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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19
In the Christian tradition, Joseph is a carpenter. In spiritual teaching, carpentry is the way we pull together the pieces of life, fashioning a home for our truth. Joseph the carpenter is at work here, trying to build a response of love in a world of law.
The Scripture lesson this morning, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, is taken from Matthew 1:18. Before I read today’s lesson, I‘d like you to open your pew bibles again to the first chapter of Matthew so that we can look at something together.
Today’s reading starts at verse eighteen but the entire section that comes before today’s reading—verses one through seventeen—contains Jesus’ genealogy, the listing of the ancestors that came before Jesus, stemming all the way back to Abraham. If you scan verses one through seventeen, you'll quickly see that they are filled with names.
A genealogy like this was common in stories in ancient times, especially when the main character was considered a hero. Genealogies were found in stories of all sorts, not just scripture. Jesus’ genealogy is Matthew’s way of declaring and confirming that Jesus, the one his community had claimed as Messiah, was descended from the line of King David, as the prophets had predicted over and over again. In verse six, you'll see the mention of King David. Following that verse, there is the listing of the rest of the ancestors all the way to verse sixteen which concludes with, “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
It is curious that Jesus, son of Mary, is included in that long line related to David, not because of blood or DNA, but instead because of his adoptive father Joseph. It is Joseph who is related to King David by bloodline. Jesus shows up in this genealogy by virtue of adoption. Already, this is an unconventional story. Already we have a clue about what Joseph is going to be asked to do.
Then, starting at verse eighteen, we’re told that we’re going to hear how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place. "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way." But we really don’t end up hearing anything about the actual birth—nothing about Mary’s labor pains, nothing about how long the labor was, nothing about the trip to the stable and the traffic on the way, nothing about the first few minutes of Jesus’ life. What we hear about instead is Joseph and his struggle when he found out Mary was pregnant, and the way God called him to something more than what he ever dreamed was possible.
So much of the messiness of Joseph and Mary's situation is left out of these verses, so much of the emotion, so much of the internal struggle.
My hope is that between now and Christmas, when you look at those nativity scenes some of you have , you’ll spend some time looking at Joseph in those scenes, and Mary, too, imagining the emotion and the internal struggle for both of them. I hope you’ll see beyond the peaceful display in those scenes. There's messiness in this story we're about to read and there's messiness in those nativity scenes, all kinds of life’s messiness, all kinds of internal struggle for two human beings whose life as they planned it wasn't going at all the way they would have expected. The listing of their names in a genealogy is just that, a listing of names, but there is so much more behind each one of those names.
And so, the reading. Matthew 1:18.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, ” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
The word of the Lord.
Joseph heard Mary was pregnant. He knew he wasn’t the father. This young girl to whom he’d been engaged must have cheated on him. Holy Spirit? Right! What a mess.
Some of you might already be struggling with this story because you don't swallow the whole concept of the virgin birth, I understand. I remember a time when I would skip that part of the Apostles Creed because I didn't want to say anything I didn't believe. We all have to wrestle with the concept and either we decide to believe it as a matter of faith, without understanding, or we decide it's really not important to us one way or another, or we decide it's meant to signify that God was doing something really extraordinary in this birth of Jesus, or I could go on with a multitude of choices. At some point in our faith journeys, the circumstances of Jesus' birth is something we all have to wrestle with in some way. But it's ironic that in this day and age, there are numerous births that aren't the result of human intercourse. Science has made that possible. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that Jesus' birth was the result of one of today's modern scientific techniques. But I am suggesting that there's so much more to this story that we are at risk of missing if we get stuck on one part of it.
When Joseph was told of Mary’s pregnancy, it would have been most common for him to take her to court. He was engaged to her. Their engagement was a legal and contractual arrangement with legal obligations as firm as marriage, even though during an engagement the couple was not to have lived together or to have had marital relations. Once an engaged man found out that his fiancé was pregnant and if he knew he wasn’t the father, not only would he take her to court to be divorced and to be paid a monetary sum in recompense, but in some cases he could have urged a stoning of the woman.
This was the law and this was the society's norm. The laws were meant to restore the honor of the one who had been shamed. Mary’s pregnancy was shaming to Joseph. The implementation of the law on Joseph’s behalf, a divorce, would reduce his shame and restore his honor.
We have hints already that Joseph was a good guy. He decided to avoid court and to dismiss her quietly, probably with certificates of divorce—a much quieter process than court would be. So that she wouldn't have to be shamed more than necessary. And that would be that. His honor would be restored. She wouldn’t be shamed more than necessary and the whole arrangement would be over and done, null and void.
