Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013

We sit in rows of simple church-like chairs
In sacred space made common with singing;
Projected words our sign to form a choir,
Wordless picture signs our silence, listening

To words and songs from others' throats and lips.
I've heard too much divine made commonplace,
Carols and poems--their meaning slowly slips
Out of mindless sitting in sacred space.

Wordless picture shows a common theme--
Joseph's arm steals round the blessed mother
As mother holds her baby. How dare he?
So intimate with Ultimate Other?

   The common song shattered by simple care,
   Fragments of awe, divinity laid bare.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joseph: More Mystery

I just finished shovelling the snow off the driveway. As I worked, I thought more about Joseph, following yesterday's sermon.

Joseph was a dreamer. Each of his actions followed a word from God sent by an angel in a dream we know Joseph the dreamer in the OT too. Joseph, son of Jacob, appears in Genesis 30 as one whose birth means that God is adding to Jacob's family. He begins life as part of a bizarre contest (bizarre at least to our way of thinking) between Leah and Rachel to see who can have more children. But he begins known as the dreamer, the one whose dreams--and whose ability to interpret dreams--lead to the salvation of Jacob's family, "the Children of Israel".

Joseph, husband of Mary, appears in Matthew 1:16, as the son of Jacob. So when he starts hearing from God in dreams, we can expect salvation to come to Israel. Here is where the story changes from its clear OT parallel.

Matthew likes to make subtle points through simple stylistic variations. So in Matthew 2 he makes the point that King Jesus supplants King Herod with a simple stylistic change in the way he refers to Herod. He calls Herod "King", until the magi find and worship the baby Jesus. After that he refers to Herod only as "Herod". Jesus is king, and Herod is dethroned.

So when Matthew never records any words from Joseph's mouth, we can assume that is an important point of style. Matthew sets Joseph up to be important--son of Jacob; God's words in dreams. We expect Joseph to do something! But he says nothing. He does what he is told, like a servant who hears and obeys. He has added the family into which Jesus is born, and then fades into obscurity.

Why? Because the focus is on Jesus--the one who saves, not on Joseph--the one who is added. Think of what happens to the light bulb when the sun comes up. It almost disappears in the light of the sun. Jesus is the light of the world, and all other sources of power fade into obscurity.

There's much more in the story than this; but I was done shovelling the driveway, and that's enough for now.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Mystery Man: Joseph

Preached at SMC for the Third Sunday in Advent, 2013
Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Last July our son got married. Lois and I were delighted. We love our son, and we love our daughter-in-law. The wedding was wonderful—held under a tent beside a cornfield, with lots of hymn singing (eight hymns), followed by a reception in the barn overlooking the field. At the wedding I learned again what I had discovered four years before when Nevin got married: The father of the groom is the least visible person at the wedding. Everyone is looking at the bride and the groom, as they should be. The father of the bride is often close to tears during the father-daughter dance, as is the mother dancing with her son. The father of the groom dances with no one. At Vaughn’s wedding Lois and I walked down the aisle with him to release him into this new relationship, and then Lauren’s parents walked down the aisle with her to do the same. But in the end the father of the groom is almost invisible. As he should be.

Joseph reminds me of the father of the groom. He is almost invisible. You remember Mary: When the angel came to her they talked, and afterwards she sang her wonderful “Magnificat”. Joseph? He said nothing. The angel did all the talking. Joseph is the quiet one who does what he’s told. Go over the story with me again. The facts are clear enough, but may surprise us.
·         Mary and Joseph were “pledged to be married”. As Marg said last week, this suggests that Mary was a young teen. Joseph could have been any age. Some commentators suggest that he was an older man who had been married before. The text doesn’t say so, but it doesn’t rule it out either. He could have been a young man himself. This seems more likely, given the travelling they did; but again, the text doesn’t say.
·         The time between a pledge and the marriage could be a year, but often these come close together, and today normally come in the same ceremony. In this space of time, Mary conceived a child. When Joseph found out, he was naturally upset; but rather than humiliate Mary, he decided “to divorce her quietly”. This decision is a surprise: Their culture was a shame and honour culture. You may have heard of a family in Ontario in the recent past, in which the brothers apparently killed their sister because she was in love with someone from outside their community. She had brought shame on the family. So Joseph was acting very much against his culture by seeking not to embarrass her.
·         Joseph was “faithful to the law”. The King James says: “a righteous man”. The original word means “just”, usually in the sense of one who keeps the law. Some commentators take it to mean “righteous” in the sense of “good” or “kind”. That makes sense of Joseph’s desire not to hurt Mary.
·         As Joseph thought all of this through, an angel appeared. You notice that Mary had Gabriel the archangel (Luke 1). Joseph just got an angel. When Gabriel came to Mary, he inspired fear and began with the words, “Don’t be afraid!” Joseph’s angel was more practical: “Don’t be afraid to marry her.” The comments above about shame and honour explain what Joseph is afraid of: The shame Mary has brought on them.
·         The angel gave his reason: “She is pregnant because God (the Holy Spirit) made her pregnant.” Who would blame Joseph for being skeptical? The angel continues: “Name him Jesus”, a name that means “God saves”. Matthew doesn’t give us Joseph’s response; he just explains that all of this fulfills prophecies given long before. The fact that Joseph was asleep—a vision in a dream—reminds us of Joseph the dreamer in the OT.
·         The last verse says it all: When he awoke, Joseph did as he was told. I went to our NT professor at Providence and asked him what he could tell me about Joseph. He replied, “Joseph did what he was told.” That could be his epitaph.

