December 11, 2016: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
In the pages of the Bible dreams are important business. Dreams are those odd landscapes between wakefulness and sleep. Usually today, if we remember details from our dreams we attribute them to something we ate or drank or maybe something stressful from our day. Last week we had a meeting of the budget and finance committee, and later that night I dreamed about spreadsheets. I don’t think I need Sigmund Freud to help explain what that’s about. But in the pages of the Bible, dreams are understood to be a realm of divine encounter—a place where the dreamer experiences firsthand the wonder and mystery of God’s revelation.
In the Old Testament, God spoke through dreams to heroes like Jacob and Joseph and to kings and prophets as well. In our scripture lesson today, we hear about one such life-changing dream experienced by a man who is also named Joseph. But before we get to his dream, let’s first go back and see what we know about this Joseph. Honestly it’s not that much.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like Joseph is usually the most boring figure in our nativity sets and manger scenes. Mary and Jesus are impossible to miss. The shepherds are easy to spot with their crooks and sheep. The three kings are crowned and usually painted in bright colors. And then Joseph is just the guy who’s left over. The other day I was putting a manger scene together and I mistook Joseph for an extra shepherd. How embarrassing.
We don’t know were to put Joseph in the story do we? He is called Jesus’s father, but we know he isn’t really his father. Mary is the parent who is much more interesting of a character, singing her songs of prophecy and appearing later on in other stories with her son after he is grown. Joseph never speaks a single word in the entire Bible, and after Jesus’ childhood we never hear about him again.
So who was this silent man of Christmas? Our story today gives us the only details we have. He is called “a righteous man,” that is, he was someone who did his best to live by the ancient laws of the Old Testament Torah. Notice that Joseph is called righteous at the beginning of this story, before he has had his marvelous dream. And the proof of his righteousness is shown in how he responds to finding out that the woman he is engaged to marry is pregnant with someone else’s baby. What a blow that must have been to him: broken trust with the woman he loved, a shameful insult to his pride, the end of his hope for a respectable family life. The letter of the law was loud and clear. For getting pregnant before marriage, Mary could have been publicly disgraced by the town’s leaders and punished with death by stoning. According to the religious law, Joseph was well within his rights to insist on this punishment. But Joseph is shown to be “righteous” by deciding to dismiss Mary quietly. Joseph does everything quietly!
Now in one sense it does seem awfully kind of Joseph to not seek Mary’s death, but to our modern ears this many still sound like an awfully condescending and patriarchal view of righteousness. For Mary, pregnant and scared, is still being cast aside like a piece of trash. As an unwed mother in ancient Israel, she and her child would be condemned to scrape out a harsh existence in poverty as social outcasts. I’m not so sure that Joseph’s decision to dismiss Mary is proof of his righteousness so much as a set up by the author of the gospel to show us what counted as “righteousness” at the time—a self-concerned, fearful approach to religion, used to protect those who are in power. It’s this kind of righteousness that will lead the Pharisees and others to opposed Jesus once he grows up. It’s this kind of self-focused righteousness that will have Jesus arrested, tried, and condemned to die for blasphemy. It’s this kind of fearful righteousness that will nail him to a cross and leave him to die, quietly dismissed by the rest of humanity. It’s this kind of blindly sentimental, patriarchal righteousness that has mascaraed as Christian faith through the ages, whenever those in power use religious tradition to keep their status at the top and conquer, exploit, and oppress those below them.
When our story starts, Joseph is a “righteous man” by all accounts of what nice religious people in his day considered to be righteous. But when he falls asleep that night everything changes! Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph dreams a dream of what is to come, and this future is shocking and scary. Then angel that appears tells Joseph not to be afraid. Have you noticed that angels are always saying that, they really the sound like a broken record. They tell Mary, “Do not be afraid.” They tell the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” Seeing an angel is apparently a scary thing, and so they usual tell people not to be afraid of them. But this time the angel is talking about a different kind of fear. He says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Don’t be afraid of what others will think of you. Don’t be afraid of the unexpected. Don’t be afraid of your own sense of disappointment and inadequacy. Don’t be afraid to do what God calls you to do. Because, as it turns out, this situation is nothing like it appears to be.
