Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Dilemma to Decision”
Rev. Art Ritter
December 22, 2019
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.
Last Sunday we witnessed the timeless Christmas story told to us by the children of our Sunday School. It is always a wonderful presentation, a beautiful picture of children of various ages, in costume, repeating the ancient words of the Christmas story and then standing around the manger. It always turns out well. But it is never as easy as it looks. Things happen that you can’t control. This year we had one of our angels who was ill and could not participate. I recall one program, many years ago when we found out at the last moment that our Joseph was ill and would be unable to attend. In a strategy that would have made Jim Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio proud, we simply eliminated Joseph’s lines with the innkeeper, gave the innkeeper kind of a monologue, moved one of our shepherds over to stand in Joseph’s place at the manger, and everything worked out just fine.
John Buchanan tells the story of a little girl who was drawing a picture of the Nativity scene. It was designed to be a very busy project, to help keep her calm during her Christmas excitement, but the little girl took the project very seriously. When she finished, she showed the picture to her mother. The girl carefully explained each character and figure at the manger: the shepherds and the sheep, the three wise men and their camels, the cows and even a cat and a dog. And of course in the center of the picture, right beside the sleeping baby Jesus, was Mary. It was a beautiful picture. But her mother noticed that something was missing. There was no Joseph. “Where is Joseph?” the mother asked the little girl. It seems he had been forgotten. But instead of taking the picture and making the necessary correction, the girl gave a look of exasperation and defiantly said, “Who needs Joseph, anyway!”
Perhaps that little girl was on to something. Of all of the characters in the entire story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph may be the one most overlooked. He is mentioned only twice in the gospel of Luke, and in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and the event preceding it, Joseph doesn’t get to say a single word. The angels speak to him of God’s plan as it is to happen to his betrothed wife Mary and he accepts his part with a certain reticent silence. In the next chapter Joseph’s dream is a rather important part of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, avoiding the death squads of Herod. But after that, Joseph is mentioned by name only one more time later in Scripture, when Jesus is about twelve years old and wanders off to the temple on the family’s Passover trip to Jerusalem. He was also later referred to when the people of Nazareth were questioning the authority of Jesus’ preaching. Other than that, what we hear today is all we get of the man.
Last week at Mayflower Café we watched Adam Hamilton’s presentation of the Jesus through the eyes of Joseph. Hamilton spoke of Joseph as a carpenter, not one who built houses but one who may have built farm implements- plows and yokes, bowls and spoons, cupboards, tables, and chairs. He made a good living at his trade and he probably taught Jesus carpentry. Although there isn’t much biblically on which to base the theory, Hamilton also believes Joseph taught Jesus much about life through his own example. He taught him about the Torah and the important of religion. He also taught him about family relationships and loyalty.
But perhaps the most important lesson that Joseph taught was one he teaches to each of us in this brief piece of Scripture we hear today. This is the lesson about how to find the hand of God in our situations of life. Joseph’s story was rather complicated. His hometown was Bethlehem, a small town outside of Jerusalem but at some point his family moved ninety miles north to the town of Nazareth. In Nazareth, his family and Mary’s family were probably acquainted. Joseph may have done some work in Mary’s home. He might have noticed her, been attracted to her, and asked her parents for her hand in marriage. Most scholars believe that he was quite a bit older, in his mid-twenties while Mary was in her mid-teens. But that was not unusual in those days. Joseph brought a gift along with his marriage request. Everyone went to see a rabbi and in the presence of witnesses a contract was signed. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, engaged with more legal implications than it carries for us. And then they began planning the future wedding- a week-long celebration that involved the entire community.
And then it happened. Mary turned up pregnant. Matthew doesn’t go into the details of the angel’s visit to Mary. Remember, we are hearing the story here from Joseph’s side. When Mary tried to explain it all to her future husband, it had to have been a most difficult conversation. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father. That Holy Spirit angle probably seemed like total nonsense. Joseph had to have been completely embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and disappointed. The facts were clear. The engagement contract had been broken. Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man and that he made plans to end the engagement quietly. He would let the world assume that he was the father of the child and assume part of Mary’s public shame.
And then the dream came. Adam Hamilton mentioned that Mary’s angel came in the midst of the day but Joseph’s angel had to come in a dream at night. Joseph’s life was so practical that he couldn’t see an angel while wide awake. He couldn’t imagine a messenger of God standing beside him in the daylight. It had to come at night. Perhaps it was in the midst of a night of fitful sleep, wrestling with the circumstance in which he found himself. William Willimon talks about the beauty and the significance of paintings and statues that portray the annunciation to Mary. There isn’t anything like that about Joseph’s dream. “Joseph bolting upright in bed, in a cold sweat after being told his fiancée is pregnant, and not by him, and he should marry her anyway.” Hamilton goes on to say that perhaps in the days ahead Joseph might have wondered if his dream was actually real. Was the angel the product of something he had had for dinner that night? Was the outlandish information the angel presented something he could really trust? Was there ever a day in which he didn’t doubt the validity of the dream and have to make the choice once again to stand by Mary and accept the consequences of their relationship? While the gospel of Luke describes Mary singing with joy at the news of the child she is carrying, the gospel of Matthew portrays Joseph as being too stunned to speak. Quietly his life was disrupted. Yet faithfully he carried on.
This is where we begin to understand that Joseph was really no minor player in the Christmas drama. He could have gotten by with acting in accordance with the Law, and quietly ending the relationship. But he was struck with an inner sense of compassion and mercy. In the face of earthly expectations, he felt a calling by God to participate in a new thing. While the daytime resolution to his dilemma was to quietly dismiss Mary, Joseph allowed himself to be open to a night of dreaming and wrestling and pondering his role in God’s plan. He began to see his life through the eyes of God’s intention, rather than just the eyes of the practical world around him.
It strikes me that Joseph had to put aside a lot of the things to which we usually pay attention. Pride. Ego. Status in the community. A sense of what is right and what is wrong based on the written or unwritten rules of society. The understanding of the conventional world. He trusted the dream. Certainly, he must have doubted as he made his way with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem. He had to have had some questions as he watched her give birth in a dirty manger stall. He probably wondered about why he and Mary and this holy child had to flee to Egypt so soon after the magi’s visit. Yet he trusted that dream and in God’s intention. He trusted it more than the reality around him. He found that dream to be the place where God spoke the truth about him, a truth he perhaps couldn’t see in himself. He experienced God with him, a holiness hidden in plain sight by the laws and scandals and questions and doubts and fears of humanity.
Do we need Joseph at the nativity scene for Christmas? Was he really necessary? Stanley Jenkins writes that one might go so far as to say that if Joseph is important, it is not so much because of what he accomplished himself- but because of what he allowed others to accomplish. Yet that itself is an act of faith- setting aside our own agendas to allow something greater to happen. Looking past the realities of the daytime to listen closely to the dreams of the night. Being silent and practicing self-restraint to make room for God’s word to grow.