The Presbyterian Church of Chestertown Alison Halsey
Chestertown, MD Matt. 1:18-25
December 22, 2019 Advent IV
Accepting the Task
Our son, Dan, over the course of his many years in church Christmas pageants, played every role but Mary. Everyone in the church who knew him as a prime example of a preacher’s kid, got a good chuckle over the year he played the angel, Gabriel. Angelic was not an adjective one would have used to describe him especially in his adolescent years. Dan, however, said his favorite role was always Joseph, mostly because there were no lines to memorize and all you had to do was come and stand next to Mary and stare at the baby. It was a piece of cake, anyone could do it. And while yes, that was true, I’m not so sure it was as easy as all that. To truly enact the role of Joseph you need courage and love.
Joseph doesn’t have any lines in the Gospel of Matthew, there are few things written about him, and he is only mentioned in one of the Christmas carols in our hymnal (the one we will sing shortly). For the important part he played he doesn’t get much credit.
Mary and Joseph are engaged. Committing themselves to one another in the presence of a rabbi and two witnesses they have executed a contract with legal implications. The wedding is being planned, a major event not only in the life of the couple and their families but also in the life of a community lasting a week with plenty of partying. According to custom, they may now be seen together although they are still living with their parents. Then the unthinkable occurs – Mary turns out to be pregnant. Matthew says, “She was found to be with child.” Unfortunately, we aren’t given privy to the conversation which took place when Mary shares her news with Joseph. One thing he knows for sure is that he is not the father. We can only imagine how disappointed, hurt, and angry he must have been. Their contract had been violated and there were consequences which could have been administered. Mary might have been stoned to death. Instead Joseph decides the best course of action would be to return to the rabbi and undo the agreement, divorcing her quietly and if all their friends and relatives thought the child was his – well so be it, he knew otherwise and Mary would live.
Poet W. H. Auden, in A Christmas Oratorio, places Joseph at a fashionable bar having a drink and thinking, “And I was sitting down to wait / My own true love,” when he hears a chorus offstage voicing his own subconscious, his doubts:
“Joseph, you have heard what Mary says occurred,
Yes, it may be so Is it likely? No.”
And later the voices return.
“Mary may be pure, But Joseph, are you sure?”
A third time the voices come:
“Maybe, maybe not
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world will say
About you anyway.”
Finally Joseph cries,
“How am I to know?
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof,
That what my love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is love.”(Collected Poems, pp.280-282)
We set Mary and Joseph every year into our nativity scenes but have you ever really considered what anguish they inevitably went through. What an interruption the announcement of the birth of a baby was in their lives. How could this be anything other?
Then Joseph had this dream. During the course of a night of fitful turning and tossing, his mind anxiously struggling with the uncertainty of his future and second guessing his plan, he had a vision of an angel telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And the great miracle of this Christmas story was Joseph trusted this vision from God and put aside his bruised male ego and what he had known to be the law and married his pregnant fiancée. He therefore took his place at center stage in the great drama of God’s incarnation without so much as saying a word.
Joseph didn’t understand where this would take him, but he loved Mary and he trusted God, and he knew that at this moment his courage couldn’t wait. A baby was on the way. So, he waded through all the confusion and the uncertainty and was willing to be led by God into a vision of something new.
It is good we have Joseph in our nativity scenes for he is like most of us – stumbling along in life trying to do what is right until our common place world is rocked irretrievably by God. Think about it – we believe God is a living presence in our lives. God is Immanuel, God with us, that in and of itself is inherently unsettling and disruptive. Into the plans we have made God intrudes, and we are forced to reassess our lives and do something other. Matthew begins his very gospel of Jesus’ life with such a destabilizing story. Joseph has one dream for his life, but God has another.
There are lots of Joseph’s in our world, who have that courage and love. I have met a number of them:
- The mission in Haiti was looking for someone specifically with carpentry skills and so I invited John to come with us. He skillfully completed the task he was asked to do but upon his return he said the trip was life changing – he met God there in the people and place, in their situation in life. He now spends a great deal of his free time at home voluntarily helping people and institutions which could not otherwise afford his services.
- Karen always thought her mom would be healthy. She was of strong German descent and could handle almost anything until the day she had a stroke. Karen’s life was altered dramatically – she spent hours visiting her mom in the nursing center and then, since her mom wasn’t very responsive, she would visit with others in the hall. Her mom died within a year, but she was hooked. God had acted in her life and she now had this important ministry to the other residents in the home. She was learning how good and rich her life was now.
- Hal was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Unsetting yes, but he took it upon himself to start a support group for the other residents in the senior housing unit in which he lived, who had the disease. They met regularly, shared frustrations, ideas and resources, and brought in speakers. It was a wonderful ministry.
- There was this church which was moving forward in faith and love, doing what it has always done, when the pastor said she was retiring. They were forced to reconsider their history, their mission, their hopes for the future. And their Pastor Nominating Committee set to work. Soon, very soon, God will interrupt their lives again, bringing someone new to guide and direct them. This story is obviously yours. You may need courage and love, to be open to a new person and new ideas. You may need to be like Joseph, being willing to take your place in the great drama of God’s saving love here in Chestertown.
I am so glad we have Joseph in the story of Jesus’ birth. It is good to be reminded that indeed we have “God with us” Immanuel, who has and who will continue to disturb and disrupt our lives in new ways. God who can take the unsettling things in life and make something worthwhile, and better than worthwhile. God’s incursions into our lives can be grand in ways we never expected and they have the potential to make our lives much more interesting than if left to ourselves and our plans. While we may have dreams, God may come and interrupt our lives sharing God’s dream of a new life for us. We just need the courage to act, because God’s love can’t wait to be born.
While I don’t believe the role of Joseph was easy, as our son Dan proclaimed. I do believe it is a role we all can play. We too can be God’s surrogate stand-ins in the pageant taking place daily in our world wherever the love of God is being birthed.