Word of the Week

Reconsidering Joseph: the Forgotten One

Love That Binds Us Together: Matthew 1:18-25

This week I was putting up Christmas decorations around our home and time came for my favorite part: arranging the nativity.  Though some preachers I know take Advent to the extreme (I know you think I'm one of them, but trust me, I am not) and refuse to have Mary, baby Jesus or even the Wise Men placed in the manager scene before Christmas begins, I find it perfectly acceptable put them all out before the occasion.

 Kevin and I got a nice set of individual pieces from an aunt and uncle of mine as a wedding gift, but I have to say, that it wasn't until this, my fourth time of putting them out did I notice something was missing. 

There was baby Jesus. There was Mary. There was a shepherd (though sadly only one). There was an angel. And there were even three Wise Men.

But, no Joseph. So, I asked Kevin, "Are we missing Joseph? Did something happen to him two moves ago? Did we leave him in Maryland?" "Nope, "he said, "I don't think we've ever had a Joseph."

"No, Joseph? What is going on??"  My nativity just didn't seem right.

Recently, a dear friend of mine who recently had a baby was asked by a local congregation in the city that she lives to be a part of the drive-thru living nativity.

With her daughter less than 2 months old, and the church without enough newborns on its membership roles to cover the multi-evening event,  the baby girl was desperately needed to staff an important role: Baby Jesus to ensure the play's success. 

When I asked about details, I inquired what my friend would be up do during the hour play. Would she watch nearby? Of course, she said, she would not leave her baby alone on the hay so the director made arrangement for her to be staffed as Mary. She would be on site in case baby girl (aka Jesus) cried and needed to be nursed or needed a diaper changed.  Mary and baby's relationship was crucial to the show going on.

 But what about her husband? "What was he going to be doing during the afternoon?" I asked. Though any man would have worked just fine, her husband was told he could tag along in costume as well, playing Joseph, but only if he really wanted. If not, other fill-ins would be easy to find. 

I don't think dear ole Dad was feeling the love of the event with a part that was so replaceable.

Of all characters to be left out if one had to go in our Christmas plays and pageants, Joseph, I guess is the one we could most easily do without.

In Luke's account of the naivety that we all almost know by heart, Joseph doesn't have any lines. If Joseph was looking for a script from the Biblical text, he'd have trouble knowing what to say or do. For all we know is that he is called to census in his hometown of Bethlehem which is how Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus in this small town. He's not wrapping the baby up in those nonexistent clothes. He's not coming to worship or bringing gifts. He's not treasuring all of these things in his heart. He makes no grand gestures or tries to upstage anyone. He's just simply there. This is all.

However, if we read the less popular, but still important version of the birth story from Matthew's gospel, we find just the opposite,  Joseph playing a leading role: crucial to the operation Son of God comes to earth mission going on without a glitch. Though not given a huge speaking part, what we learn is the how Joseph's response to both Mary's pregnancy and the birth illuminates how It is love that binds us together in Jesus Christ: yes, all of us, even the strangest of us all.

When Mary is found to be "great with child" according to Jewish law, Joseph had every obligation to divorce with his fiancée if he knew the child was not his.  Sure, he could have scoffed off the Jewish law if he wanted and pretended without cause, but the Matthew writer who is always concerned with the Jewish point of view, tells us that Joseph was not your high holidays kind of Jew, he was a righteous man. And being a righteous man, a man who didn't want to bring this young girl and her family any more hardship than she would already experience with a divorce to their name, he came up with the plan to divorce her without any bells and whistles. And to ensure that Mary and her unborn child were not killed out of it-- as the law says that stoning her was an option.

And in his "seeking to the right thing" ways of life this "quiet divorce" plan seemed like a good plan. It was his lovingly way of both following what he thought God wanted (the law) and what was in the best interest of Mary (the law).  For God and the law were one in the same at the time.

But, then everything changed one night when he went to sleep.

I don't know how many of you have dreams on a regular basis that you remember.  While this is something I personally struggle with (actually remembering), I know that it is a spiritual practice of many of you and is in line with the Biblical narrative of how God works in this world to deliver deep truths to us, often truths that are deeper than we are able to consciously understand in the daytime.

Such was true for the life of Joseph. Though we are not told by Matthew if hearing from God was something that Joseph regularly paid attention to or ever experienced before or after this event, there was something I can imagine that was quite powerful about this dream that Joseph not only heard in the quietness of his own heart but felt so strongly about it that he later widely shared this encounter (so we could read it for ourselves today).

So, while Joseph had made up his mind of what he was going to do, of what righteous looked like to him. God had other plans. Actually much bigger plans.

Upon hearing God's plans, he was not to be concerned, but to believe Mary-- to take to heart the message that had been told to her from the angel Gabriel. 

Indeed the child that was growing within her, was not his, but was the Lord's doing. And, because this baby was of the Lord, Joseph needed to embrace the babe as such, welcoming him into his life, into his family, into his history, as Joseph would do with any other child of his that might come in the future.

