Sunday, December 14, 2008
“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.
In 1968, The Zombies put out a song called “Time of the Season.” One of the most memorable lines from that song is, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” According to the online source of all things reliable and true, Wikipedia.org, use of the phrase, “Who’s your Daddy,” enjoyed popularity among radio shock jocks in the late 1980s, but gained widespread use during the early 1990s. According to Wikipedia, it is “a slang expression that enjoys the form of a rhetorical question. Use of the phrase implies a boastful claim of dominance over the intended listener. One variant commonly aimed at residents of Indiana is ‘Hoosier Daddy.’”
If any of you have met my father, there is no denying the family resemblance. It is very clear, just in looking at the two of us, that I am my father’s son. In fact, you could look at photos of us taken at the same ages, and they look remarkably similar, with the exception of different hairstyles and clothing. Whenever I would leave the house, my parents would remind me, “Remember who are, and who you’re related to.” A great deal of our identity is based on the simple fact of who our parents are. Rightly or wrongly, people will make judgments about us based on who our family is, or where we come from, or what associations we maintain. By knowing the answer to the question, “Who’s your Daddy?”, people can make some pretty clear assumptions about who we are. Knowing our origins can tell others a lot about ourselves, and it’s also interesting to know where we, ourselves, have come from. More often than not, we find that the apple don’t fall too far from the tree.
Who’s your Daddy? It’s a question that brings us around to Joseph. This morning, we look together at Joseph and figure out together what he might say to us. May we pray.
The wedding planning was already well underway. Joseph, son of Jacob, and Mary, daughter of Joakim and Anne were engaged to be married. Neither of their families were wealthy, and while the wedding wouldn’t be fancy, it still promised to be a wonderful celebration.
However, over the last couple of months, Joseph had noticed a change coming over Mary. She had always been somewhat shy, but now she seemed standoffish. Joseph couldn’t put his finger on it, but it seemed like Mary was carrying some burden. He was well aware of the difference in their ages – Mary was a young girl, 14 or 15, at best, and he was pretty old in comparison. Joseph wondered if Mary might be embarrassed to be seen with him, or ashamed of him, or utterly repulsed by him, this old carpenter her father had arranged for her to marry. The seeds of doubt sowed themselves deep inside, but Joseph really didn’t know what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders, said, “Women,” and didn’t really think about it again.
One evening as he was cleaning up the shop, Mary came by. “Joseph, we need to talk.” Now, has anyone ever said these words to you? Have you ever said these words to someone else? I assume “We need to talk” meant the same thing in the ancient world as it does today. It’s what employers say to someone who is about to be terminated. It’s what someone says when they’re about to end a relationship. “We need to talk” is always a precursor of serious news.
“Joseph, we need to talk. I don’t really know how to tell you this.” “Go ahead, Mary. You know you can tell me anything.” “Well . . . this is so hard . . . . I’m pregnant.” There was a long silence, a truly pregnant pause. And then it hit him. “But Mary – we haven’t even . . . you know. Mary, that baby’s not mine! Who is the father of that baby?”
The text tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. Being a righteous man, he would have known the rules. One of those rules is that if the woman to whom you’re engaged is pregnant and you haven’t had marital relations with her, then someone else did. The punishment for such an indiscretion would have been death by stoning. As an unwed, pregnant teenager, Mary would have been on one of the lowest rungs in her society
A side note here. I think society – then and now, has been particularly hard on this particular teenage indiscretion. Yes, I understand the seriousness of teenage pregnancy. I’m well aware of how this complicates and changes lives. I’m aware that teenage pregnancy isn’t really a good thing. And, I’m pretty sure we’ve figured out what causes it. But too many times, when confronted with these prickly and delicate situations, I think the church has responded poorly. Too often, we have shunned the persons involved, and been heavy on judgment and light on compassion. At times in their lives when people need the love and support of a Christian community the most, we have tended to expel them from our midst. I’d ask us to look at how Jesus treated people. Tax collectors and prostitutes – two of the worst category of sinner in Jesus’ day – were people that he hung out with and loved and toward whom he showed compassion. I guess if have to err one way or the other, I’d rather err on the side of compassion than judgment.
But back to Mary and Joseph. Mary knew how precarious her situation was, and she knew what was within Joseph’s right to have done to her. Nevertheless, she continued to outline the story. “It wasn’t another man, Joseph. The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.” “Sure Mary. Of course that’s what happened.”
The text says Joseph resolved to dismiss her quietly and divorce her. He didn’t believe her! This is not the first time someone has played the God card in their own favor. Throughout history, people have tried to make God responsible for all sorts of things God really had nothing to do with. Last week, my eight-year-old nephew was assigned a timeout by my brother-in-law. He said, “Ummmm, I was praying, and God told me he doesn’t like timeouts.”
I wonder if Joseph thought Mary was pulling the same kind of stunt. He knew that baby wasn’t his! They didn’t need to take a DNA sample! They didn’t need to throw chairs at each other on The Jerry Springer Show. Joseph knew the best option for him not having to claim a baby that wasn’t his was to divorce Mary.
