with us.
He is also told not to fear how these circumstances will reflect on his standing as a righteous man, in other words, not to worry about what others will think or what it means to uphold the letter of the law, something bigger than the law is happening here”do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife because this is the faithful response to God and sometimes the faithful response is much more important than the righteous response. And Joseph, being a righteous man, but even more so, a faithful man takes his wife home”a response full of humility, compassion, concern, loyalty and trust.
Joseph comes closest to that mark of perfection not because he looked a certain way but because his actions reflect that it is not his will but God’s that is his primary concern. Joseph has operated as a righteous man throughout his life. He has always done the right thing, but now he must step out on faith, he must take a risk.
If Joseph is Prince Charming, and I kinda think he comes pretty darn close, when he rode in on his white horse he got down into the muck of messiness that would be his and Mary’s life. He didn’t sweep her away or turn the horse around and ride off, but discovered that to live as the perfect man, he had to scrap his ideals and become faithful to God’s call to him.
Joseph offers us an example in dealing with our own ideals of perfection. Here is a man who’s own idea of the perfect Christmas has been blotted by accusations of infidelity, premarital pregnancy, divorce, potential public disgrace, and scandal”and that’s just the first Christmas. But his response has been humility, faithfulness, and trust in the God who acts in strange and mysterious ways.
And Matthew is laying the foundation for the faithful response. Here at the beginning of his Gospel, at the beginning of the Christian story, Joseph is asked to choose between faithfulness and righteousness. That choice will be reflected again and again throughout the ministry of Jesus who distinguishes faithfulness through relationship versus righteousness through keeping the law.
What will our response be this Christmas when things don’t go the way we have planned, when nothing seems to measure up to our own ideas of perfection? Unlike Joseph, we are probably not going to have an angel of the Lord appear to us in a dream and tell us what to do, but we do have a choice between the righteous response and the faithful one”the response based on law and expectation or the response based on prayer and discernment.
So maybe the question is not what makes a perfect man, but what makes a perfect response? The perfect response is the person who shows up, sees the situation, and wades into the messiness because he or she recognizes that a faithful life is not a perfect life, instead it is a life in which failure and wrong actions are countered with humility and compassion; where rules must sometimes be broken; where sometimes, maybe even most of the time, we must let go of our need to be right because being in relationship is what matters most.