But here’s where we need to imagine all the other stuff that is left out of the story. The fear that Mary must have had and the confusion. The disgrace that was heaped upon her. The undeserved blame. The struggle Joseph had to have endured in making this decision. The pain of what looked to him like betrayal. The anger. The embarrassment. I wonder what words were spoken between Mary and Joseph, or between Joseph and Mary’s parents, or between Joseph and his parents. I would imagine that Joseph’s decision to end this contract of betrothal quietly instead of taking her to court or having her stoned would have caused him some trouble with his guy friends. That many of them would have considered Joseph to be weak, a pushover—“Look what she did to you!”
It was a messy situation. The pregnancy was a scandal. Jesus' very beginning was a scandal.
And then this plan that Joseph made, the way he planned to divorce Mary, all within the law, was scuttled. Once again, life wasn't going as Joseph was trying to orchestrate it. Just as he resolved to dismiss her quietly—an angel showed up in a dream and that always means more trouble. Don’t be afraid, Joseph, take this woman as your wife. The child is from the Holy Spirit. You are to adopt him, to name him Jesus, because you are part of my plan. And he is part of my plan. Name him Jesus because the name means he will save his people from their sins.
John Shea says that when that angel appeared in that dream, “Joseph wakes up. This means more than he arises from physical sleep" (John Shea, Matthew: On Earth as It Is in Heaven, p. 44). It means he now perceives God in what has happened. In that dream, and because of God, Joseph was stretched to embrace a route most would have considered unconventional. He suddenly saw that God's will was more important than his own honor.
I think of people who speak out for the sake of others at great risk. Or protest on behalf of those whose rights are being taken away by a system of laws bigger than they are. I think of the times when we somehow find strength to keep quiet about someone else’s innocent mistake, so as to protect them, to resist the temptation to make ourselves look good at their expense. Joseph woke up from that dream and understood that God’s will was more important than his honor. God's will is more important than societal norms. God's will sometimes looks like scandal to the rest of the world.
A good friend of mine lost her twenty-four-year-old son some years ago to a form of cancer. At the time he was diagnosed, he had just recently moved in with his girlfriend. Eventually, as his condition worsened, my friend and her husband moved their son back to their home, where they could help with their son’s care. But they also opened their doors to his girlfriend, too. For a good many months both their son and his girlfriend shared the same room, lived together in his parents’ house. Some looked askance at my friends’ decision. After all, they weren't married. They weren't even engaged. It was messy. Life was not going as they expected. Eventually he died at the age of twenty-six. After his death, my friend and her husband continued to be close to their son’s girlfriend. They had all gone through so much together. A few years later, after a fair amount of grief, the girlfriend fell in love again. My friend and her husband were invited to the wedding. They went. I saw pictures posted on Facebook, as they surrounded their dead son’s former girlfriend, someone they thought would one day be their daughter-in-law, on her wedding day to someone else. I stared at the looks in both of their eyes in those pictures. It was the same kind of look you sometimes see in paintings of Jesus: joy and sorrow all mingled up together. I admired my friend and her husband for the way they let themselves be stretched during this time, making decisions beyond societal norms, beyond bloodline and family membership and beyond what was conventional. I admired them for the way they let love and Spirit fuel their decisions rather than law or norm.
Those nativity scenes of ours don’t show the messiness of life. They don’t portray the internal struggles of conscience when it seems that God is calling us to act in ways that don't jive with what societal norms have prescribed. John Shea writes, “Joseph is a carpenter. In spiritual teaching, we could say that carpentry is the way we pull together the pieces of life, fashioning a home for our truth. Joseph is the carpenter at work here, trying to build a response of love in a world of law.”
To build a response of love in a world of law. It's what Joseph did. It's what most of us want to do. How do we do that today? When so much seems to be so messy. Parker Palmer wrote recently, "This year is proving to be a challenge. How do we celebrate the Good News at a time when the news is so relentlessly bad, celebrate the light at a time of deepening darkness?" (Parker Palmer, “Bringing Christmas Back to Earth,” December 14, 2016).
Maybe it's simply to remember that there's mess involved. That Jesus came into that mess to save his people from the power of their sins, and that Jesus, the one who saves, is also Emmanuel, the one who is with us—in all of the emotion and struggle and failure and regret. And to remember Joseph. How he fashioned a home for Jesus, how he tried to build a response of love in a world of law. John Buchanan once preached a sermon here and said in that sermon "Hail Mary. Hail Joseph too. They are both full of grace." May it be so with us. Amen.