December 15, 2019 Advent 3
Typically, I like to do a story sermon on Christmas Sunday. Since we’ll be leaving for Canada early Saturday morning, I won’t be able to do that this year. Yet as I worked at sermon preparation for this Sunday, it was a Joseph story that kept coming alive in my mind. So then, a story it is. But I also want to offer three notes of explanation before I begin.
First, we know very little about Joseph. In Matthew 13:55 there is a reference to Jesus as the carpenter’s son and we discover Jesus has four brothers and several sisters as well. But apart from the birth and childhood narratives, this is the only mention of Joseph and it’s an indirect one at that. It is thought Joseph likely died before Jesus’ crucifixion and maybe even before his ministry began. So any story about Joseph is going to involve a lot of conjecture.
Second, one of the commentaries I consulted stressed we tend to read these Bible stories differently than they were lived. In the case of the Christmas story, the doctrine and theology of the Incarnation is so intertwined with our reading, we have a hard time approaching this story without that lens in place. However, the concept of the Incarnation was one that came about after Joseph’s time. It’s one of our bedrock, foundational Christian principles, that Jesus was simultaneously the son of Mary and the son of God. The word made flesh. But this insight and
understanding developed over the years following Jesus’ death. Joseph was likely far more concerned not with Jesus’ nature but with the role he would fulfill in God’s plan.
And third, I listened to an interesting interview the other day. The idea is that we act very differently in an emotional context than we think we will act from a removed theoretical perspective. And they’ve done studies to prove this pretty conclusively. This isn’t a new idea, but the studies they have done are so revealing. It was another warning to reserve judgment. It is an unfortunate tendency of people who sit a comfortable distance from emotion or trauma to say, “Well, if it had been me, I would have…(!)” The truth of the matter is that not a one of us knows how we would react in a highly emotional or traumatic situation unless we have been in that exact same situation before. Joseph, in our story for today, is not operating in a detached and comfortably distant state, he is ground zero here and it is with that in mind that we approach him this morning.
Joseph paused with chisel in hand, peering closely at the valuable wood slowly taking on the shape of a yoke in his skilled hands. He took a deep breath and sighed with weary contentment, a man well pleased with his lot and with his life. This appreciative spirit rested easily on his shoulders. Joseph was one who took notice of simple pleasures and his kind and quiet manner had long earned him respect and regard in his home community.
That evening he would see his betrothed and he anticipated these quiet twilight moments with his Mary, though the walk home invariably stirred up impatient desires for engagement’s close and marriage’s beginning. Rousing himself, he continued his work as wood shavings resumed their gentle flutter down.
As he approached Mary’s family door only hours later, raised voices signaled trouble of some sort spilling out in the quiet of the street. He poked his head inside, eyes seeking out his young Mary and was alarmed at her tear-streaked face. Her parents and brothers quieted at Joseph’s arrival but the chilly tension was palpable. He cast his question into the frigid summer evening room. “What is happening?”
An endless, painful silence swallowed hard and then Mary’s father spoke and life shattered. “Mary is with child.” The family’s unspoken accusation slapped his face, yet then they saw as one his innocence. The shock rippled over Joseph in waves. He gasped and collapsed on a nearby hewn bench fearing his ability to remain upright. The hurt was unbearable. He looked to Mary, whose renewed sobs shook her entire being. He looked and with throat constricting released a howling “Why?” into the night.
For long minutes, only grief was voiced. What Joseph couldn’t see was a family’s consternation at his innocence. If not Joseph, who? There wasn’t another boy in her life. She had eyes for Joseph only. What was this?
A brother broke the silence with the question that needed to be asked. “Joseph, this baby isn’t yours?” Both Joseph and Mary cried out in unison, “No!”
“Then she has been defiled. Mary, name the man who did this to you and we will seek justice. Who forced you?”
Mary lifted her head, resolve now beating back tears, “Brother, I told you what happened and you, all of you have chosen not to believe.”
Then directing her attention to Joseph she said, “Joseph, I was visited by an angel months ago who said I would have a baby. I asked the angel how this could possibly be as I have never known a man. But the angel told me the power of the Most High would overshadow me and that this baby would be holy, would be the Son of God.”
