Yesterday in worship we took the time to acknowledge that mingled with the joy of the season there also comes sadness and loneliness. As families gather there are also the holes from those who are no longer with us. These other feelings don't take away from the Christmas story... but are because we have been touched by the Christmas story. Grief is a sign of gratitude.
During this Christmas try to remember that person that is connected to your life who may be feeling more alone because of this time of year. Share your time. Show some love.
Here's the sermon from yesterday...
December 22, 2019
Last Sunday we heard the Christmas story from the perspective of John’s gospel. John doesn’t talk about shepherds and angels or mangers and dreams… John talks about the light shining into the darkness and how the darkness did not overcome it… because the true light enlightens everyone. John’s Christmas story talks about the Word becoming flesh… the Word being full of grace and truth… the creative Word through which all things came into being.
This morning, we hear the Christmas story from the perspective of Matthew’s gospel. In this telling, Joseph takes center stage. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you again this morning.
READ the scripture...
What do we seek… and what we do we expect to find during the Advent and Christmas seasons… this time of repeated traditions and rituals… where we can easily find ourselves moving through the season almost on autopilot? Christmas doesn’t really take us by surprise. Not this part at least… not telling the story around Jesus’ birth. In fact… if anything… Christmas has become wholly predictable. When we were kids surprises might come from presents under the tree. Sometimes surprised by getting that something we wanted but didn’t really expect to receive… or sometimes being surprised by not getting something we fully expected to receive. The surprise of disappointment. Or sometimes receiving that gift… that something that we didn’t ask for or even knew that we wanted… but receiving that unknown present made Christmas that year. You know what I mean?
As Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph did not expect or even seek out this Christmas story. Christmas truly takes him by surprise. When it comes to Joseph, his is a story of God seeking Joseph out in order to meet God’s expectations.
I can easily imagine that Joseph had expected to have a nice, quiet life… a life that was probably not that different from his father or his father before him. He would work at his craft of carpentry… or other such workmanship… so that he could support his coming family with his betrothed, Mary. The marriage itself was likely arranged for him rather than some great story for the ages of love and romance between the two. In that culture and time, his trade too was most likely chosen for him… the period of apprenticeship beginning at a young age… and he would one day teach the same trade to his young sons. Joseph’s life seemed to be pretty well set… and then God breaks in… and that nice, expected, quiet life goes out the window. Or does it?
As far as our scriptures go… we really don’t know that much about Joseph. With what I just imagined, I’ve assumed Joseph as a young man as he is betrothed to Mary… the two of them at the beginning of their adult life. It’s become more and more common today to imagine Joseph in that way. Joseph has always been someone that we’ve allowed our imaginations to fill in the rest of his story. As a scripture geek, I find it interesting how earlier traditions portrayed Joseph as an old man. If you ever look at older pieces of art, Joseph is often portrayed as a much older man with a white or gray beard.
For this morning and for this sermon let’s be current and imagine Joseph as a younger man just starting out.
Now to be honest… these days this scandal may require some more of our imaginations because this is no longer the scandal it once was… a scandal being defined by the time and the culture of the place. For a man like Joseph… in his place and time… it’s a scandal that does away with all his expectations for the nice, quiet life he was going to live. A child before marriage. A seemingly unfaithful young woman. A culture that does not accept such situations easily… a situation that could turn deadly for the young woman and the baby she carries. Maybe she would be made an example of in this community and be stoned to death. Think of those cultures around the world today that better reflect Joseph’s world. Occasionally these young women still make our news headlines for a day before being forgotten come the next day. Even if Mary was only shunned… what type of future would await her and her unborn child? Shunning would be like a living death for Mary and her child would be ostracized. Not many opportunities or support in her day for her to be able to live as a single mother… at least not many opportunities of decency. And putting her away quietly, even then… even then there would always be talk surrounding Joseph. There would always be some who would look at him with accusations in their eyes… how he did that young girl wrong by not controlling his own lust… and then turning his back on her and his son. It wouldn’t matter if the accusations were true or not… such accusations don’t need truth… right… just the right amount of indignant judgment to carry the guilt. It’s a scandal… a life altering scandal that can’t easily be fixed and made to go away that keeps Joseph up at night and consumes his thoughts. What am I going to do now? His future… the path that has been laid out for him for years now… that path is being put into question… into jeopardy. What am I going to do if what I was going to do is no longer an option? His world is already small… and it’s getting smaller by the minute.
In an instant all of Joseph’s expectations came crashing down and Joseph began doing what most of us would do if we were in his situation… he sets to work at rebuilding his expectations for his life. Matthew points out that Joseph is a good man. It’s one of the few details we’re given about him in our scriptures. In character, Joseph’s first step in rebuilding the expectations of his life is to quietly dismiss Mary. He’s trying to do the right thing. He really doesn’t want to see any harm come to her. Neither will fully escape the consequences of this miraculous scandal. The baby… the baby is not his and so ultimately it is not his responsibility. Someone else with have to care for it. And it’s the best thing for him as well. It’s the only way forward… the best choice where there is no good choice. Once Mary is dismissed, perhaps he can begin again and have a family with a different woman. In time… even if there are rumblings… those would die down eventually and he could get back to living his expected life… like his father and his father before him.
Just as he resolves himself to this course… the dream comes. It won’t be the last of Joseph’s dreams in Matthew’s gospel. What’s so interesting about this particular dream is that underneath it all… even though it’s not exactly like he thought it would be… even though it is overlaid by this miraculous scandal… underneath the instructions that come to Joseph in this dream is an affirmation of Joseph’s expectations for his life. Joseph is not sent out on some massive quest by God. He isn’t asked to perform some great miracle or sign for God so that others can behold the might and majesty of God. It is precisely Joseph’s expectations for a nice, quiet life… working hard and having a family with Mary… passing on his trade to his son as his father passed on to him as his father passed on to him… it is just those things God requires of Joseph. Do not be afraid of this miraculous scandal. You are the right man for the job. That seems to be a common message that comes from God. Do not be afraid. You are the right person for this job. The job may not be what you expected it to be… or wanted it to be… or asked for it to be… but it is the right job for you. Isn’t that what it means to be called by God? Isn’t that what your call from God is about? Isn’t that what this congregation’s call from God is about? Do not be afraid… you are just the right one for what I am calling you to be and to do.
Old or young, what’s so interesting to me about Joseph is that he really isn’t very extraordinary at all. Many will point to his obeying God as being extraordinary, but I would like to think that such trust and obedience would be ordinary. Besides, like I said, compared to others in scripture… God isn’t asking much of him. He is being given a task that many of us here in this sanctuary have been given. Joseph is being asked to do what he already had expected… work and raise his family. It’s just that the circumstances are now different
So Christmas is fast approaching. I wonder if we will hear God’s voice this week telling us a similar message to the one told to Joseph, “Take this child and make him your own. Give him his name… name him Savior… name him Jesus… and bring him into your heart. Do not be afraid.” It’s such a quiet message and it doesn’t really require much of a show on our part… just a little bit of obedience… a little break from all the other traditional and ritual Christmas going-ons. God really isn’t asking any more of us than what he asked of Joseph. Nothing extraordinary or miraculous will be required. Simply make this child a part of your life. Name him and claim him. Amen.