But look at this, Joseph was not only a righteous man, he was a compassionate man as well. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced; he chose not to file charges against her. Perhaps he hoped to “shame” the real father into marrying her and taking responsibility for the baby. Who knows? Maybe he assumed Mary loved the father, and that the father would love the baby. At the very least, perhaps the real father would face the consequences of his actions, and the child in Mary’s womb would have a shot at a stable, so-called normal home.
We are told that an angel, a divine messenger, appears to Joseph in a dream and confirms Mary’s story. The baby really does belong to the Holy Spirit, it turns out. From that point on, Joseph trusts God and puts aside any notion of dismissing or divorcing Mary. He takes her as his wife, and knowing full well that the child she carries is not his, willingly takes responsibility to be the baby’s father. Behold, the virgin who has conceived bears a Son and his name is Jesus.
A man of faith
In these events, Joseph is portrayed as a down-to-earth real man with real struggles and real questions and real fears and real doubts, but who wrestles with what it will mean to be faithful to the promises of God. Joseph shows us that the co-existence of faith and doubt is not only possible, but indeed, probable.
Faith, Joseph shows us, is not simply believing the right things about the right issues. Faith is not arguing our own point and putting down the perspective of others. Faith is not about proving ourselves right and other people wrong. Faith is not about briefed on the right talking points. Faith is not the eradication of questions and doubts. Faith is not having an understanding of everything we’re going through. In other words, faith is not a purely intellectual exercise. Faith is not so much about what we believe in our heads, it is about what we believe in our hearts.
Joseph shows us that faith draws us into a personal experience of the mystery of God. Faith does not try to dismiss the mysterious, or provide a logical explanation for it. Rather, faith lives into the mysterious. Faith brings us face to face with the mystery of God, and we find that mystery to be pregnant with the possibility of God’s future. It takes an imaginative leap to live into that future, and that’s what Joseph provides for us.
Neil Postman, in his book, Technopoly, accuses us of being people with no imagination. We have fooled ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of data in the world, and if we can just wrangle all the facts together, figure out how to sort them out, and line them up correctly, we’ll arrive at the answers to all of life’s problems. The UN sends envoys on fact-finding missions. Our government tells us they can’t decide anything until all the information comes in. Postman says it flat out: “We don’t need more data. We have more facts than we can possibly consume. What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve.”
What Joseph can teach us
But through Joseph, a man who believed that with God all things are possible, we find ourselves swept up in a story that is loaded down with courage, dreams, and nerve. May it be so that we would have that kind of faith! Joseph dares to take responsibility for what the Holy Spirit has already started. And when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty good definition of faith. He shows us a faith that keeps hope alive, and finds himself at the extreme center of divine mystery. He came face to face with the Holy and was utterly humbled by the mystery of it all. “Joseph faced the skepticism of his neighbors in calm faith in the God who was beyond his human comprehension. Joseph had the faith to see in this impossible situation the improbable work of God. He had just enough faith to believe that this improbably conceived infant might in fact be Emmanuel, God with us” (Jim Harnish).
In Protestant circles, we just haven’t known what to do with Mary and particularly with Joseph. We tend to treat him as a surrogate father, a character who fades into the background and doesn’t really influence the story line. But remember this: Joseph is the man God trusted to raise Jesus. He wasn’t just “some guy” who happened to be engaged and then married to the girl who carried the Messiah in her womb.
He is more than a man in the shadows. He is more than a silent man off to the side. He is more than a stand-in figure. He is the man who trusted God, and he is the man God trusted. He shows us that faith isn’t blind; it’s visionary. That is, faith sees things that can’t be seen with our own senses. Faith, rather than denying the improbable, hopes for the impossible. Faith keeps hope alive because it can see things other people cannot see. Joseph was a man of extreme faith, hope, and love, and I know it influenced Jesus. Later, when Jesus saw ordinary fishermen and called them to be fishers of people, or when he saw a tax collector and called him to be a disciple, or when he saw a dying thief on a cross and promised that he would be with him in paradise, I believe he might have actually been living out of a faith he had seen in Joseph, a faith that was not afraid to believe that improbable, even impossible things, might actually come true.
Friends, in these last days of the Advent season before Christmas bursts in upon us, we find our imaginations pregnant with the hope of God’s possibilities. If you remember nothing else from this morning’s sermon, remember this: God wants to do extraordinary things in your life, as well – things that seem difficult, things that seem improbable, things that seem impossible. God is calling you to be part of bringing hope to the world. God seeks to bless your life in order that you may be a blessing to others. God wants to transform your life, so you in turn can transform the world.
You have come to church on this, the 14th of December, the third Sunday in Advent. I hope you have come looking for hope, because in the story of this holy family we find it. If you come to church in December, you’d better buckle yourself in because we’re going to bombard you with hope. We’re going to stir up the poet within you, and teach you to sing again, and invite you to imagine yourself smack in the middle of God’s promises and possibilities.
Like Joseph, I hope we will be found faithful. May we allow hope to root itself in our hearts, in the very core and center of our being. May we come face to face with the Holy and be utterly humbled by the mystery of it all. May we be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit among us to accomplish great, and improbable, and impossible things. And as we do, may the true spirit of Christmas – Emmanuel, God-with-us, be born within each of us.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
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