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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
A Meditation on Joseph
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
You must be people of the present, you must live this moment—really live it, not just endure it—because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.
Walter J. Burghardt
Presbyterian poet Ann Weems has a fantastic Christmas poem about Joseph. She begins this way:
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand at the back of the crèche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?
(Ann Weems, “Getting to the Front of the Stable,” Kneeling in Bethlehem, pp. 52-53.)
The first time I read those lines, nativity sets from my past flashed before my eyes. I thought of one we had when I was a child. I remember what Mary looked like kneeling by the manger in her blue robe, her face holding a contemplative gaze. I remember the little baby Jesus, his bundled body surrounded by fake hay. I even remember the sheep and the cows and the Angel Gabriel was always around. But Joseph? I have no idea what his face looked like or the color of his garments. He just blended in. It probably did not help that, as Weems indicated, we did always place Joseph, staff in hand, somewhere in the back of the scene. We’d put Mary up front and center with the baby, her baby, God’s baby. Joseph, though, usually ended up somehow mixed in with all the shepherds, like an extra on a movie set—more background scenery than anything else.
It’s no wonder, though, why we forget about Joseph. If your church follows the lectionary, as we do here at Fourth, we only hear his side of the story once every three years, when we read Matthew’s Gospel. Yet perhaps this is the year to reconsider the way we treat Joseph. For had he not willingly made his own leap of faith, Jesus’ story might have begun very differently.
Let’s keep in mind what was going on: Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. But back then, engagement was not just a promise. It was a contractual, legal agreement. Thus, if you were engaged, you were already considered husband and wife, even though you were still living apart. To be engaged meant papers had been signed. Families had all agreed. Everything was in order. After one became engaged, the only way to get out of the marriage was through death or the court system.
And it was precisely in the middle of that legal process when Mary was found to be pregnant and Joseph knew he was not the father. That discovery meant Joseph faced a hard choice. He was a righteous man, deeply faithful. He knew his Scripture and he followed the religious law as best as he could. But a strict interpretation of that law, though—found in Deuteronomy 22—implied Joseph had only two options in response to Mary’s assumed infidelity. He could call for capital punishment by stoning, a choice Jewish scholars point out was rarely made even back then, or he could publicly shame and divorce Mary, a decision people would have expected but one that still would inevitably brand both Mary and the child as outcasts, impacting their lives forever.
Joseph thought long and hard about it. And then he settled on a compromise of sorts. I bet he prayed on it. He would divorce Mary quietly, without the big public show, so they could all move on with their lives with some dignity. Now, he must have recognized his compromise would not be welcomed by everyone, especially biblical literalists who’d point him back to a strict reading of Deuteronomy 22 and accuse him of being unfaithful, unrighteous.
But even though Joseph knew his decision could hurt his reputation, he still decided to move forward in that gentler way. And his decision to do so is intriguing. Why was he willing to take that risk? The angel had not shown up yet to give him the inside scoop about what was going on in Mary. Therefore, what empowered him to make that decision?
I believe Joseph took the risk because of who he was as a person of faith, and because of what he had learned from his own family tree. A family tree that we, ourselves, can explore, like Joseph must have done in his own life. Though we did not read it this morning, Matthew begins his Gospel by giving us Joseph’s genealogy, his family tree. And in good Gospel writer fashion, Matthew did not simply list Joseph’s ancestors. Rather, Matthew wrote theology into this genealogy because the Gospel writer wanted to make sure that as we traced the generations and recalled their stories, we would be given some clues about God, Joseph, and the baby, clues Joseph must have already known.
Our first impression of the genealogy is that it is a tidy one. It is neatly divided into three equal sets of generations. Each set is punctuated by a major figure or event from Jewish history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David. Fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile. Fourteen generations from the exile to Jesus. Such tidiness implies Matthew wanted to remind us that despite appearances to the contrary, we are called to trust with all our might that our world is not running out of control, ruled merely by chaos and chance.
Now I recognize that is a statement of faith that might be difficult to make today, in light of the stories coming out of Allepo this week and the court hearing of Dylan Roof in South Carolina. But it would have been difficult to make that statement of faith back in Joseph’s time too, given the Roman occupation and the way Rome used violence and threat to tightly control the lives of people like Joseph and Mary. Nevertheless, Matthew wanted us to remember that all of history, all of our stories, unfolds under the providential care of a God who has promised to be with us in the midst of it all, no matter what.
