Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who's Your Daddy? - 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 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 fulfill 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.

In 1968, The Zombies recorded “Time of the Season.” 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,, 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.’”

When you all get a chance to meet my dad, 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 like the same person.

Whenever I would leave the house, my parents reminded me, “Remember who are.” Rightly or wrongly, people will make judgments about us based on who our family is, or where we come from. By knowing the answer to the question, “Who’s your Daddy?”, people will know 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.

Who’s your Daddy? It’s a question that brings us around to Joseph. This morning, we look at the events of the Christmas story through his eyes. May we pray.

Wedding plans
The wedding planning was already well underway. Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. The wedding wouldn’t be fancy, but 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. Joseph didn’t really understand women anyway, which, I suppose, makes him a lot like many of the men in this room, myself included. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Women.”

One evening as he was cleaning up the shop, Mary came by. “Joseph, we need to talk.” 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, who is the father of that baby?”

Nothing gets by Joseph here. If the woman to whom you’re engaged is pregnant and you haven’t had 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.

Any publicist will tell you this is not the way to bring a savior into the world. Think about it. An unplanned pregnancy of an unwed mother engaged to a blue collar Galilean without the means or connections to arrange a birthing suite! "Lord," the publicity person would protest, "This simply won't fly – no one will believe it. Messiah born in a barn? To a woman pregnant before her marriage? This will never do!"

A side note here. I think society – then and now, has been particularly hard on this particular indiscretion. Yes, I understand the seriousness of pregnancy. I’m well aware of how this complicates and changes lives. I’m aware that teenage pregnancy isn’t really a good thing. 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. In the text, it says Joseph was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and historically, that is exactly what the church has tended to do to persons who find themselves unmarried and pregnant. 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 I have to err one way or the other, I’d rather err on the side of compassion than judgment.

Deep within our hearts there sometimes lingers a sense that we might not be acceptable to a holy, almighty, righteous God. But a God who comes to a stable and chooses humble folk like Mary and Joseph to be parents of the Messiah – well such a God just might care for the likes of me!

If Messiah had been born in a castle, to a royal family in the midst of all the splendor this world can offer – he could not be my Messiah – for I am none of those things. No, God wrapped his great gift of love in the simplest way and presented it through the most humble parents and thus made it possible for any of us, from the greatest to the least to reach out and receive God's gift!

Mary knew how precarious her situation was, and she knew that Joseph was within his rights to divorce her, to file charges against her, and even have her stoned to death. 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! But being a compassionate man as well as a righteous man, 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.

But then, Joseph dreamed something wonderful. It was astounding. God would enter the world. God would be born to his wife, as crazy as that was to understand. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do! But Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

Joseph 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.

I sometimes wonder why we get so hung up on the biology of all this. Fatherhood takes many forms. Biology is not what determines whether someone is a father-figure in our life. Fathers come in many forms. In fact, many of us can probably point to multiple figures in our lives who have been like fathers to us. Being a father is more about relationships and level of investment in one’s life than it is in biology. Was Joseph Jesus’ father? Well, yes, he was certainly one of them.

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 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.

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.

What Joseph can teach us
Through Joseph, 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).

We tend to treat Joseph 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 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 people who sinners of every sort and, like Joseph, was unwilling to expose them to public disgrace, or when he saw a dying thief on a cross and promised that he would be with him in paradise, I believe he was 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.

There is something vitally important happening in this story, but it’s easy for us to miss it. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, of the partying and planning, of the gift buying, the “Ho-ho-ho”ing, the overindulging, the decorating, the lighting, and the merry-making. It’s about Joseph, and without it, the whole project of God coming into the world through the person of Jesus might have placed in jeopardy. Do you know what it is? Can you see it, in the midst of the activity, and the commotion, and all the hustle? Do you know what Joseph did?

Joseph rested.

Joseph rested, and he went to sleep, and he had a dream. When Joseph stopped to rest, he took a break from trying to figure out the solution to the situation in which he now found himself. Joseph went to sleep, and he had a dream. And in his dream, an angel—a divine messenger—spoke to him and brought him wonderful news that the improbably conceived infant in Mary’s womb really was Emmanuel, God-with-us, God come to earth, God who makes his dwelling among us, God who moves into our neighborhood. Joseph had a dream about the salvation of the world.

When I am up front, there is a little game I like to play as I look over the congregation. It’s called, “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping.” The next time the person next to you falls asleep in worship, you might want to think twice about waking them up. God has a history of speaking to people through dreams. In fact, people used to go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep in the hopes that God would speak to them through their dreams. So, when I look across the congregation and see people sleeping, I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.

Joseph rested and he had a dream. When he dreamed, whether he meant to or not, he gave up control of the situation and allowed God to do whatever it was that God would do. And the world was changed forever.

You need to rest because you need to dream.

Friends, in these days of the Advent season before Christmas bursts in upon us, we find our imaginations pregnant with the promise of God’s possibilities – possibilities that bring in a kingdom of hope, peace, and joy. The carol enjoins us to rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

Right now, we are all being asked the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” I hope there is one thing we all want: a dream. I hope, like Joseph, we all want a dream of extraordinary and improbable and impossible things being brought to pass. A dream of God’s desire to do incredible things through each of our lives and through us together as a church. A dream of the fullness of God’s presence making itself right at home in, and among, and through us. I hope that we all want a dream.

But then, what will you give this Christmas? The greatest gift we can give is to believe in the dreams of those around us, for it is just possible that God is speaking through their dreams as surely as God spoke in Joseph’s. This year, believe in the dreams of those around you.

Believe in the dreams of your partner. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dreams of your parents. Believe in the dreams of your friends and neighbors. Believe in the dreams of your hero. Believe in the dreams of your enemy. Have faith in them, support them, encourage them, nurture them. Give a great gift this year, and believe in the dreams of those around you.

Joseph had a dream, and the presence of God was born into his life. Joseph had a dream, and a kingdom of hope, peace, and joy began. Joseph had a dream, and the best was yet to come.

Joseph had a dream, and the world was changed forever.

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