What if…Joseph didn’t go along with the plan?
December 24, 2023 (Advent 4 Morning Service)
Some of you may have seen Meg post this online.
Last week she stopped one of our daughters mid-way up the staircase, which was heavy laden with their belongings. Meg said to her: “Wait! My Christmas dream is that whenever you walk up the stairs and you see something that’s yours, you’ll take it with you and put it away where it belongs.”
I was listening to this from the other room – and I just couldn’t help it. Knowing how much Meg loves the musical Les Miserables, I launched straightaway into Fantine’s song: “I had a dream my life would be, so different now from what it seemed. Now life has killed the dream…I…dreeeaaammmmmeeeeddd!”
She posted this entire interaction on Facebook and I have thoroughly enjoyed the comments section.
One person said: “Nobody is more full of false hope than a Mom who places items on the stairs for her family members to carry up.”
Another said “their eyes don’t work on staircases, but hide your dark-chocolate sea salt almonds in a remote corner of the cabinet, God opens their eyes and they SEE!”
We all have dreams – some are simple, like expecting one’s children to be better at tidying, even when the guy who makes up one full half of their genetic makeup is…not the best at that.
But other dreams – other dreams hold much more significance.
When those dreams die – who’s to say what can happen.
Our reading today is the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Matthew. Should you return this evening, you’ll hear Luke’s version, which centers Mary in the story.
Matthew’s story invites us to consider it all from Joseph’s perspective – Joseph who had a dream about living an ordinary life, with an ordinary wife, having ordinary children. But Joseph was asked to put that dream away and accept another from God’s hand.
Before we read, let us pray:
Our waiting is nearly over, O God.
You are so close, but are we ready?
Prepare the way in our hearts – flatten every obstacle; level out the uneven ground; make the path straight so that we might receive from your living Word that which makes for true life. Amen.
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.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.
The Word of the Lord
THANKS BE TO GOD.
The way language works is interesting to me – on many levels. Today, I’m thinking about the values we assign to certain words.
There are words that have positive connotations, words that have negative connotations and words that are value-neutral.
Positive words – Kind, Beneficent, or Merry because it’s Christmas.
Negative words – Cruel, Hostile, Destructive.
Value-neutral words – Chair, Lamp, Photosynthesis…there’s nothing about these words that register morally at all – they just are.
Here’s the thing, though. Words don’t always remain in one category forever, because the other thing about language is that it’s always changing; it evolves with use.
The word I am about to say used to be a value-neutral word – but I would argue that it has most certainly migrated into the negative category. That word is “Entitled.”
It used to be a simple expression of that which you are owed, most often used in legal settings.
More recently, however, the word “entitled” signifies a person who is arrogant, spoiled, narcissistic, possessed of a belief that the world owes them something just because they exist.
Now, to be called “entitled” – it means that you’re something of a jerk.
Let’s talk about Joseph.
Let’s talk about what he is legally entitled to in this story
whether he ends up being “an entitled jerk.”
Let’s talk about Deuteronomy, chapter 22.
Were we among the Jewish audience that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written for, as soon as we hear that Mary is a virgin, our minds might immediately run to Deuteronomy 22.
Well, I say that, but actually, the book of Deuteronomy reads like the ancient version of the fine print you can find at the bottom of a contract.
One gets the sense that this section of Scripture sought to anticipate every single circumstance that could possibly arise when people do life together. It ranges from the comically specific to the deeply disturbing – and chapter 22 has it all.
Chapter 22 tells you what to do should you come upon a fallen bird’s nest.
Chapter 22 mandates that everyone absolutely must wear tassels on the four corners of their cloaks.
Chapter 22 stipulates that every roof must have a parapet so that nobody falls off – you know there’s a story behind that one.
But the bulk of the 22nd chapter is devoted…to virgins.
What happens when a husband fabricates some claim that his wife was not a virgin.
How will he be punished?
What happens if the claim is true – how will she be punished?
Need I tell you that those two punishments are not at all equal or proportionate.
It’s the kind of chapter that makes me very uncomfortable, but it is crucial to understanding what is at stake in the Christmas story.
When betrothed-to-Joseph Mary is found to be pregnant – according to the letter of the Law, Joseph is entitled to gather the men of the community, drag Mary out of her father’s house and stone her to death. Verse 21 says – “So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
Every week, after we read the Scripture, we say “The Word of the Lord”
And you, the people, reply “Thanks be to God.”
