Joseph was a good man, a righteous man.
We know this not only because the Bible tells us so, but also because the story tells us what Joseph did not do. Upon hearing the news that Mary was pregnant and knowing he was not the father, Joseph did not exercise the privilege given him by Jewish law and tradition. You see, he could have had Mary executed by stoning.
Instead, the story says, Joseph planned to divorce Mary quietly—which is to say that he planned to break off their engagement with as little fanfare as possible, the better to protect both Mary and himself from the condemnation of their family and friends.
The story doesn’t tell us much of anything about Joseph, and it tells us nothing about Joseph and Mary’s relationship. Perhaps theirs was an arranged marriage, but it’s also possible that Joseph loved Mary and was even in love with her. In which case the news of her pregnancy did more than disrupt his plans and threaten his reputation; it most likely broke his heart.
As we arrive at this third Sunday of waiting for God’s Love Made Flesh to come to us again, as we begin to reflect on what it means to choose a better way to live and love, it’s worth noting that Joseph hadn’t chosen a bad way. As a good and righteous man faced with a heartbreaking, life-altering situation, he had chosen a good way.
A kind and compassionate—if still somewhat self-protective—way. We don’t know how Joseph got word of Mary’s unplanned pregnancy, but he doesn’t seem to have spoken to Mary herself. And we can’t really blame him for having made some pretty reasonable assumptions. Yet instead of publicly shaming Mary and making her even more vulnerable, he had chosen to, shall we say, let the alleged sinner live while hating her presumed sin.
Again, not a bad way to live—but also not the best, most loving, way.
That, of course, would be God’s way.
That would be the Holy Way, the path to life with God, where the unexpected and even unimaginable can happen, where dry land blossoms, and waters flow in the desert. God’s way leads us home—though we’ve never been there before—to a place where hearts and minds, eyes and ears are healed and opened, lives are transformed, where wonder flourishes, love grows, people come together, and joy abounds.
Not that the journey is easy, mind you. Not that we will arrive quickly at our hoped-for destination.
But you know what they say: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
And so it is with the journey of faith. So it is with preparing the way for God’s justice and peace, restoration and wholeness. So it is with waiting for love and joy to come ‘round again. And so it is with choosing a way that is better than the path of least resistance and most assurance. So it is with choosing not the way that seems clear and predictable, practical and responsible, safe and secure, but the risky Jesus way.
The Jesus way of trust and love, faith and hope, community and caring is both outward-looking and forward-looking. To take first one step, and then another and another on the Jesus way is to live not only for ourselves but also for people and situations we don’t even know, not only for our family and people like us but also for the welfare of all creation and for generations yet to come.
To choose the better way, the Jesus way, is to live with the awareness that what we do (and don’t do) matters; it is to live with intention, to know that actions have consequences, and to trust that God will bless the intentions of our hearts, the works of our hands, and every tiny step we take toward justice and peace.
Now, I know that decision fatigue is real. I know that the privilege of choosing even little things—such as which of 20 different brands of olive oil to buy, which sweater to wear, or what to make for dinner—can feel overwhelming at times. I know that other decisions—what to major in, who to hang out with, whether to reach out to that person we’d like to get to know, whether to have a difficult conversation, how to show up in a painful situation, how to spend our time, whether to buy an electric car or invest in solar panels—can feel so fraught that it becomes hard to do anything at all.
God knows it’s always easier just to go along—to do the thing we’ve always done or the thing everyone else is doing. God knows change is hard and the unknown can be scary. God knows life comes at us so quickly that sometimes it’s all we can do to react to it rather than choose how we will respond.
But not to choose is a choice; not to decide is to decide.
So how do we choose a better way? How do we decide?
Our scriptures are filled with stories of regular people faced with choices. Sometimes their choices were prompted by nothing more than expediency, desire, resentment, ambition, or fear: Think Abraham banishing Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness; King David taking Bathsheba in adultery and then sending her husband to his death; Judas offering to betray Jesus; Peter denying Jesus three times.
Sometimes their choices were informed by their sense of duty and obedience: Think Abraham taking the wood for the burnt offering and laying it upon his son Isaac; Moses returning to Egypt to liberate his people and lead them to the Promised Land; the shepherd boy David confronting Goliath.
And then their were those who chose the better way, who decided according to their love for others and their hope for the future: Think Joseph choosing to rescue the very brothers who had left him to die; Ruth choosing to leave her home and go with Naomi to a foreign land; Mary and Joseph choosing to say yes to God’s daring and dangerous plan; twelve ordinary men, a few extraordinary women, and many unnamed people choosing to accept Jesus’s invitation to build God’s realm of peace and justice here on earth; Jesus choosing nonviolent surrender rather than fighting so that all people through all time might know the power of love.
To choose the better way is not to choose the safest or most expedient thing, but to choose what is most loving. To choose the better way is not to settle for what’s best for us now but to live in such a way as to make the best future possible for our grandchildren and their grandchildren, for people, flora, and fauna all over the earth.
Now, I trust that God’s grace is at work in every situation and that, ultimately, God’s love will prevail no matter what we decide. But our actions can determine both the length and the quality of the journey: for how long the climate crisis will continue to wreak havoc upon the earth, for how long and to what extent hatred and fear of the “other”—people of color, refugees and immigrants, trans folks, women’s bodies, Jews and Muslims—will be stoked to maintain unjust power.
And choosing the better way is about so much more than the cosmic struggle between good and evil. Choosing to live by love and hope is also about opening our lives to joy and peace. It is about partnering with God in the work of redemption and empowerment, becoming co-creators with God of beloved community.
I can’t know exactly what informed Joseph’s choice to take Mary as his wife, but I know he chose the better way and I’m pretty sure that on that night when Jesus was born, when angels sang and poor shepherds gathered around, he experienced more joy than he ever knew existed.
I can’t know what all the consequences of our decisions will be, but I trust that when we choose love for God, love for our neighbors, and love for creation, everlasting joy will be upon our heads. We will come home with singing; we shall know joy and gladness; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Thanks be to God.