The One Who Claimed: A Movement in Three Parts
As we near the end of our Advent journey, as the anticipation builds, and the prospect of the holy child’s birth beckons, we linger one more Sunday with the people who live the Advent story. And while last week we looked at Matthew’s account of the impending birth of Jesus through Mary’s eyes, this week we look at them through the eyes of Joseph.
We aren’t accustomed to thinking about Joseph as much, are we? The early church especially placed so much focus on Mary, given that she was the chosen vessel to carry God’s child. And Joseph, poor Joseph, he got a little left behind in all the fuss. Instead, he was the one to accompany, he was the one to take the back seat, he was the one meant to lead the donkey. In my mind’s eye we’ve sometimes relegated him to the role of body guard, surrogate, groomsman. As I was sharing about this week’s sermon topic, and talking about the role of Joseph with a group of you on Tuesday, a true confession emerged from a beloved member of this congregation. And the revelation that she shared was this: in the late 1960s she found a crèche on sale at Murphys downtown. And that crèche was a beautiful thing, and it’s price was dramatically slashed, and this self-proclaimed frugal person, who didn’t want to miss a bargain, and whose name will not be mentioned but who might be singing in the choir, and who might have a name that begins with a “P” and rhyme with “Mat”, decided to take that crèche home and make it her very own. There was only one little tiny issue with the crèche, only one small hang-up…turns out it was on sale at such a deep discount because there was no, well, no Joseph. No male role model in that holy family. And so each year the figurines come out at the Sterling home on Homestead Road, Mary, and the wise men, and the angel, the sheep with the broken ear and that sweet little baby Jesus in the manger and each year lest Mary look like a single mother, a shepherd stands in as understudy for Joseph, I mean they both have that same burly Joseph-like working class quality, right?
Of course I’m teasing about Pat’s crèche, but isn’t it true that the Christian church has often overlooked poor Joseph? In the Catholic Church especially Mary has been elevated, dressed in blue, a look of serene piety on her face as she holds that tiny Christ child. And Joseph, well, if he’s lucky he’s relegated to a corner of a cathedral with a modest icon nearby. In fact it wasn’t until 1870 that Pope Pius IX declared him a Patron of the Universal Church. Poor Joseph, he gets no respect!
So let’s delve into the text, shall we? And I want to warn you ahead of time that the text may sound a little familiar to you, for it is the exact same text as last week [rest assured, I did that on purpose]. But this week, I’d like to read the scripture throughout the sermon for Joseph’s journey is more a movement in three parts, and there are places where we need to pause and allow the depth of his character to sink into our own souls. This morning I’ll be reading to you from Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message.
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.
The writer of the book of Matthew doesn’t mince words as he tells the story of the birth of Jesus, does he? While Luke’s gospel which we focused on at the beginning of December as we fleshed out the stories of Elizabeth and Mary waxes poetic with all sorts of juicy details and unfolds the story of Mary’s impending pregnancy with astounding poetic description (remember the angel visitation to inform the young Mary? And then that harrowing journey she took through the hills to see Elizabeth for wisdom? And the leaping of the baby in the womb, and then Mary’s eloquent operatic aria of the Magnificat?) Matthew is more a “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer. Matthew gives us the who’s and how’s, straight up, unvarnished and raw. There are these two people. Mary and Joseph. And they were engaged (which in Jewish tradition was a binding legal agreement already, to be engaged carried with it all the responsibilities and commitments to fidelity that marriage does in our culture). And lo and behold, Joseph learns an uncomfortable and startling truth, this woman that he loves, this woman who has committed himself to him, is pregnant with another’s child.
And the very first thing we learn of Joseph, the first claim that we can make of him is that he is sensitive and discreet. In the face of what must have felt like betrayal and perhaps even deceit, he does not condemn Mary. He does not lash out at her or try to tarnish her reputation. Instead, he chooses to do the honorable thing, and privately release her from her vows of betrothal. He does not do what the law would allow or perhaps even encourage him to do, for the patriarchal legal system of the time would call for the stoning of any woman found guilty of adultery, and certainly Mary’s pregnancy would have been proof of her infidelity. But instead he offers her a tender mercy, and a quiet grace, and even as he must have been nursing his own broken heart, and asking his own anguished “why?” He chooses to release her quietly from her bonds to him. There will be no disgrace. There will be no condemnation. There will be no judgment. Joseph’s choice will be a merciful one. And he will claim no call for retribution. Instead his claim will be that he will be a man who offers grace.
