Do Not Be Afraid, Joseph

A sermon for Advent 4 on Matthew 1:18-25

 

It is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and we’re getting close aren’t we? For those of you who have been waiting for us to bust out the Christmas carols—maybe waiting patiently, maybe not—we’re just about there. You even get a glimpse of the Christ child in this evening’s gospel reading; not Luke’s grand story that we’ll read on Christmas Eve, but this rather more understated story from the Gospel according to Matthew. Starting with the story of the Annunciation, Luke trains his camera on Mary, whereas in this text Matthew brings Joseph more into view.

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“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” he begins. “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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Press the pause button. Because Joseph is a righteous man, Matthew says, he planned to dismiss her quietly, but that word “dismiss” is still very much there. For all that Mary might insist that this pregnancy has come about through the Holy Spirit, Joseph doesn’t buy it. She’s clearly slept with someone else… the betrothal is null and void. He’s going to get on with his life.

 

Last Sunday I drew on a poem by Kilian McDonnell to unpack the story of the Annunciation. In that same collection—Aggressive Mercy—the monk/poet explores this Gospel story as well, in a poem called “Infidelity.”

 

You can’t be serious, Mary.

Me believe this staggering impossibility?!

 

I’m not a fool. An angel and the Holy Spirit!

Like saying the full moon planted seed

in your womb while you were trimming lamps.

You tremble knowing I don’t believe it.

 

Well… you can be sure I’ll not expose you.

But you must see I cannot bring you

into my home. I weep to say it,

but I’ll not be coming by.

 

Kilian imagines anger in Joseph’s reaction, but deeper than anger is the hurt, the sense of betrayal, the loss of innocent hope. You can be sure I’ll not expose you… but… I weep… I can’t bring you into my home. Of course he can’t.

 

Yet Matthew is insistent. Joseph is a righteous man, and he’s not going to shame her publically but will instead swallow his pride, set aside his hurt, and just quietly end it. But you know, that’s just a stopgap measure, for she was still pregnant out of wedlock in a world where that was shameful. There’d be gossip and finger pointing, and as her belly began to swell there would be judgment and rejection. Any wonder that in Luke’s telling of things the first thing the newly pregnant Mary does is to travel far from home, to visit with her older kinswoman Elizabeth? It isn’t all that long ago that unmarried pregnant teenager would have been quietly shuffled off to stay with an aunt in another town to see a pregnancy through.

 

No, for all that Joseph might have pushed past his hurt to do what he thought was the right thing, it wasn’t really going to change anything.

 

“But just when he had resolved to do this,” Matthew writes, “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.” “Do not be afraid”—there’s that important line of angels again—“Do not be afraid”.

 

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Ah, see, it is all solved, it is all good.

 

But think again about what this man has embraced. In many of the traditional paintings of the nativity scene, Mary and the infant are front and centre, and there is obvious joy in her face. Joseph is often shown slightly off to the side, even back a few paces from the manger, as if profoundly aware of holding a secondary place in his new family. That is, I think, a reflection of a kind of piety that exalts the place of Mary as the mother of the Lord, and that is fine as far as it goes. But I think it also risks losing sight of the character of Joseph, and what can be learned from him.

 

He is a righteous man, which in his world means he is a man who has lived faithfully within the claims of the torah. And yet as this faithful man has been putting one foot in front of the other, framing his life within the precepts of the law as he prepares himself for his marriage, he is hit with this disorienting reality. The path you thought you were walking, Joseph, is not the one that now lies before you. The expected and the assumed—the safe and sure orientation of your old life—are gone. Don’t be afraid… instead rise to the new, and discover how to be faithful in the midst of this disorienting impossibility.  This is where you are now called, Joseph.

 

I think it is safe to say that there is not one of us here who will face a challenge quite so disorienting as that which confronts Joseph. But we will at different points along the way find that in the very midst of our faithfulness, something will slam us back or press us on a new road or shatter our expectations. That’s not necessarily going to be something that comes from God, though sometimes the Spirit does most certainly unsettle and disorient us by awakening us to some new calling, some new claim. Certainly in the story of my own vocation, pretty much the last thing on my mind was ordained ministry, and when I did finally open myself to exploring this call it meant letting go of the career path I had wanted to follow. Many of you could probably say something like, “I just never thought I’d be doing this kind of work, or living in this place, or worshiping in this church, or whatever. Charles, when you playing in your band, touring the country, releasing CDs, and living the rock and roll lifestyle, had someone had told you that in another ten or twelve years you’d be playing in a church and writing music for worship, you probably would have just shaken your head.

 

But there are those other deeply disorienting things that come, not from God, but from the hard realities of life in the world. You’re hit by a house fire that feels like it has destroyed all of your touchstones. Or your child is born a developmental disability. Or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer or dies or simply leaves. Or you face an illness, of body or mind or spirit, and you wonder where God is in all of it. This is not the place I thought I was going to be, this is not the relatively safe and secure place that I thought I knew. I’ve been trying to live faithfully, God… what is happening?

 

Over which should ring—must ring—the words of the angel: Do not be afraid. Or as the psalmist writes,

 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley—the valley of the shadow of death—

  I will fear no evil;

for you are with me;

 

I think that’s what we need to learn from this character of Joseph, most particularly in the darkest and most disorienting times. I will not let my fear or sorrow or hurt have the final word, but will seek to live faithfully in this changed and sometimes almost impossibly challenging reality. Because Mary needed her partner, and that little baby needed a dad. I think those traditional paintings had it wrong; Joseph didn’t stand off to the side at all. I think he embraced that angelic invitation to not be afraid, and stood solidly with mother and child. When we face those things that cause us fear or disorientation or pain or lostness, may we hear those words ringing over us and dare not to be afraid.

 

*The poem “Infidelity” is from Kilian McDonnell’s book Aggressive Mercy, published by St Johns University Press, 2014.

 

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