(I am not male pastor as you can tell. And the following which I am about to say seemingly would come better from a male voice, but in this case today, I'll just have to do).

 While amazing, life-change and awe-inspiring news this was in a dream, I can only imagine how hard it was for Joseph to accept it. And, with Mary soon delivering a baby who was not technical "his," I can imagine the ego of Joseph deflated just a little. Especially in a culture where family heritage was everything, especially with identity attached to any offspring that is a part of what it means to be a "man," learning that "Yes, the baby in Mary is not your child, but love him anyway" was tough as I believe it would be for any man today. 

How hard it was to stand by his self-descriptor of "righteous man"  or "godly man" when God as the sperm donor came along!  For it wasn't like he had anyone to talk to about such an experience among his hometown friends-- this God and this Emmanuel was too weird for any sort of reasonable explanation.  No one had heard this before.

But, in obedience to the word of the Lord that he knew in his gut that he had heard, he decides to keep Mary as his wife and "adopt" Jesus as his son.

He stays to be the one Mary needed  to lean on as she soon will undergo the pains of childbirth.

He stays to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be coming from his family line.

He stays because he cares for Mary, even if they were having the craziest spiritual experience they'd ever heard of, and with both of them on the same page, the needed to find encouragement from one another to stick with it.

He stays because by his sheer presence-- even if he doesn't say a thing-- he provides the protection Jesus will need to grow up, mature and fulfill the reason his was born in the first place.

Joseph stays because though easily left out of nativity scenes or Christmas plays or even forgotten by us regular church goers, his love for God, his love for Mary and his love for Jesus is what binds this story together. Without his love, there would be glory of Christmas morn that we will celebrate next Sunday. Though not cast in a traditional role, though not cast in a role he had originally wanted or planned for, the story could not go on without Joseph's realization of God's love shinning upon all of them in the days leading up to the birth of Christ.

Recently, Carolyn Reith was helping out the Outreach committee in gathering pictures for the new design of our church website which will be live early in January (yay!).  You might have noticed her drawing groups of you all to the side, taking your snapshot-- even if you wanted your picture taken or not.

Several weeks ago, when viewing the pictures that Carolyn sent over the church office of all of you, I couldn't help but feel struck by our diversity as a congregation. At first glance, each of the individual shots of you all didn't seem like you all would fit in an organization together, much less a church family. We are all so different!

Yet, when talking about how much I liked these pictures and showing them to a friend, I realized what the reason is for our community working here-- why after years of trials and changes to the Plaza and so on, we've stuck together. And the reason is love.

We've been bound together by our love for God and for one another. And even when someone new has come into the mix as we hope happens regularly, we like Joseph, seem to be the kind of people who see the bigger picture of humanity in it all-- treasuring the sight of God even in the strangest of situations that present themselves here.

But, if I were to end my story here, I would be remiss, because as good as we are at loving, church, we have a growing edge with the last part of the sermon title for this morning "that binds us together." For yes, as a community, when I look back over the past year, I see countless, numerous, overwhelming examples of how we've loved each other, but what I don't always see in our midst are examples of how we've been bound together in our love.

For if we are going to follow the example of Joseph this day and make room in this the 4th Sunday of Advent for more love in our lives, we've got to think more closely about sticking closer together.  And this is what I mean:

Like Joseph, when times get tough, when life gets rocky, our first response needs to be of sharing, clinging, staying put instead of running away.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a seminary classmate of mine from Duke, writes in his book the Wisdom of Stability, how easy it is in a culture such as our to be lured away by the promise of a better offer. We think things are always better somewhere else, with someones else. Yet, he talks about how what the gospel witness needs more of comes in packages of permanency, unconditional presence and not hitting the road, leaving a church or a community when people get on your nerves (for inevitability they will!).  

Not only do we need to stay put more often, but as we stay put, we need to ground ourselves in community life making giving and receiving here a priority. 

I'd be remised if I didn't say to the Christmas only crowd this morning, how much we'd love to see you in January. 

I'd also be remised if I didn't say to the regulars around here that sticking together means that we've got to spend more time together. Sure, we are all busy. Sure, this town where we live runs like nobody sleeps and thus we often  we don't really either. But if we are going to be a community that makes room for the Christ child, just as Joseph did, then we have to start investing in one another outside of Sunday mornings.

This is what real, love, my friends is all about in the first place. Love is not short-tempered. Love does not keep record of wrongs. Love does not leave when feelings are hurt. Love stays. Love protects. Love, God's love, is what binds us together.

When I think about all that we've been preparing for this Advent season. Our "What's coming?" preparations of hope, peace, joy and now today, love, it's love that I know our community need the most to have a bright future for the new year.  Didn't the Apostle Paul once say about love, "Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Thank goodness then, as we prepare to welcome on Saturday night, Christmas Eve, the babe called Emmanuel, God with us, born for us, we welcome the one who taught what love truly meant for Jesus was love incarnate. And, by following him, we can learn to love one another.