“Being Joseph”

Advent Candle: Joy

“Being Joseph” a sermon by Rev. Keenan Kelsey, Noe Valley Ministry, December 18, 2022

Isaiah 7:10-16 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 Then Isaiah[a] said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.[b] 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son,[b] and he named him Jesus.

This is our last Sunday in Advent.  On Saturday it is Christmas Eve, , the birth  night, and next Sunday we celebrate the birth itself.  At both services we will sing halleluiahs!

But today, today the hallelujahs are not obvious, are they?  Even though we have lit the candle of Joy. we are trudging our way to the manger.  And, we are realizing, yet again, that The Holy Family’s beginnings were anything but Christmas-card perfect.

The Gospel writer Matthew begins by telling us that Mary and Joseph are engaged; betrothed.  This was a big deal in the ancient world for  Survival depended on community, on strong faith and strong families. Marriages were arranged between families, sometimes as early as birth.  As the younger of the two came of age, the couple entered into a betrothal.  a point of consent. if they agreed, they were considered legally married in the eyes of the law, although they did not live together as man and wife.

 Betrothal could only be undone by divorce.  At the end of a year the marriage took place. Mary and Joseph were in step two, legally married but not yet living together as man and wife.

But then, the bombshell: Scandal explodes!  Mary was found to be pregnant.  This would be unthinkable!  But if Mary had been with cousin Elizabeth for a few months, her status would have been obvious, impossible to deny.  And Joseph? What was he to think?   He had not transgressed with Mary.  Who then?  Mary might have tried to explain about the Angel and the Holy Spirit, but Joseph could not believe it. .

Like any of us would be, surely he was deeply hurt, confused, even angry. He knew the great shame and humiliation this would bring on him and his family, He could imagine    the whispers and snickers, the gossip and ridicule.

We are next told that Joseph was a righteous man”  A just man, a man who did the right thing, obedient to the Torah, the law of Moses..  So it makes sense that he would begin considering his options. According to Law,

He could bring charges against her in public.  Accuse her of adultery which might well result in death by stoning.

OR he could divorce her quietly, privately. In the presence of two witnesses he could write out a paper of divorce and present it to her.

As he ponders these things, just as Mary pondered these things, he apparently falls asleep, and God sends an angel, who outlines the whole divine plan, joseph was to claim this child, adopt him, include him in  the foretold lineage of Joseph’s own House of David.

And he was to name him Jesus, Jesus.  At the time, it was a popular, name, a common name among the villagers and growers. Not an exotic or heroic name, but one with particular meaning.  :in Hebrew, means Yahweh helps, or Yahweh saves.

The angel of the dream was surely as alarming as other Biblical angels, but equally compelling, for Joseph, obeys. The text is straightforward; the response is brave and bold.  Joseph trusts God even more than he trusts the letter of the Law.

The enormity of this act is only underscored by the reading from Isaiah, where we heard of another faithful Jewish man faced with a choice between common sense and God sense. Ahaz, the 11th king of Judea, is threatened by the kings of Israel in an attempt to invade Jerusalem and replace Ahaz with a puppet king, one who would support a coalition against Assyria.  Ahaz and his subjects are terrified, for such an attack would threaten not only the survival of the nation but also the promise that a descendent of David would always reign in Jerusalem.

In this time of crisis, Yahweh speaks to Ahaz through Isaiah who offers him a sign to trust God and do battle.  Apparently Ahaz did not have an angel to tell him, do not be afraid. For he backs away on legalistic grounds: “I am not supposed to test my God. He uses a Torah regulation to shield himself from God’s purpose with him.

In this passage, God asks Ahaz to go against tradition.  God tells him to ask for a sign.  But Ahaz is afraid of what the sign might require of him and refuses.  He cites traditions about God rather than God’s own word.

Joseph does the opposite.

Joseph stands, at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples, indeed for each reader of the Gospel.  Joseph is already facing the “you have heard it said, but I say to you’ tension that underscores the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.  With his decision he is already living into the heart of the law. Joseph is responding to a new and greater law, the law of love.

Joseph was  by trade, a Master builder of homes for people to gather and have a place to grow?

As such, he was good at drawing lines.  To build things right and to know they would last, he needed to know where the line was, to cut off the unwanted and un-needed piece, so the rest –the good pieces- could fit together

As  a moral man, he studied the lines God seemed to have drawn between good and bad, and did his best to follow them to help build the world towards the good.  That’s why, when he learned Mary was pregnant and not by him, he could not marry her.  It was against the law.  Outside the lines.  So, he needed to end the engagement.

Until God, through a dream of an angel, directed him otherwise.  Told him to step beyond where he thought the line needed to be drawn.   Because ultimately God and the Messiah and the light of God for the world cannot be contained in any box by us.

Rumi, a Sufi mystic said it this way: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  God says that too.

And what of Joy?  Much of this story hinges on despair, at least at first.   At this moment in history, the weight of our world’s news burdens us with despair over the violence of war, rising hate crimes, devastating natural disasters, and entrenched political divides.  Many of us may feel burdened with year-end deadlines to meet, holiday parties to plan and attend, cards to send, presents to buy and wrap. Those who live alone, isolated from such Christmas chaos, might feel the poignance of their loneliness   How is it we have Joseph aligned with Joy?

Well, what if the Christmas joy is not the bouncy hallelujah, but a deeper realization of righteousness, of rightness? perhaps it is an alignment with God, an unsought confirmation. Perhaps j oy is like an underground spring that wells up within us.  Perhaps joy is an inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmospheres.” Despair is a constant. Joy must be sought. because joy is also a choice, an attitude. Like a muscle, it needs to be exercised.

Moments of joy can serve as steppingstones through deserts of despair

How often we get faced with complicated choices, and how often we capitulate like Ahaz.  But this lesson says Don’t cling to tradition It is Joseph that gave encouragement to Matthew’s young church some 50 years after the death and resurrection.  And it is Joseph who can give encouragement to our church today. This congregation goes into the new year with the job of finding a pastor.  Not the pastor who is already defined in your heads, but one who shows up and asks you to ponder and then gives you space to say, let it be.  Listen and respond to what God says, even it if is different from what tradition advances.

Joseph’s call was to step up and take on his vital role in bringing the savior into the world.  He obeyed God’s messenger by taking Mary as his wife, helping to birth the baby, and then formally adopting  he baby by naming him and drawing him into his lineage. Here is fulfillment of the prophesy of a baby who would be Emmanuel God with Us.

The baby named Savior, saves us not from the circumstances of the world, but from our human tendency to put our faith in material or self-serving messiahs, to see the limits, not he possibilities.  We can change the world because God has come to be with us and has changed us.

Joseph is remarkably like us, or we are remarkably like Joseph, initially confused, then trusting, finally understanding. In the midst of his confusion God touches his life in a new way with new insight, additional information, different resolve and determination to act in a way that would not be popular.  And the confusion is swept away And this, perhaps, is joy.

God’s incarnation, God’s advent, is no guarantee of harmony and safety. God is not with us in placid non-disruptive ways. Despite the serenity of our manufactured manger scenes, Joseph reminds us that God’s intrusions cause consternation and difficulty, require courage and faith. The angel urged Joseph not to fear but how could Joseph not fear when his whole world was being rocked by God coming as a small fragile vulnerable disruptive unexpected, threatening baby.

Joseph) chose to take a risk for God, and that’s an example we can all follow.”

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