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 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.
And so we move into the second movement of our story.
Many of you already know that for the past three years or so I have struggled with insomnia. While my dream life used to be rich and rewarding, now I am either restlessly tossing and turning or completely zombified by the Ambien I allow myself to take every third night or so. My husband, however, has a glamorous and elaborate fairy tale world of dreams that he allows me to visit as he regales me with the stories of where his dreams took him. When he’s not flying through the air, one of his common dream-time reveries, he is enjoying the company of famous celebrities. A few months back on a Saturday morning we lay in bed, Grayson climbing over us, and Robert said, “You know, last night Barbara Bush and I were singing ‘Climb Every Mountain’ in the hallway of the college administration building. It was really quite touching.”
I miss my regular sleep habits, but the truth is, I miss the dreaming. For I believe our souls need to dream. I believe that it is one of the few legitimate ways that we allow God to get our attention sometimes. Where else but in this liminal place, the place of moonlight and hush, are our hearts soft enough to allow God to drop into them? Where else do we free ourselves to trust that God is really afoot and that answers may come?
While Joseph isn’t granted a burning bush moment, or a face-to-face angel encounter as Mary had, he still gets a subtle word from God. The angel appears to him and lets him in on the secret that Mary already knew. And Joseph asks no questions, doesn’t utter a word, but implicitly trusts God and immediately acts. How many of us would be tempted to brush off those night-time musings and assume it was just our imagination, or just too much strange food we’d eaten. God comes to Joseph and Joseph stakes his claim on God’s word. And claims his destiny as the earthly father of this newborn. Joseph will chose to claim trust.
And finally the third movement. And it is a simple and profound one. One sentence.
He named the baby Jesus.
It was not Mary who named the child. It was Joseph. In ancient Israelite culture, to name a child was to offer a blessing. Naming was a powerful symbolic gesture in which the hopes and dreams of the child were placed upon the young. And when you named someone you claimed them as well. It was not Mary who claimed the child as her own, but Joseph. And by so doing, Jesus was adopted into the whole Davidic lineage which came through Joseph’s blood.
I am remembering this morning a Sunday when I stood in the front of the congregation of the Manchester Church of the Brethren on a sunny fall morning and held in my arms a then nine-month-old Elliott Beecher Tae-Soo Shaum. Eli was the son of one of my closest friends and he was a child who was long in coming to his family. His mother, Lynn, had been through years of fertility treatments and two surgeries and when interventions were not successful she and her husband, Steve, had begun the lengthy process of adopting a child from Korea. Perhaps some of you have walked your own journeys through adoption, or been with those who have wanted so desperately to have a child to call their own. And as I held that child in my arms on that morning, speaking his name and offering him a blessing, my eyes also rested on his parents, who wept their own silent tears. And years later when Robert and I also struggled with infertility it was Eli’s mother who said to me fiercely, “Eli is my son. He is my child. And what you need to remember, Christen, is that while my son did not grow in my body, he was conceived by my dream. And that makes him no less my own.”
Joseph’s message is the message of Eli’s mother’s as well. And the message is this: it is our task in this world to expand our definition of family. It is our job to extend our arms wider to invite others into our hearts. It is our mandate as children of the One God to cradle all babies as our own babies, nurturing them and comforting them. It is our commandment as children of the One God to nurture all youth as our own youth and raise the next generation with love. It is our commandment as children of the One God to welcome all people as our own sisters and brothers and encircle those in need. It is our commandment as children of the One God to care for all of our elderly and wise ones as our own parents and grandparents and protect their dignity and honor their history. It is our responsibility as children of the One God, our responsibility and our privilege.
And we do this not in some namby-pamby, Coca-Cola “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” Hallmark photo op moment, but through consciously making decisions which we believe align with God’s dreams for humanity. Through our charitable giving, and through our lobbying for affordable health care for all. Through our demand for an end to poverty and through setting our sights on declaring war on hunger, which is a much more formidable enemy right now than terrorism.
This morning we follow in the footsteps of our brother Joseph, who acted as father to the Christ. And we walk this road of discipleship with intention. We walk this road knowing that it will not be easy. We walk this road with deliberation. We walk this road with obedience. And we walk together, placing our trust in God. And allowing ourselves to be divine instruments who claim the ways of peace.
May it be so.