Yes, Mary is pregnant. No, you’re not the father. But this isn’t what you think, Joseph. For Mary bears a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is no ordinary baby, but the very son of God—the Wonder of all wonders, the Mystery of all mysteries. This child is Emmanuel, God-with-us, coming to save us all from our sins. Coming to save the righteous and the unrighteous. The poor and the powerful. The broken and the prideful, the pious and the pitiful. He is coming to save us all. So he is to be named “Jesus,” which means “he will save.”
And here’s the hard part for you, Joseph, quiet Joseph, this boy is going to need a father, someone to give him his name. He is going to need a father to nurture him, to hold him, and to protect him as he grows. He’s going to need a dad to teach him the tools of the trade and how to throw a baseball. He’s going to need a father to show him what real righteousness looks like. So Joseph, quiet Joseph, righteous Joseph, you have a part to play in this story of God’s salvation.
When dawn appeared that next morning, Joseph was a new man. The scripture says, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife.” When he awoke from his sleep…
Before that night, Joseph was considered upright and respectable in the eyes of others, but he woke up from that illusion, ready to do what God was calling him to do, even though it would seem scandalous to everyone. Before that night, Joseph was considered righteous for seeking to follow the letter of the law, but he woke up from that illusion prepared to practice a truer, deeper kind of righteousness—welcoming the outcast and the broken into his heart and his home.
Maybe we have trouble finding Joseph’s place in our manger scenes, because in a way, he looks the most like us. Maybe we never hear Joseph speak in the story, because his voice is actually our own. Maybe we struggle in our lives with the same worries that he faced. We try to do the right thing, but sometimes, our attempts at righteousness turn out to be much more about what we are doing than what God is doing in the world—more about self-righteousness than risky, sacrificial, scandalous faith.
Maybe, like Joseph, we need to be woken up from our dreams…from our dreams of work, and money, and pressure, and failure…our dreams of materialism, and jealously, and self-centeredness. Maybe we need to be woken up from our nightmares of tragedy and grief, our nightmares of fear and violence, our nightmares of social discord and warfare and suffering. Maybe we need to be woken up from our slumber of ignorance of those whose lives are drastically different than our own. Maybe we need to be woken up as people of faith today, woken up to the reality that in Christ God is doing something we never thought possible.
If this is true, if this dream is real, that God is with us, really here, with us in all our brokenness, born to save us from our sins and from our self-righteousness…if this is true, then its’ time to wake up. Because God is calling us to play a part in this story
Last week, on Cantata Sunday our choir and guest musicians led us in a wonderful musical service that proclaimed “The Joy of Christmas.” Interspersed within the music were readings from scripture and poetry. One of the poems we heard was by Thomas Troeger. It was all about Joseph, and it’s a wonderful way to end our reflection on his story this morning:
The hands that first held Mary’s child
were hard from working wood,
from boards they sawed and planed and filed
and splinters they withstood.
This day they gripped no tool of steel,
they drove no iron nail,
but cradled from the head to heel
our Lord, newborn and frail.
When Joseph marveled at the size
of that small breathing frame,
and gazed upon those bright new eyes
and spoke the infant’s name,
the angel’s words he once had dreamed
poured down from heaven’s height,
and like the host of stars that beamed
blessed earth with welcome light.
“This child shall be Emmanuel,
not God upon the throne,
but God with us, Emmanuel,
as close as blood and bone.”
The tiny form in Joseph’s palms
confirmed what he had heard,
and from his heart rose hymns and psalms
for heaven’s human word.
The tools that Joseph laid aside
a mob would later lift
and use with anger, fear, and pride
to crucify God’s gift.
Let us, O Lord, not only hold
the child who’s born today,
but charged with faith may we be bold
to follow in his way.
Friends, it’s time to wake up and follow in his way! Amen.