(A sermon for Advent 4A, Matthew 1:18-25)
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 ange
l 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." (Matthew 1:18-21, NRSV)
Who was Joseph? He was many things: carpenter, husband, adoptive father and saint. But most of all, he was a dreamer.
Do you remember your dreams? It’s a discipline to remember them; it takes practice, just like singing or playing golf or knitting complex patterns. You get better as you go along. For a long time I wrote my dreams down every morning, keeping a notebook beside my bed. I found the images slipped away from me, otherwise.
But there have been a few dreams in my life that I could never forget: a nightmare from my preschool years about Mr. Ed; a dream about a storm and a lighthouse that directed me back to seminary after I had withdrawn in discouragement; and a dream several years ago that got me thinking about what really matters in the life of the church. That last dream was so REAL, so PALPABLE, that I awoke hearing what sounded like a heartbeat—probably mine! But I remember feeling I had connected, in that dream state, to some part of God, that I had been, if only for a few moments, part of God’s rhythm and aware of something God wanted me to do.
So when I read about Joseph, I feel a kinship with him. We are dreamers together. I remember the power of that dream about literally taking apart a huge, traditionally appointed church to make a place where people could gather closer together around the Communion table, and I remember feeling both attracted to making changes and afraid of where those changes might leave me. Because it’s one thing to have a vision, and it’s quite another to live into it with your whole heart.
The Gospel of Matthew paints a vision of Jesus that places him in the mainstream of the Jewish faith. It begins with a genealogy, in which we read about Joseph’s place in the family tree of important people in the House of Israel. He came from a long line of people who were faithful to God, including such famous figures as Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon and Ruth and: patriarchs, monarchs and even a heroine from a far country.
Joseph was the namesake of another Joseph, the owner of the coat of many colors, a young man beloved by his father but sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The Joseph who married Mary is a descendant of one of those brothers, Judah. The Old Testament Joseph had a special ability to interpret dreams, to read the symbols of a vision, a gift which made him indispensable to Pharaoh and positioned him to help his family when they traveled to Egypt during a famine. He used his spiritual gifts to make a practical difference.
Our Joseph of today’s gospel lesson is different. He is a man of the establishment, descended from the right sort of people, and later in Matthew we will hear Jesus described as “the carpenter’s son.” Such small references to Joseph have been the basis for art and stories about Joseph, who is sometimes portrayed with a carpenter’s square in his hands. I don’t know if you have ever tried to work with wood, but as a tool-impaired person, I have a great deal of admiration for those who can build a house or craft a table or a chair or a cabinet.
Who was Joseph? He was many things: carpenter, husband, saint, adoptive father, but most of all, he was a dreamer.
For it is in a series of dreams, one of which we hear about today, that Joseph’s drama of the spirit unfolds.
Picture a man from a noble line, engaged to a young woman, discovering that she is pregnant. Picture that man, an upright person who knows he is not the child’s father. He knew what happened to girls who didn’t follow the code of behavior for their time. They were outcast. They had no hope of living respectably. The best they could hope for is exactly what he planned to offer Mary: to find a place for her to live out her life away from her family, with her child, quietly, a much more generous alternative than the street.
I think it’s hard for us to comprehend what this meant. Our news this week has been full of stories of a young, unmarried woman who is already selling promised pictures of her unborn child to a popular magazine. We may not like it, we may wonder how things have come to such a pass, but that is our reality.
It was not Joseph’s. It was not Joseph’s.
The appropriate actions would have been clear to him. He showed nobility to consider treating her with what would have been viewed as undeserved respect. That part of the story tells us he was one of the good guys, because even if he doubted her story, he cared enough about her to keep things quiet, for her sake.
Have you ever been in a situation where you made a hard decision, something that bothered you, and decided to sleep on it before taking action?
Joseph must have done something just like that. And in the night, an angel came to him in a dream. And instead of brushing it off, imagining it to be a bad dream or the result of indigestion, Joseph embraced the instructions of the angel.
This visionary response had all sorts of practical implications. Joseph took on a child of mysterious parentage and a wife who had experiences outside the norm. Joseph trusted the angelic visitor and did so again and again, as you will hear in the reading for next Sunday. He took Mary and Jesus to Egypt to keep them safe from King Herod, and he brought them back to a different town for their safety, rebuilding his own life over and over again to serve God.
Even after they settled in Nazareth, Joseph was the person who raised a young god-made-man. We have enough stories about Jesus’ humanity to be able to believe he struggled with containing himself, and when would that have been more likely than in human adolescence?
So many times we have a notion of something we could do to be faithful to God, but we despair at living it out in reality. We worry that it will cost too much, personally or financially, that it will seem odd to other people, that we are misreading the signals. We have the same questions in the collective life of a church. The Dreamers and the Do-ers wonder how to work together. Is it even possible?
I think we here at North Parish are showing that it is. The church needs all kinds of people in order to live out the visions given to us by God, however we receive them. The arrival of the YMCA before and after school child care program, scheduled for the first of the year, is a “dream come true.” It began in the minds and hearts of a few people in this church and expanded to become a practical plan embraced by the congregation. And it comes with drilling through concrete and hitting rebar and insulation on the floor and a general mess, to be followed by schedule and parking adjustments, I have no doubt.
It wasn’t enough for Joseph to say “yes” to the angel. He had to follow up with action.
Who was Joseph? He was many things: carpenter, husband, saint, adoptive father, dreamer and do-er.
Joseph listened to his dreams and sheltered Jesus, but the day came when Jesus had to live out his own dreams, to be fully human and to be misunderstood and persecuted. We know that Jesus prayed to God as Father, but when he dreamed of a father, I like to think he remembered Joseph, too: the man who stood by his mother, the man who made a home for him, the man who taught him a trade, the man who took him to the Temple and to synagogue, the man who did it all because of a dream. May we be as faithful to God’s dreams for us. Amen.
(The image is in the public domain and may be found here.)