Sunday, December 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Joseph"

Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.  (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Comes Alive in Advent,” Week Three

The blackboards sat out at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan—world headquarters of NBC—waiting for people to write out on it what kindness meant to them.

A piece of Christmas kitsch if ever there was one, and to be sure, it did produce some heartwarming entries: selfless service to others, making everybody feel like somebody, and even simply, daughters.

But other entries were, well, a bit trite: doing something nice every day.  Paying it forward.  Compassion.  Refilling the toilet paper (that one was apparently Al Roker’sfavorite).

And it got me thinking: can we actually define kindness?  Is that something we are genuinely able and equipped to do?  I feel like we should be able to, I really do.  And I say that in part because of someone like Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, who does not try to define kindness with his words—if you read Matthew’s entire account, Joseph is actually never quoted at all—but with his actions, and specifically his actions towards his betrothed beloved, Mary.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, we’ll be doing so by going through the characters one by one in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth.  We began with the angels, and not just any angels, but the archangel Gabriel and His message to Mary that she is to bear a child who will one day bear the name Son of the Most High.  Last week, we moved on to the shepherds, in their role as the first human heralds of Christ’s birth, and we heard from the adult Jesus in John 10 on the role a good shepherd must embrace.

Today we begin talking about Jesus’s earthly parents, beginning today with Joseph before wrapping up the series next week (already?!) with Mary.  While Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph in telling the Christmas story, Luke’s Gospel focuses on Mary, so they provide an interesting contrast of sorts as we go from one to the other, starting with Joseph.

Joseph is, like the shepherds we talked about last week, something of a blue-collar nobody.  He’s a carpenter, presumably a competent one, otherwise you’d find it difficult to imagine Mary’s family allowing her betrothal to him if he didn’t have enough business to be able to provide for her (“No, Mary, you cannot marry him, he’s like a Cub Scout on the first day of whittling class!”).  And even though he is, as Luke will point out, of the house and line of David, he is nobody famous or rich.

Joseph, then, is not so different from you or me.  He’s average, ordinary, the Israelite John Smith.  But he is equipped with at least something of a moral compass, and he is required to use it when he discovers that his fiancĂ©e Mary is pregnant (although, not for nothing, but couldn’t Gabriel have just shown up *before* the Holy Spirit impregnates Mary, so that she and Joseph don’t have to go through the uncertainty that follows?).

Betrothal in ancient Israel wasn’t quite like engagement today—our current understanding of engagement is of something that can be broken off for any number of reasons, like incompatibility, disagreement over whether to have children, or discovering that your beloved still collects Beanie Babies.

Betrothal, by contrast, could only be broken off as a result of infidelity, which is what Joseph naturally expects has occurred when Mary shows up ready to be the next star of Teen Mom.  Joseph is then left with, to simplify things a bit, three choices: he can pretend the child is his and raise it as his own, he can divorce Mary and have her stoned as an adulteress, or he can divorce her quietly.

If Joseph does the noble thing and takes the child as his own, he is potentially sacrificing his family’s entire estate—assets, net worth, everything—because of the Israelite laws concerning double inheritances for firstborn male heirs.  If Joseph and Mary do not produce a male heir themselves, then all of Joseph’s family property—his home, his business, his tools, all of it—passes on to someone not of his bloodline.  While it may seem selfish to us today to take something like this into account when a baby and mother’s lives are at stake, Joseph has to consider being able to provide for his extended family in a time when there was no such thing as Social Security or a safety net.

If Joseph divorces Mary and makes it public—keep in mind that, as I said, the only reason a betrothal was typically broken off was because of infidelity, so it wouldn’t be like Joseph would have to spell it out for people—then Mary and her unborn child are stoned to death, something terribly cruel and barbaric on face, and something that said unborn child would actually go on to prevent as an adult when, in John 8, he is presented with a woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned.

So Joseph fashions for himself a compromise: he will divorce Mary, but he will do so quietly, almost in secret, so that while legally, he is free to remarry to someone with whom he can have a legitimate heir, Mary is at least given a chance at survival.  It will be a hard life for her—she may not ever be able to marry and to enjoy the financial security that comes from marriage (and back in ancient Israel, lacking that stability would decrease your expected life span on its own), but at least she won’t be killed on spec.  While we may have wanted to see Joseph be prepared to accept this child as his own, this is for him—with the morality of his time—the most palatable of three distinct evils.

Of course, then an angel does in fact swoop in to tell Joseph that everything is copacetic, and Joseph remains betrothed to Mary after all.  So this story is a testament not just to Joseph’s morality—which may have its limits…he is human after all—but also to Joseph’s faith, which is not so limited, because he is prepared to risk his family’s whole estate on what an angel says to him in a dream.

In the parlance, that takes some cojones.

Of course, Joseph’s faith in what angels reveal to him in dreams is not limited solely to something as soul-sized as taking Mary for his wife—he also guides his family in and out of Egypt on that same divine guidance in order to save his wife and newborn son whilst King Herod is busy ordering the slaughter of the infant boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem in a vain attempt to kill off the Messiah whom the Magi have told him will be his ultimate successor as king of the Jews.

But before we get to any of that, we are first given the great gift of bearing witness to one of the most profound acts of human kindness in history.  Faced with an impossible dilemma, Joseph strives to do the right thing before any such angelic advice is ever proffered.  His kindness, though we may try to do so, could not, cannot be encapsulated simply in a word to scrawl in chalk on a blackboard.  Even if he does not share Mary’s overt courage, he is likely a fitting earthly father for a divine son.

Because think about it--there may well be a reptilian part of your brain or mine that would want to see someone whom we trusted in that much to suffer as a result of betraying that trust.  But Joseph does not reach for that.

So if you were to ask me to scrawl on a blackboard what kindness means to me, I would probably scrawl the words "Matthew 1:18-26."  I would point you to this story, of a man who chose dignity over vengeance, and life over death by execution.

And like the shepherds we talked about last week, he, too was and is a complete nobody, someone you wouldn’t know from Adam, someone who could have and almost certainly would have lived and died in complete and total anonymity.

But for his kindness, he has not.  And for that kindness, a grateful world is forever in his debt.

Thanks be to God for Joseph.  Thanks be to God for the nobodies.

13 days left.  Remain devoted, brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 13, 2015

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