Sometimes, it’s much more difficult to say those words back, right?
Praise God that Scripture is filled with rebels and resistors who understand that there is a difference between the letter of the Law and the intention of God’s heart. I would invite you to consider Joseph as one of those rebels.
Matthew takes care to tell us that Joseph is a righteous man, which could be a shorthand way of saying that Joseph knows the Law – that he knows the violence that he is entitled to exact on Mary; that he is fully cognizant of his right to drag this poor girl out into the open and, not just shame her, but end her life.
That is what he’s entitled to.
But Joseph is not an entitled jerk.
When Matthew describes him as a righteous man, I wonder if it means to say that Joseph understands the heart of God – that God is pure grace and love, even when the Law is not.
That’s important: the heart of God is pure grace and love, even when the Law is not.
The Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr writes a near-daily blog. One entry on the topic of Scripture is titled “Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back.”
“The Hebrew prophets had an uncanny ability to recognize when people were confusing partial knowledge with eternal truth….Scripture…is invariably three steps forward and two steps backward. It gets the point and then loses it or doubts it. In that, the biblical text mirrors our own human journey. Our job is to see where the “three steps forward” texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence, and trust), which then gives us the ability to recognize and guard against the “two steps backward” texts (which are usually about vengeance on enemies, supposed divine wrath, law over grace).
Richard Rohr recognizes that the Bible is messy and it pulls in every which direction and cruel people can readily find cruel Biblical texts to justify whatever it is they seek to do. But the heart of Scripture trudges in the direction of grace – and nowhere is that more evident than in the fullest revelation of God’s character – Jesus Christ, whose birth we will celebrate tonight.
I don’t know if you saw it, but Christmas has been cancelled this year in Bethlehem?
I can think of nothing more ironically sad than this.
It’s been two and a half months since Hamas went on an inexcusable rampage through Israeli communities – committing terrible crimes against humanity. And it’s been two and a half months since Israel began its bombardment of Gaza in retaliation for those acts of terror.
A few weeks back we hosted Professor Jeff Spinner-Halev from UNC’s Political Science department to discuss the dynamics of this war with us in our Adult Sunday school.
As he promised in his opening disclaimer – he was speaking to this as a political scientist, not as a person of faith. So he talked about what Israel is entitled to – how any sovereign nation, when attacked, is entitled to defend itself against any and every existential threat.
Just War theory, however, requires that this be a proportionate response that focuses on neutralizing enemy combatants. He explained that Just War Theory does not entitle a nation to launch indiscriminate attacks, especially against non-combatant civilian targets. Essentially, no nation or people – no matter how deep the injury or existential the threat – are entitled to a response that is pure revenge.
Perhaps the most poignant part of Dr. Jeff’s presentation was when he got personal at the end and talked about his Aunt Paula – how she would always squeeze him so hard every time she saw him and just hold him so tight.
He confessed that it took him longer than he cares to admit to realize why: that she was a survivor of the Holocaust; how she had a completely different family and they were all destroyed.
As I listened to him share this truly moving story, I thought what he was doing was offering an illustration of Israel’s right to exist – why it’s important to the Jews of the world to have a homeland, so they would never again have to live at the unpredictable whims of any nation.
That’s where I thought he was going and that would have been an absolutely valid point to make.
But Dr. Jeff surprised me because this man –
who has brothers living in Israel;
who has nephews serving in the Israeli Defense Force, and so very much in harm’s way;
whose Aunt Paula squeezed him so tight with arms bearing a tattooed number compliments of the Nazis – who squeezed him to the point that it hurt for no other reason than because he existed
With clear emotion in his voice, Dr. Jeff turned his sense of empathy to the Palestinians and said “When I think about all that she lost and then I see some in Israel who have not taken that lesson to heart – who have not applied the pain of our stories to another people – it breaks my heart.” It was a beautiful moment to behold.
There are some things we may be entitled to in this life – but sometimes the more faithful thing to do is NOT exact the pound of flesh you are owed.
If I understand this text, I think that is what Joseph teaches us.
He shows us how to take three steps forward – three steps in the direction of mercy, three steps in the direction of grace – without backsliding into violent entitlement.
Christmas may be “cancelled” in Bethlehem this year…the festivals and the services – but Christmas is not canceled because Joseph is still teaching us how to take those three steps in the direction of God –
God who takes every step to close the distance between us.