Joseph's Trust, December 22

Joseph’s Trust

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 14-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church; December 22, 2019

 

The first 17 verses of Matthew, which we didn’t read aloud today, are a genealogy, tracing Joseph’s lineage from Abraham through Jacob, son of Matthun, father of Joseph.  Then Matthew starts his narrative:  Now, the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way:  Except what follows isn’t the way we think of Jesus’ birth happening.  There’s no manger, no extended trip to Bethlehem, no shepherds interrupting the baby’s first night’s sleep, and the angel who shows up before the child’s birth speaks to Joseph, not to Mary.  There are elements of the story we do recognize – there’s Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus himself – they’re all in Matthew’s story – and there is direct communication with the family by an angel, a messenger of God.  This baby is big news, important enough that God needs to engage in one-on-one communication with the parents in order to get things off on the right foot.  The general situation this family is in is pretty similar in both gospel stories.  Mary is pregnant with this baby before she is married to Joseph; they are betrothed, engaged, planning the wedding, perhaps, but they have not consummated the relationship, as far as the stories tell us.  Yet, she is pregnant, expecting a child.  Such a situation is outside the bounds of decency among faithful Jews of the time.  Not unheard of, I’m sure, but certainly frowned upon.  And both Matthew and Luke include this detail in their story to make it clear that this child, this baby born in these unusual circumstances, is of God.  ‘Emmanuel, God with us,’ says this angel to Joseph.  ‘Stay with Mary, don’t give up on her; the baby needs a family.  You and Mary will be family, offering love and instruction and guidance.’  And, to his great credit, Joseph listens.  He claims Mary, and her baby, as his own.  Together they will be family for each other and for this child.

 

I want to look intently at this part of these stories for a moment.  We live in a culture that for generations has taken for granted that women find their place in society in relationship to the men in their lives.  That’s not been universally true, but it has certainly been a norm among many if not most human societies for hundreds of years.  In my own lifetime, in this country, a married woman couldn’t get a credit card in her own name. That rule was changed less than fifty years ago.  There are communities of people, some small, some very large, that to this day simply don’t afford women the right to be fully human in the world.  Women are by some laws in the world only allowed to exist as the property and responsibility of the men in their lives, fathers, husbands, brothers, and uncles.  The United Nations Declaration of human rights says that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex…,” but  the reality that such rights and freedoms are still frequently denied to women and girls means that there are special initiatives within the UN to make such rights reality.  However, when we look at these stories of the birth of Jesus, two thousand years ago, in a culture that didn’t legally allow the word of a woman to be a witness in court, we see that God’s ways are not our ways.  In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to invite her to be part of this wonderful new project God wants to bring into being.  All we hear about Joseph in Luke before the second chapter is that he and Mary are engaged.  In chapter two, he finally appears in the story as the couple is headed to Bethlehem, just as the child is due to be born.  Here in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is slightly more involved in the pre-birth narrative, but he is not given any choice about Mary’s pregnancy at all; the angel comes to him in a dream to counsel him about his response to what has already happened.  Joseph was considering dismissing Mary, divorcing his beloved, breaking off the engagement.  ‘Don’t be afraid to marry Mary,’ says the angel.  ‘This child is of God.’

 

God does not give to Joseph the option of whether or not Mary should bear this child.  That decision is only Mary’s.  Joseph is given the agency to decide whether he wants to be part of the enterprise.  Well before we figured out what it might mean to treat women and men as equal partners in a relationship, God knew.  God gives each person in this couple appropriate agency to decide how they will participate in this wonderful birth, in the incarnation, of Emmanuel, God with us, that we will celebrate this week. 

 

I appreciate Joseph.  I admire his willingness to be part of the venture, to grasp the importance of what he has to offer this child, and to hold on to the hope he already had of building a life of love with Mary.  I can’t tell you precisely what was involved in creating the engagement that had been established between Joseph and Mary. There are intelligent suppositions about betrothal of the time, and there are legends that have grown up over the centuries about who Joseph might have been.  It’s hard to distinguish truth from myth in the midst of it all, but I believe that a couple planning marriage could well have hopes and dreams of what life together might be like, so I think it’s fair to imagine that Mary and Joseph had dreamed of a long life together.  And Joseph held on to those dreams as part of what still could be.  He was willing to trust God’s hand in his life, even when it wasn’t obvious that it made sense, even through his dismay and disappointment, even through the social embarrassment he expected to encounter because of it.  Joseph chose to trust God.

 

Our dreams of Christmas, and time together, and what’s under the tree, are just that – dreams.  They may come true.  You may well have what you consider to be a perfect Christmas.  And they may not.  There may be a wrench in the works that will keep you from sharing time with loved ones, or the cookies might have burned badly last Tuesday night.  There may be a grudge that your sister has been holding against your brother that will add an unpleasant edge to any time you spend with them both, just as it does every year. There may be memories or experiences that touch your heart with pain or sorrow, making Christmas a tough time of year instead of a joyful time.  That’s OK.  It may not be great.  But it’s OK.  I invite you to trust God through it all.  That Emmanuel part of the incarnation, the God coming to be with us part, is the most important good news of the season.  And you don’t have to be joyful to receive it.  You can come to this season, and go through this season, in disappointment and sadness, even in anger, and Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, God with us, will go through it with you.  It’s God coming into the world that we celebrate at Christmas, the phenomenal offer God makes to us to be a real and present part of life.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  It’s that fleshness that is God’s ongoing gift at Christmas.  You can trust it, through your joy and through your disappointments and sadness.  So rest, friends, rest beside the weary road, wherever you find yourself this season, and hear the angels sing.  They’re singing for you.  Amen.

 

 

 

Isaiah 7:10-16

10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

 

Psalm 80:1-7, 14-19, UMH 801

1Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!

You who are enthroned upon the cherubim,

     shine forth 2before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.

Stir up your might, and come to save us!

3Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

4O Lord God of hosts,

     how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

5You have fed them with the bread of tears,

     and given them tears to drink in full measure.

6You make us the scorn of our neighbors;

     our enemies laugh among themselves.

7Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

14Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see;

     have regard for this vine, 15the stock that your right hand planted.

16They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;

     may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

17But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,

     the one whom you made strong for yourself.

18Then we will never turn back from you;

    give us life, and we will call on your name.

19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;

     let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Romans 1:1-7

1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Matthew 1:18-25

18Now 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.