Mary looked with despair at the disbelief and shame written across the faces she loved most. She continued, “I know how ridiculous it sounds. It’s why I’ve been scared to tell any of you. But I can’t hide this anymore. Mother, go see your sister. Remember how we celebrated just a few months ago the miracle of John’s birth. She will tell you the truth of this. One of you needs to travel and go see her. She will tell you. Please.”
Joseph, overcome with pity, with heartbreak, with anger, rose abruptly to his feet and stumbled out the door and into an unforgiving night.
The days that followed were an agony. His courtyard work shop, a place of quiet reflection and earnest joy, offered no comfort, no peace. It was hard to even make sense of all his conflicting and raging emotions. “Why God? Why?” He walked the village streets late at night searching for answers that wouldn’t come.
Knowing that in all truth the decision had already been made for him did not offer any release. But Joseph was a righteous man, and in the end, he knew what must be done. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. A sign? A miscarriage perhaps? Certainly, there had already been a miscarriage of justice. Mary, his innocent Mary, in some way had been wronged. Of this he was sure. That she had retreated into a delusion, a warped mockery of truth, only sharpened the bitter pain. And his own dreams and hopes had been aborted in the most shocking, the most unexpected way. But the law was clear. No wiggle room. It didn’t matter what had happened or how it had happened, he knew he must divorce Mary. He also knew just as surely the shame that would follow – visited upon his family and Mary’s family – the shame that would keep Mary bound to the house of her father all her days.
Joseph, in keeping with the kindness that compelled him, determined to divorce her quietly and at least save her the ugliness of public disgrace, understanding that disgrace would define her from that point on. With heavy steps and heart he returned home and climbed to his rooftop mat for sleep.
That night dreams played out in his sleep, blurring the fine line between real and not. All the angst and uncertainty of the days preceding came to life, costumed in dark and despair, in nightmare. Joseph tossed and turned through the moonlit hours until near dawn when his body relaxed and brow unfurrowed. Peace descended as a dream of an angel visited him in sleep, and spoke truth to his hurting soul. “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
At the angel’s departure, Joseph woke, bathed in early morning light.
What is joy? The Psalmist sings, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (30:5).” What is joy? Every person would answer a little differently. Is joy contentment, peace, happiness? Yes, and so much more. Joy is not divorced from pain, from suffering, from the gut wrenching questions that haunt us. But joy takes us from the depths of sorrow and raises that unspeakable grief to the Light. Joy is union between ourselves and God. Psalm 116:11 – “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy.”
The last few Sundays, we have been writing down these blessed moments in our lives and putting them in the vases here. What we are writing down are joy moments. Sometimes joy moments are drenched in tears as when we give thanks for a life spared or even a life ending. Sometimes these joy moments sneak up on us and we gasp when a person speaks the right word at just the right moment. Sometimes a glimpse of joy’s beauty overwhelms us as we watch the Kansas setting sun or we take in a field of waving, yellowed wheat. Sometimes we collapse in exhaustion, deeply and joyfully thankful for making it through, surviving to see another day. But however joy surprises us, we are aware of a thin place in time when God has reached out and touched us, has changed us and maybe, just maybe, we have reached out and touched God. Joy.
Joseph woke and he knew Joy. Tears turned into shuddering sobs as he lay on his pallet and let joy wash over him in breakers of relief, understanding, release, thanksgiving.
An hour later he set out for Mary. Questions remained. Had Mary been accosted? Would the community still have them when it became clear Mary was with child quite prematurely? Would he be a good father to this child he had not fathered? He didn’t have answers, not to any of the questions still standing but questions that didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. What he did know, beyond doubt, was that his allegiance was not to temple, to religion, to the laws of community or family. His devotion was to God. And if God wanted this baby born, nothing else really mattered. Joseph’s first son was on his way. There wasn’t a moment to lose.
Arriving on the doorstep he called to Mary’s family to gather and told them quite simply he had come for his wife and if it pleased the family, he would like for her to come home.
And so it was, a few months later, on a night visited by angels yet again, a baby was born, wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. And Joseph gathered this little one up and in the act of naming him, claimed Jesus as his very own. Joy born. Immanuel come.