Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph's Moment

(A Sermon on Matthew 1:18:25 for the 4th Sunday of Advent, preached at All Saints' Littleton, 12/19/2010)

A sermon does not always end up as it intended...

This morning, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we get our only pre-Christmas Gospel story.

In the year of the Gospel of Matthew, the focus is on Joseph.

Only in the Gospel of Matthew tells us anything about Joseph. He is never mentioned in the Gospels of Mark or John. The Gospel of Luke places Joseph in three stories: in the traditional account of traveling to Bethlehem for the census, at the temple for the newborn ritual, and in the story of the young Jesus who stays behind in the temple for three days on his own. In all of these stories, Joseph is simply there, but almost as an afterthought. While we learn a little about what Mary is thinking in these stories, we are never told anything about Joseph except in statements like “and the child’s father and mother were amazed”. Joseph almost always remains unnamed. You can make the argument that, in Luke, only Joseph’s attendance matters...and just barely.

The Gospel of Matthew, in turn, barely mentions Mary outside of Joseph’s context. In fact, it is in this morning’s Gospel account where Mary is mentioned the most. Every other time, Mary is mentioned only as being with the child. Joseph is told in a few post-birth dreams, “Joseph, get up, take the child, and his mother, and go somewhere...” Mary matters little in the Gospel of Matthew.

Today, we consider Joseph’s moment.

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Matthew makes two clear points to his audience: the child is not Joseph’s, and the child was not conceived in the usual matter. It should be noted that Matthew, having told us that Joseph and Mary were engaged, has to tell us additionally that this is “before they lived together.” In the first century Judaism, when a couple became engaged, they would then soon live together, before they were married. It was actually not uncommon for a woman to become pregnant after engagement, but before the formal marriage.

Now, here’s Joseph’s moment:

19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

In a single sentence, Matthew suggests a great deal about Joseph’s character. For a young Jewish man, after study of Scripture, there could be no greater focal point of one’s life than engagement and marriage (and you can imagine which parents were most likely to focus on with their sons). Joseph would have dreamed about the day when his wife-to-be would finally be given to him in formal engagement. He most certainly hoped that she would become the most treasured possession of his life. For a moment, suspend the problem our 21st century self should have with this reality, and try to focus on how devastating it must have been for Joseph to find Mary to be with child (remember, he does not know about the Holy Spirit’s role in all of this). For Joseph, this meant personal betrayal, public embarrassment, and a shattering of the dream and vision that he had for himself.

Now, Joseph had all of the power here: he could have had Mary charged with adultery: in other words, he likely could have pressed to have her executed. Even if he didn’t go that far, Mary’s value in 1st century life was based on her suitability for marriage...a few words from Joseph would have ruined her.

Joseph’s decision to “dismiss her quietly” meant that Mary’s family would have likely been able to find someone, likely a man of lower social class, to quickly marry her and claim the child as his own. So long as she was not publicly exposed, she could have still found a place in the culture. Joseph was willing to keep his sense of betrayal and hurt to himself, because, as the text says, “he was righteous man”.

While Matthew’s point is to come away with a positive view Joseph’s character, I think now is the time to admit that the story invokes great sadness and anger in me, on so many levels: how hard and unfair it must have been for women at this time! What makes it worse is that there are still plenty of places in the world where this is all still true, and even more where the mentality survives. I can also see other parallels, where the brokenness shown in this story still exists within our own culture towards people we have power over, and tend to either publicly disgrace or dismiss quietly because they do not meet our expectations.

Part of our charge as 21st century Bible readers is to both understand what the Bible is saying in its context AND not dismiss the limitations that the Bible illustrates of people at various moments in history. Taking this passage seriously should lead to both a positive understanding of Joseph’s character and empathy for the women of Joseph’s time. I think it also leads to a thirst for justice and change.

I didn’t intend for this to be the point of this morning’s sermon, but perhaps it’s not surprising that it has become so, amidst a flurry of Congressional activity this week, which included yesterday’s repealing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the failed vote on the Dream Act, concerning some legal status to benefit children who were brought illegally by their parents to either attend college or enlist in the military.

In both of these, we have multifaceted realities where mostly well intentioned people with power are directly determining the fates of those with status beneath them.

I could not escape the parallels with today’s Gospel...

I’ll still finish the story:

20But just when (Joseph) had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

It is in a dream that Joseph comes to understand the truth: Mary has not betrayed him...instead, God is doing something wonderful through her. Joseph has a choice: he can dismiss Mary quietly, and pursue the vision that he has always had for himself. Or, he can go forward in God’s vision along with Mary, letting go of the way things have always been done to instead embrace the new thing that God is doing.

For a righteous man, there really only one choice to be made...

24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


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