Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 18, 2016

2016.12.18 “You’re a Good Man, Joseph!” – Matthew 1: 18 – 25

Central United Methodist Church
You’re a Good Man, Joseph!
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 1: 18 – 25
The 6th Sunday of Extended Advent
December 18th, 2016

georges_de_la_tourjosephdream

Georges du Mesnil de La Tour (1593-1652) The Angel Visiting Joseph in a Dream, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus — ‘God saves’ — because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term: 

  

Watch for this — a virgin will get pregnant
and bear a son; They will name him Immanuel
(Hebrew for “God is with us”).

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.” Matthew 1: 18 – 25, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

How are we doing? With Christmas only a week away, are we filled with joy and anticipation, as the Christmas music playing in stores suggests we should be? Or, do we find ourselves out of sorts at Christmas, for whatever reasons, just when everything and everyone tells us we’re not supposed to be?

We might be out of sorts because there are other things going on in our lives right now. Perhaps we do not have the means to have an extravagant Christmas. Perhaps we are concerned about a member of our family, who is struggling. Perhaps we are still troubled by the election, and whether the changes it will bring will be for better or worse. Perhaps people we love are far away, or have died in the last year. With the result that – as Christmas approaches, we may find ourselves out-of-sorts, in a less-than-merry mood for Christmas.

If this is the case it will be with a degree of recognition and gratitude that we greet Joseph in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus’ earthly father, who arrives on the scene as a man out-of-sorts. He is out of sorts because he has received troubling news: Mary, the young woman to whom he is engaged, is pregnant, and not by him. Can you imagine that conversation? “I’m pregnant, Joseph, and both you and I know you are not the father.”

Apart from the humiliation, disappointment, even anger, there are concerns: Is this secret? Is she showing? Who knows? How will this reflect upon him, upon Mary, upon their families, upon the child in Mary’s womb? As William Willimon once said, if Mary is “blessed among women,” Joseph is “embarrassed among men.” At a time when his judgment might not be the best – the most pressing question before him is: “What to do?”

Faced with the certainty of Mary’s infidelity, there were only two realistic options: he could publicly declare his injury, in which case Mary would have been at the least publicly shamed and at worst possibly stoned; OR he could go back to the Rabbi and quietly divorce her, letting her bear her shame and pregnancy by herself. As David Lose says, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth were not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion that we have all experienced at various times.”

We can all imagine what Joseph went through, because at some time or another in our lives, we have all faced, anxiety-inducing, agonizing decisions. On any given Sunday, there are people sitting in church, struggling to hold it together: families struggling with discord, couples who feel disconnected, kids wondering what their future will be, seniors wondering the same from a different point of view. At Christmas those of us “out of sorts” may be embarrassed by our struggles, wonder what is wrong with us, even whether we are worthy to be here.

At such a time in Joseph’s life – as in our lives – the dreams began. One of the things I love about Matthew’s Gospel is his use of dreams as a means through which God speaks: today and again later to Joseph, when the child is in danger, and in a few weeks, to those Magi on their journey.

Don’t we still find this as well? When we are troubled and anxious, when we toss and turn, doesn’t it get sorted out in our dreams, sometimes in the form of nightmares? Haven’t we all awakened from a bad dream which seemed so real, to realize, to our great relief: “Thank God, it was only a dream!”

A friend posted recently on Facebook he has the same dream this time every year, the “end-of-semester” time: “You forgot you signed up for this class, haven’t attended once, and have a final tomorrow.” He says the dream arrived right on time, despite that it’s been 23 years since he’s been in a class. In Joseph’s case, awakening didn’t help; the bad dream he was living wasn’t a dream, but reality.

But it was in Joseph’s dreams that resolution occurred. In the Biblical story, angels (“messengers) usually get involved only when heavy-lifting is required. In Joseph’s case this was required – given his role in the story – to calm him down and get him on board with God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary for your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” As Bishop Willimon once pointed out, “While there is a lot of art portraying Mary’s Annunciation, there is no art focused on Joseph’s dream: “Joseph bolting upright in bed, in a cold sweat after being told his fiancée is pregnant, not by him, but that he should marry her anyway. They won’t tell you this Christmas story in Sunday school.”

