A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent: Matthew 1:18-25
n the telling of the story of Jesus, the role of Joseph sometimes seems like a walk-on part; like a cameo appearance by well-known figure in movie, we see and recognize the actor, and then as suddenly as he appears he is gone. We see Joseph in these opening chapters of Matthew, and of course in the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood contained in the Gospel according to Luke. Twice in the gospel according to John, Jesus is identified as “the son of Joseph,” but Mark doesn’t mention him even once.
In traditional paintings, icons and stained glass, Joseph is there in the stable scene, but even then he’s often shown off to the side. In one painting, poor old Joseph—and he is pictured as a man much older than Mary—is portrayed as being fast asleep at the bottom of the painting, while Mary—assisted by a midwife, no less—tends the baby. In such works, the artist’s eye is clearly focused on Mary and the infant; that is where the real action is apparently taking place.
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But there must be more to this man Joseph. As Matthew tells the story, Joseph and Mary are betrothed or engaged, which in that cultural context was as binding as marriage itself. Engaged, but not yet living together, and so when Mary tells Joseph that she is expecting a baby—and that her pregnancy is God’s work and not the result of any sexual union—he is faced with a problem. According to the law, he should proceed to divorce her, and to do it openly and publically, thereby exposing her as a moral and spiritual failure, but Matthew tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” As Stanley Hauerwas notes, “Joseph, therefore, refused to act according to the law, but rather chose to act in a manner that Jesus himself would later exemplify by his attitude to known sinners.”
In W.H. Auden’s extraordinary poem cycle, “For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio,” Joseph is pictured sitting in a pub, waiting for Mary and pondering… the voices of an offstage questioning chorus whirling around his head:Joseph, you have heard What Mary says occurred; Yes, it may be so. Is it likely? No.
Mary may be pure But, Joseph, are you sure? How is one to tell? Suppose, for instance… Well…
It is hard to blame anyone for being a bit skeptical about Mary’s story; hard to blame Joseph for thinking this betrothal had been a very bad idea. There is no easy way out, for even a quiet “dismissal” will leave the rumour mill churning. And so Auden continues:Maybe, maybe not. But Joseph, you know what Your world, of course, will say About you anyway.
And yet as Matthew unfolds his story before us, we discover that Joseph’s betrothal to Mary was not, after all, a very bad idea. In a dream he is met by an angel—literally a messenger—who sets the story straight, and upon waking Joseph resolves to move forward, rumour mill be damned. He’s not a bit player at all, but rather that rare man who might have been able to do something not unlike what Mary had done, which is to look into the mystery and say “May it be done as you have said.”
And so at the end of the section of his Christmas oratorio dealing with Joseph—a section rather aptly titled “The Temptation of St Joseph”—Auden writes,To chose what is difficult all one’s days As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.
“Joseph, praise.” Praise God for this: the Spirit of God is at work, for “Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Praise God, too, for the apparent impossibility of the story in which you have found yourself.
Modern people, like Joseph before us and like those who ran the rumour mill in Nazareth, can get stopped short by this story of Mary’s pregnancy. “Oh come on,” these voices say, “we all know how babies come to be…” Take a look, for instance, at the work of the infamous “Jesus Seminar,” which claims that it can weed out the mythic elements from the authentic Jesus. These infancy stories are simply written out.
Yet in these stories, writes Stanley Hauerwas, “What should startle us, what should stun us, is not that Mary is a virgin, but that God refuses to abandon us.” “Virgin births,” continues Hauerwas, “are not surprising given that this is the God who has created us without us, but (as Augustine observes) who will not save us without us.”
What should stun us is that God refuses to abandon us. And maybe part of what Matthew wants us to see in this story is a picture of one man—Joseph the carpenter—similarly refusing to abandon his betrothed, in spite of the cost.
And maybe it is the poets in the world who will help us to see what at least some of the scholars and skeptics simply can’t. And maybe in helping us to see they can also challenge us to live with and into the stories.
As we mark our transition out of Advent and toward Christmas, let me leave you with the voice of another poet, this time the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn in his song, “The Cry of a Tiny Baby” (from the 1991 album Nothing But a Burning Light),Mary grows a child without the help of a man Joseph gets upset because he doesn’t understand Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream Says “God did this and you’re part of his scheme”
Did you catch that? You, Joseph, are part of this too? It isn’t just about Mary, for your embrace of this baby is part of what the God “who will not save us without us” is doing.Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand Says “forgive me I thought you’d been with some other man” She says “what if I had been – but I wasn’t anyway and guess what I felt the baby kick today”
And then, anticipating our celebrations of the great feast of the Incarnation,Like a stone on the surface of a still river Driving the ripples on forever Redemption rips through the surface of time In the cry of a tiny babe
Amen. Amen. Amen.