Due to his faith and his family history, Joseph would have known this character trait of his God. He would have known God’s deep care for the world and for people. He believed the God of his ancestors could be trusted to follow through on God’s promises in God’s time and in God’s way. Furthermore, from his family history, Joseph also knew some other things: things that might have contributed to his courageous decision to go against the grain when it came to Mary and this baby. For just as Joseph knew of God’s dependability, he also knew God had an appetite for surprise from time to time. Again, the family tree gives us a hint.
When we look beyond the tidiness of it all, we see messiness purposefully embedded. Joseph’s genealogy holds some unlikely characters: characters named Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. We should already be scandalized just by that recognition. Women were rarely named in genealogies. Yet just as interesting as their gender identity are their ethnicities and stories. Only one of them was an Israelite—and that one, Bathsheba, married a Gentile named Uriah. Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth were all Gentiles, people considered to be outside of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. Yet, there they were—all four women named in a family tree that stretched all the way back to Father Abraham and traveled right up to Jesus.
And if we were to read the stories of these four women, we would see that each of them represented a shift in Joseph’s family’s history, an unexpected turn. Apparently, God’s pattern for history does not only run in straight lines. Rather, God’s pattern for history is full of twists, turns, and loops. Just when we anticipate what might happen next, God changes course and we are [once] again surprised (Tom Long, Matthew, p. 11). Joseph knew this about God. God was both dependable and faithful, but God also sometimes liked to reveal those things in unexpected ways, especially if it let more love loose into the world.
So given who Joseph was and the family history from whence he had come, his behavior with Mary, then, ought not be a complete surprise. His family tree had taught him that God is full of mercy beyond our deserving; that God is constantly calling us towards freedom and life; and that God is never content to let us stay where we are, but always pushing and prodding us into deeper faithfulness, deeper risk, and deeper covenant keeping. Thus, when Joseph came face to face with the assumed betrayal of his fiancé, he possessed the faith tools, the courage to choose to be for Mary’s life and for the life of the child. He decided to obey the heart of the law, interpreting his scripture not through the lens of literalism, but through the lens of God’s mercy and surprising newness, a lens bestowed upon him by his family history. He decided to dismiss Mary quietly.
But just as soon as he made his choice; just as soon as his soul found enough peace to rest, here comes the angel. And the first words from the angel’s mouth: Don’t be afraid. Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid. Before even telling Joseph the entire awkward truth about Jesus and how he had been created in Mary, the angel first wanted to make sure that Joseph was not afraid.
For God knew Joseph was stepping out into new territory. God knew what Joseph was going to do was enough to get him into trouble with the serious religious people. And choosing to stay with Mary and the baby was just step one in a long and dangerous journey yet to unfold. But God also knew Joseph was up for the task. Joseph was a righteous man. He knew who he was as a person of faith. Joseph trusted in his God, a God of providential care and steadfast faithfulness, who also took joy in using unconventional people to do God’s work of justice and love. Thus when Joseph woke up from his dream, he quietly followed the angel’s instructions. What might that first conversation between Mary and Joseph have been like?
If Mary was the first disciple, Joseph was certainly the second one. They both model faith for us. They were both deeply courageous, each in their own way. They trusted in God’s ability to be God despite any appearances to the contrary, despite the fact they lived in a world full of terror and gloom, as we do. Both Mary and Joseph, through their lives and their witness, teach us about God and about who we are called to be in response—people rooted in trust and courage; people who step out in faith and live boldly believing that God’s Love really will have the last word on all things; people constantly trying to remain open to discern and receive God’s sometimes scandalous surprises—surprises that will lead us into fuller, more abundant, whole-hearted lives; surprises that will lead this world into its salvation, into its healing, into its own “be not afraid” way of being, into embodying God’s peace for all. Finally.
Therefore, with our new appreciation for Joseph, let listen to the rest of the poem with which we began and see if we might learn anything else about who we are called to become.
God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of the stable?
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds or kings.
When he wasn’t in the doorway,
he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,
gently covering her with his cloak,
assuring her that he would watch the Child.
Actually he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.
This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed the Christ Child.
As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance
at this Child
who brought us life.