Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent 3 Sermon--Joseph: Silent Might

Lamentations 3: 19-26
Matthew 1: 18-25
We worship a man who knew himself as Yeshua bin Yosef—most of us know him as Jesus. bin Yosef means “son of Joseph.” But who is this man who gave his name to our savior? Who is this man who was the quiet guardian of God incarnate? Who is this man who no doubt instructed little Jesus in the Law and carpentry? One description that sticks out in my mind about the character of Joseph is from the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” (which I have been in enough times to fill the role of every male Herdman). In this play, Imogene, the loudmouth youngest sister who plays the angel Gabrielle as the “mighty marvo!” tells whichever brother it is that is playing Joseph in a dramatization of the nativity that “He got an easy part, all he has to do is stand there and keep his mouth shut!”
Many of us have the image of Joseph as an older carpenter. Some of us may have heard that Joseph was a widower, and that Mary was his second wife. This is never mentioned by the 4 gospels of the New Testament, but it was a tradition of the early church based in large part on the Protoevangelon (or Pre-Gospel) of James—a non-Canonized or “unofficial” document purported to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus and head of the church in Jerusalem.
We do know that Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels after the journey to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old. So he possibly did die when Jesus was relatively young. Of course the Gospels never tell us this either. The fact that the greek word used to describe Joseph’s occupation is more appropriately translated as a “skilled artisan” means that the popular conceptualization of Joseph as a simple carpenter may be an artistic invention. Basically, Joseph is a phantom figure in our faith history. We know that he must have taught Jesus his profession, because we know that according to Mark 6:3. Jesus was a carpenter (or perhaps a skilled artisan) as well.
Whoever Joseph was, and whatever role he had in teaching Jesus, we can learn from him quite a bit simply from the small amount of information we have about him.
Many pastors, theologians, and NT scholars refer to Mary as the “first disciple.” She is the first who receives news of God’s incarnation in the world and the wonderful gift that is in store for us. She is the first disciple and she is a vocal disciple. When she hears the news, she runs to her cousin and tells her about it, then they break out into song together. Her fiancĂ© Joseph is not known by much of anything, but today I believe we should start thinking of him as the “second disciple.”
The second disciple is a quiet one. Not a word from him in all the Gospels. While Luke deals with Mary’s encounter with the angel and the news she received, Matthew focuses on Joseph’s visits from the angel. While Mary bursts into song at the news of her bodily and spiritual participation in the incarnation, Joseph awakens from a dream, hears the call, and sets his eyes toward Betheleham, then toward Egypt, then toward Nazareth. He merely hears and acts—no commentary, no argument, no discussion. Joseph’s quiet faith and determination to not abandon his commitments is a good example for us today.
The news must’ve put a pit in Joseph’s stomach when he first heard it from Mary. It was news that was punishable by death in that time and culture. Joseph knew that he wasn’t responsible for Mary’s pregnancy, so it must have been someone else. He was at risk of being publicly humiliated. But the scripture tells us something else about Joseph: he was a “just” man.
Then we come to the next beautiful line, “Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame.” That line says mountains to us about Joseph. He didn’t want to hurt Mary. He didn’t want to destroy her. He was not punitive. He was not revengeful. He wasn’t out for a pound of her flesh. Instead, Joseph had these feelings of grace towards her, and so he resolved to dismiss her quietly. Not tell her parents. Not tell his parents. Not tell the Jewish rabbi. Not to tell the Jewish court so he could get his money back. … So the first story about the birth of Jesus is a story of compassion, a story of grace, a story of a man who had been enormously violated by a pregnant woman and he vowed not to punish her. He had been deeply violated, yet he still cared for her and took care of her. This is the gospel.
Yes, Joseph does seem to be “supporting cast” in the great story of the nativity in our popular conception. However, Joseph’s response to the news received is far from getting “out of the way.” Joseph had tremendous responsibilities, and was used by God in the fulfillment of these responsibilities.
Joseph’s response to the angel’s guidance gives us a vivid and encouraging example of God’s activity we find in the Bible. Joseph responds to Mary’s news of pregnancy with empathy. Empathy means not just listening to another’s story but also participating in the other’s story, so that the listener not only hears and believes the facts of another’s experience, but actually feels the experience at some level. To have empathy with another is not simply to believe what that person says but to feel along with that person, to participate in that person’s experience.
Joseph acts with empathy because when he could have turned Mary loose and have been done with it, he instead joined her in her experience. Instead of the mysterious pregnancy being Mary’s problem, he took it on himself as well. He put her on a donkey and he took her to his homeland, so they could be counted as a couple. A couple with a son that any nosey neighbor or friend could easily count backwards nine months and mutter to themselves or whisper at a party, “So…that’s why they got married.” In his display of empathy, Joseph’s story is a beautiful prologue to the story of a man named “God WITH us: Jesus.”
My original idea in titling this sermon “Silent Might” was that Joseph had enough courage and enough faith to “let go and let God” as the popular saying goes. Many times, it seems like we celebrate only those who are called to voice the faith: to put it into song, or speak about it in front of others.
The words “Witnessing” or “Evangelism” probably conjure up images in our minds of talking with people about faith, hope, and salvation. Joseph is an inspiration to those of us who may not feel so compelled to express our faith with words and song, but with quiet action. He quietly and boldly stands behind Mary when the news gets around town that Mary is pregnant. He could have easily and honorably broken his ties with her and gone on with his own life. But he didn’t. He accepted his responsibility without a word of argument or question.
In a sermon in Harvard University's Memorial Church, Peter Gomes talked about the particular role that Joseph had to play in the Incarnation: He writes,“the miracle of Christmas, (dare I say it?) is not the virgin birth of the creeds. The miracle to which our attention should be drawn at this holy season is the fact Joseph believes what he hears and acts upon it. Miracles, some say, are things that happen in the absence of evidence to explain them. Well, that's not a miracle at all. That is merely a mystery, or an as yet unexplained phenomena, or unbelievable fantasy. The Bible is not concerned with unbelievable fantasies. The miracle here is that a sensible, reasonable, pragmatic, and good man, a man named Joseph, acts contrary to the evidence that surrounds him on every hand. He sees the evidence. He understands it. He knows its implications and he acts contrary to it.”
Faith is not life lived in the absence of evidence. Faith is life lived contrary to the evidence on hand. The evidence on hand is that people are selfish. The evidence on hand is that we live in a dog-eat-dog world. The evidence on hand is that we should keep our distance from the problems. And yet the gospel tells us that we love our neighbors, that we hope for peace in the middle of war, that we stand alongside people in the midst of difficulties. That is faith contrary to all the evidence surrounding you. That then is why this is an example of faith: life lived contrary to the evidence.
And, when he could have cut it off with Mary and saved face, he stayed beside her and did his part. And, it was as an active participant in the great drama of the incarnation that he played, not as a potted plant. Clear in his conscience as to what his duty now was, with a little help from the angels, he did it. And, for that we must give him credit, praise and pride of place.
Therefore, we remember Joseph this Sunday, this Sunday before we remember Mary. William Willimon points out that most of us can probably identify more with Joseph, the second disciple, than with Mary, the first. “Most of us are ordinary. We live and work in some rather drab places. We are rarely the first to get the news, when God makes some large move. We mind our own business. But then, in to many an ordinary life, God intrudes, comes upon us. And even if you are not good with words, couldn't burst into a hymn if you had to, if you will at least whisper, yes, then that makes you like Joseph: A disciple, somebody who is willing to follow the strange and unexpected movements of God in Jesus Christ wherever that takes you. And that, friends, is enough.”

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