Isn’t it true, that sometimes we too find resolution in our dreams? We might be praying, “Bring on the angels!” but even in the absence of angels, there are times when our anxieties and issues get worked out in our dreams. I know there have been times where I have been stuck in projects or sermons, to the point of giving up and going to bed, only to arrive at clarity of insight and bursts of creativity in the morning. (Just as long as I don’t dream I ate a giant marshmallow, and then wake up to find my pillow missing.)

On the basis of his dream, Joseph does something unusual, even outrageous: he lays aside his convictions, his conventions, his ego, his pride – even his wounded manhood – and marries his pregnant fiancée Mary. It is as if Joseph says, “Let everybody say what they will; let everyone think I am the father of the child that Mary is going to have.” By doing so, he assumes for himself Mary’s humiliation and shame. What a courageous, compassionate decision; no wonder Matthew calls Joseph “a good man.” He did the right thing, even though he didn’t have to.

Most – though not all of us – have had the privilege of knowing good men like Joseph in our lives – our fathers, our husbands, our sons – models of responsibility, men like we aspire to be. John Buchanan once said in a sermon on Joseph that in a conversation with friends, talk turned to their parents’ Depression-era generation and how no one could remember their fathers ever talking about being happy or unhappy. Because they did what they had to do, working long and hard for no fame and not much money to see to it that their families were fed, clothed, and had a roof over their heads. If they were happy, it was because they were providing for their families, not because they had time for amusement or self-care. No wonder they were called The Greatest Generation. My Dad was such a man; perhaps yours was too. We aspire to be such “good men” as Joseph, as the “Josephs” we have known in our lives.

In that sermon, Buchanan suggested two other notable virtues of Joseph: By his virtuous and compassionate actions, Joseph inspires us to rethink what it means to be a moral person. There is no doubt he was a righteous man, a man who lived by the rules. But – as with many situations in life – when it came to Mary, the love of his life, what Joseph discovered was that the rules didn’t work. You might say that Joseph becomes the first practitioner of the new morality his son would teach, in which love and kindness and forgiveness would be central, transcending convention and custom and rule and law. Maybe it was from Joseph that Jesus learned the limits of legalism and the power of love, as when he healed on the Sabbath or ate with those who were ritually unclean.

Finally, Joseph teaches us to pay attention to our dreams, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts as well as our minds. Morton Kelsey once wrote not only about Joseph but about us when he said: “Sometimes our religious experience needs to displace our conventional human wisdom. Saints are those who follow their deepest inner promptings, even when they make no worldly sense.”

Isn’t this what Christmas – the incarnation of God in Christ – is about? Isn’t it about the unlikely, irrational, inexplicable appearance of love amid the harsh realities of the world? Isn’t this story an invitation to do what Joseph did, to bet on our deepest dreams and give heart to our hopes, to let go of caution and constraint and respond in extravagant love to God and to one another, all those God has given us to love and care for, as Joseph did for Mary. (See Buchanan, below)

Such work is not always dramatic or extraordinary. Sometimes it means staying in the background, doing what needs to be done: assuming responsibility, stepping up, changing diapers, preparing meals, going to work, doing your job, taking care of those in need, whether children, youth or the elderly. This is part of what it means to be a good man, a good woman, a good person, as Joseph was.

David Lose puts it this way: “Joseph’s story is a great reminder that God worked through real people with real challenges. God didn’t choose a fairy-tale princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl. God didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed angelic guidance to accomplish it.”

May God use us, and may God’s angels guide us, to do the right thing in every situation: to be a good man, a good woman, a good person, as Joseph was. Amen.

With acknowledgment to Rev. John Buchanan, “Joseph,” sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, December 12, 2004; and David Lose, “God Really With Us,” In the Meantime,” December 13, 2016.

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