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December 19, 2004 (Advent IV)—“It’s All About Joseph”

Pastor David Barber

Matthew 1:18-25

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Peter Gomes, pastor of Harvard University's Memorial Church, once wrote about talking to a little boy during a rehearsal for a church school Christmas pageant.

He asked this clever little boy what part he had in the pageant. He replied that it was a small part, in fact, an insignificant part. He had hoped to be a king, or at least a shepherd, or perhaps even one of the animals.

Gomes didn't say this, but perhaps being a cow or even an ass would have been more significant than the character he was given--at least in the eyes of this little boy.

"I don't have much to do," the boy said with childish resignation. "I'm so small that they gave me the part of Joseph."

This little boy wasn't too far off the mark. Most of the time Joseph is just another prop in the Christmas pageant. He could be absent, and no one would say, "Where's Joseph?"

We don't hear much about Joseph do we? He's not even a candidate for an Oscar in the category of "Best Supporting Actor."

There's no song entitled, "Ave Joseph" and no "Hail Joseph, full of grace--The Lord is with you." We don't have folks running all over the world because they saw a vision of Joseph.

We don't have any professional quarterbacks or even a Timmy Chang throwing a "Hail Joseph" pass at the end of a football game in hopes of making a final score and winning the game.

Even our Christmas carols neglect Joseph. How many carols can you think of that even mention Joseph? If this sermon gets boring, which I'm sure would never happen, but if it does, you can start looking through the green hymnal to see what you can find.

Certainly, Mary and Jesus are central, but even the so, the shepherds, the angels, the wisemen, yea, even the cattle and the animals get more press than Joseph.

In fact, Joseph never says a single word. He left us no poetry to sing and no dramatic dialogues or monologues. He left no eloquent scenes for Hallmark to depict on their Christmas cards. And he makes no moving speeches about the liberation of captives or light to those in darkness.

The carpenter was not good at making speeches and couldn't carry a tune. His witness is more in what he does than what he says. He obeys the divine summons to take Mary as his wife. He then flees to Egypt to protect his family from Herod and later returns to settle in Nazareth.

All this Joseph does without saying a word--or at least without a single word being recorded. His witness is not in speech but in active response to the will of God.

Well, enough is enough! This is going to be an "equal-opportunity" or an "affirmative action" Christmas, and we're going to give Joseph his rightful recognition this morning.

One of the problems with Christmas is that it's so nice--so clean--so completely sanitized and romanticized. Why even the animals look and smell nice.

I don't know if we can begin to imagine the scandal, the painful decisions that had to be made, and all the suffering that emerged by the intrusion of this child into our world. But Joseph certainly had some challenges and some decisions to make!

Our Gospel for this morning frames the birth of Jesus within one of these dilemmas. Mary and Joseph were engaged, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.

That's an interesting way of describing their predicament. Who found her? Did she begin to show? Did someone notice? Were rumors already beginning to fly within the market place that Joseph's intended bride was already pregnant? And was Mary guilty of adultery--a very serious offense for a woman in that time?

Unfortunately, our reading for today doesn't spend much time answering these questions and for good reason. We do know that once the families of Mary and Joseph had agreed upon a betrothal, a couple was considered married.

A girl not yet able to bear children might remain at home until she was old enough, perhaps between 12 and 14. Most likely her husband would have been 6-8 years older if it was his first marriage.

We also know that family law gave the father absolute rights over all children born to his wife. If Joseph acknowledged the baby as his, even if he wasn't the biological father, then Jesus was considered "son of Joseph" and a descendent of David just as the genealogy had claimed.

When Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant he didn't have many options. He couldn't send her away to a home for unwed mothers so his first inclination was to dismiss her quietly and not expose her to public disgrace.

He was convinced that quietly divorcing Mary was the right thing to do. Was this an act of compassion--giving up his rights according to the letter of the law and not dragging her through the courts?

Did his "righteous decision" also mean that he was offering the real father an opportunity to raise his child by marring the mother? By doing it quietly he would not bring charges against her and publicly shame her. So perhaps he was motivated by care for Mary and the child and the unknown father.

But even though this was his first inclination, he doesn't immediately push the "reply button" on his computer indicating to Mary's family what his response is going to be. Instead, he decides to sleep on it, which in the end makes his life even more complicated.

Walt Wangerin, a Lutheran pastor and author, distinguishes between two kinds of dreams. There are dreams that are "merely pockets of sleep to be filled up with things from the sleeper's memory." And then there are dreams that can "become solid events in the dreamer's life."

Joseph not only encounters angels in his dreams, he also responds when he awakens to these encounters. In the Biblical world, there are two sorts of people. There are those who can't recognize God's intervention in everyday affairs.

For instance, there's Herod who will be a dominant force in the life of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. Herod can't see God's hand if it struck him in the face, for he is the center and the measure of life's concerns.

But then there are those who discern the voice and the presence of God in the midst of the ordinary, the mundane, and the commonplace. There are the shepherds, who in the night's occupation of tending the sheep see the sky alive with a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.

Those who are open to God's presence in their lives are also prompt in their response. They are quick to heed the call of this vision in their lives. The shepherds go over to Bethlehem. The wisemen follow a star.

Joseph awakens and does what the angel commanded. He takes Mary as his wife. He takes her into his home and names their son Jesus.

How about us? Are we open to God's intervention and intrusion into our lives? Are we willing to admit that this is God's show and open our lives to what God is doing with us and through us?

Our temptation is to think that we should be in control and in charge. We should write the script and create our own future. We think that if we make the right decisions, and make the right plans, and follow the right choices, then God will come through for us in the ways that we expect.

But just when we think we can create our own future, God comes along and creates a new future for us--a new future that includes:

  • a little baby in a manger stall
  • a frightened girl who didn't know that she was pregnant
  • protected by a man who didn't know he was going to be a father, and
  • admired by shepherds who were frightened out of their wits by the heavenly announcement

Now isn't that absurd! And isn't it even more absurd that Joseph awoke from sleep, and did exactly as the angel commanded him? Joseph did not simply disappear after the angels and the shepherds went away and the wisemen went home, but he carried out his responsibilities in a silent and dependable way.

How about us? Can we see God's hand working upon us, even in the ordinary and the mundane, molding us and shaping us, and then calling us into ministry and service in unexpected ways?

Can we hear the voice of God, who speaks to us, perhaps even in our dreams, in the twists and turns of our lives including tragedy and pain, and who nudges us into new directions and opportunities?

And can we see God's loving and grace-filled involvement just as much in the scandal, the unexpected, and the unpleasant as we do in the joys and the blessings of this life?

If we do, we will respond and obey like Joseph to the miracle of Christmas, God with us, Emmanuel--working in our lives and in our world to redeem, to save, and to make new.


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