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Guido Reni paidnting of St. Joseph with the infant Jesus painted in 1635

Isaiah 7:10-16
Matthew 1:18-25

December 21, 2014

Advent 4 Love

In Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen advises Alice to practice believing six impossible things before breakfast each day.

Every Christmas, Christians would do well to take the same advice. How else are we to prepare ourselves for the preposterous story we are about to hear again about how God decided to abandon heaven for earth, trading power and might for diapers and a teething ring? And how his mother could not say how it happened, exactly, although his mother’s fiancé knew for sure that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him?

Joseph, was a just man, Matthew tells us, and a kind one too. Whatever he believed about his young fiancée, the woman to whom he was engaged, he was not willing to shame her, either by putting her on public trial or by muddying her name to clear his own. So he resolved to dismiss her quietly, to call off the engagement, without casting blame. He was on the verge of doing so when an angel started whispering in his ear – giving him several impossible things to believe before breakfast – and nothing was ever the same again. Joseph’s sense of right and wrong got lost in the divine shuffle. His righteousness gave way to God’s. He believed what an angel told him in a dream. He took Mary home with him to be his wife. Christian tradition has never quite known what to do with Joseph. He disappears from the gospels before Jesus is baptised and he is never heard from again, which seems to support the legend that he was already an old man when he took Mary for his wife.

According to Matthew, the whole grand experiment hangs on what happens with Joseph. If Joseph believes the angel, everything is on. The story can continue. Mary will have a home, a family and her child will be born the son of David. But if Joseph does not believe, then everything grinds to a halt. If he wakes up from his dream, shakes his head and goes on to break off the engagement, then Mary is an outcast forever – either killed by her family for disgracing them and herself, or disowned by them, and left to scratch out her living however she can, feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she can beg or steal.

The child is Joseph’s until he says otherwise. Whether, or not his own seed is involved, he becomes the child’s father the moment he says so, because the issue at stake is not a biological one, but a legal one. “If someone says, ‘This is my son,’ he is so attested,” reads Jewish law. Will Joseph claim the child or not? Will he believe the impossible and give it a home, or will he stick with what makes sense and let the miracle baby go hungry?

According to Matthew, Joseph’s belief is as crucial to the story as Mary’s womb. God and all the angels are on her side, but it takes both parents to give birth to this remarkable child: Mary to give him life, and Joseph to give him a name: Jesus, son of David, from whose house the Messiah shall come.

In our own age of people who raise children without the benefit of marriage, the issue of legitimacy sounds a bit quaint, but the heart of this story is much bigger and more profound than that. The heart of the story is about a just man who wakes up one day to find his life wrecked: his fiancé pregnant, his trust betrayed, his name ruined, his future revoked. It is about a righteous man who surveys a mess he has absolutely nothing to do with and decides to believe that God is present in it. With every reason to disown it all, to walk away from it in search of a more controlled life with an easier, more conventional wife, Joseph does not do that. He claims the scandal and gives it his name. He owns the mess, he legitimates it, and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.

Do I need to say more? That quiet, old, peripheral man, the one on the margins of our society, the one with the missing sock and the candle wax on his sleeve, he is the one to watch. He is the one in the story who is most like us, presented to us day, by day, by day.

With circumstances beyond our control, with lives we would never have chosen for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all, when an angel whispers in our ears: “Do not fear. God is near. It may not be the life you had planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it.”

That “if” is the real shocker, that God’s “yes” depends on our own, that God’s birth depends on human partners, a Mary, a Joseph, a you, and a me, willing to believe the impossible, willing to claim the scandal, to adopt it and give it our names, accepting the whole sticky mess and rocking it in our arms. Our lives, our losses, our Messiah, our babe. Not just each of us alone, but the whole church of God, surveying a world that seems to have run amuck and proclaiming over and over again to anyone who will hear, that God is still with us, that God is still being born in the mess and through it, within and among those who will still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of God commanded him; he took her as his wife, but knew her not (had no marital relation with her) until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

At this point then the question is: Do we need this story? Do we still need a saviour? Does the ancient promise of a Messiah, a Saviour, made to a specific group of political exiles and then to a group of early Christians, really matter to those who listen to this sermon this morning? The old promise might matter if contemporary believers reflect on their own moments of exile. The plight of Isaiah’s people, as well as images of contemporary exiles, remind us that most of us have our own exile moments. We can identify those exile moments by asking, “Am I truly happy? If not, what seems unfulfiled in my life? What do I need in order to be truly happy?”

Certainly there are some very happy and contented people around who believe they have all they need. They have a good income, they love their families, and they enjoy life in general. This is fine as far as it goes. But have we ever asked, “Why was I created? What is the purpose of my being here? Where will I go at the end of this life?” If we ask these questions then we make room for reflecting on the bigger questions. Even the most contented humanist will be restless if he or she pauses to ask, “What is my life all about?” This is the beginning of knowing why we need a saviour. The word saviour comes from the word ‘salve’ which has to do with healing and wholeness, so then our saviour is literally, one who heals, one who leads us to wholeness. Once we start asking questions about our lives, we enter risky territory. Often asking questions demands that we change.

Joseph simply heard the angel whisper in his ear and he responded. There was no burning bush; no parting of the clouds on a mountaintop, there was only a dream. Do we trust the world of dreams? Or do we dismiss our dreams after being awake a moment or two, if indeed we even remember them.

If we could remember, what was the angel whispering in our ear before we woke this morning? Then we could seek out what answers do we need this year? Because what we hear determines whether or not, we need a saviour, someone who can help us find wholeness and health.

Most of us know the story “
A Christmas Carol.” Remember when Scrooge goes to see his partner Jacob Marley on his deathbed, Marley whispers in his ear, “Save yourself.” Scrooge reacts by saying, “Save myself? Save myself from what?” and dismisses Marley’s words as the ravings of a man out of his mind. It takes three dreams, three visitations from the spirits of Christmases past, present, and future to force Scrooge to face the emptiness of his existence and get him to accept the fact that it’s not too late to embrace a life of giving and sharing, a life of meaning and joy. It’s not too late for any of us to embrace that kind of life and the fulfilment that it brings.

Sharon Ferguson-Hood