Matthew 2
We meet Joseph again in chapter 2. The magi—wise men from the East—came looking for the baby boy. They found Mary and the baby in Bethlehem. No mention of Joseph, of course. In verse 12, an angel appeared to Joseph again in a dream and told him to get up and go to Egypt to escape from Herod. Joseph didn’t say anything. He just got up and took Mary and the baby to Egypt. He did what he was told.

At the end of the chapter, Herod died, and another angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him to go back to Israel. The text is to the point: “So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” He didn’t even wait until morning. In a further dream an angel warns him of possible trouble from Archelaus, so the family went to Galilee, to Nazareth.

We could go through Luke 2, in which Joseph is present at all the same things as Mary—taking her to Bethlehem; watching the shepherds come. Mary pondered all that had happened and treasured them in her heart (2:19). Joseph didn’t say anything. Jesus is named. Usually the father would give the name, as Zechariah did for John in Luke 1. But Joseph doesn’t even get credit for that—Luke 2:21 says, “He was named Jesus.”  He is there when Jesus was circumcised. He is there when Jesus stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem. But when they go back and find him, Mary is the one to talk to Jesus and ask what he had been doing. Joseph didn’t say anything. He just did what he was told. Joseph disappears from the story after that. Mary is there during his ministry and at the cross. Maybe he died; at any rate we hear no more of him. People thought he was the father of Jesus; but he knew better. He was the invisible man in the background, the one you tend not to notice at the wedding.

So What’s the Mystery of Joseph?
Out theme is “mystery”—the mystery of Mary and Joseph and the baby, this incredible mystery when God comes in a human baby. What mystery is there about this invisible man? He fades out of the picture; what else is there to say?

Joseph could have failed the salvation project at many points. If he had not gotten the family up in the middle of the night, Herod’s soldiers might have caught them. If he had been less careful in their return Archelaus might have finished the job his father started. If he had been too afraid to take Mary as his wife, he could have failed right at the beginning. But Joseph did as he was told, and the salvation project went ahead the way God intended.

That’s the mystery—that God regularly chooses the least likely people to do the biggest things. The sort of thing described in “Lord of the Rings” when a hobbit has to carry the ring of power into the land of Mordor to destroy it in the mountain of fire. As one of the characters (Elrond) says, “Who of the wise could have foreseen it?” None, especially if they were really wise!

Paul says the same thing in the language of Scripture:
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:26-31)

God works through the weak and the foolish to do what God chooses to do. That’s the mystery and the wonder of Joseph! He is sometimes called “the hidden saint”, because his life disappears from the gospel records. When did he die? We don’t know. Some suggest that he died when Jesus was a teenager, and they note that he would have died in Mary’s arms with Jesus by his side—a blessed death! But that is speculation. The text tells us nothing. His life is hidden.

Some Examples
Many people who do God’s will are almost invisible. God delights to work through the weak and the foolish. I found a sermon on Joseph by a Catholic priest named James Martin. He says:
During the first few months of my Jesuit novitiate, I worked at Youville Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, run by the Grey Nuns, a small Catholic order, which tended to the seriously ill. Those who lived there suffered from a variety of illnesses: cancer, dementia, degenerative muscular diseases. Many were surprisingly young. For example, young men who had suffered brain injuries resulting from car or motorcycle accidents. One mother used to come by daily to visit her 20-year-old son, to feed him, read to him and sit by his bed. Here was a life entirely hidden from the world, in a lonely hospital that few knew about, even in the area. (“Youville? Where’s that?” I was asked by even long-time Bostonians.) One winter’s afternoon I came in to find the mother combing her son’s hair. “Doesn’t he look handsome today?” she said with a radiant smile.

There you see the hidden saint: A mother combing her disabled son’s hair. In my first pastorate I also had a hidden saint; her name was Bessie. Bessie was a bit cranky and very strong-willed. She had a son named Billy. Billy had cerebral palsy and was confined to his bed. I used to visit Bessie and Billy, and she would tell him about his life. She said that the doctors had told her that Billy would live only to his 20s. But she was stubborn and would not take him to a hospital to live out his days. She cared for him in their home, caring for him and talking with him. I listened to their conversations. I have no idea what Billy said—I couldn’t understand anything. But Bessie and Billy understood each other very well, and she would interpret for me. The doctors may have said that Billy would live into his 20s, but when I knew them, he was over 40 years old. Bessie and Billy: Saints from my first church, hidden from the world, but completely visible to God.

The Takeaway
I said that the father of the groom in a wedding is almost invisible. You do what you’re told. You carry chairs, help with decorations, roll the silverware—whatever is there to do, you do. The parallel is Joseph’s lesson to us. We do what God tells us to do. One reason that Joseph could do this is that he was remarkably tuned into God. Like Joseph in the OT, he was open to God’s voice in dreams. When the angel came to him, he didn’t need the reassurance: “Don’t be afraid.” The only fear he had to overcome was the fear of doing what he should do. When God spoke to him, he obeyed. That’s the takeaway from our sermon this morning: Be in touch with God. Walk so closely with God that when God speaks to you, you’re ready. You hear, and do. The hiddenness of Joseph reminds us that God’s actors in our church are not necessarily the visible people here this morning. Some of us are preaching, leading singing, leading worship, standing up at the front in one way or another. I don’t think Joseph is up here. He’s standing somewhere in the background waiting for God to speak. When God speaks, he does what he’s told.

This is only one note in the great mystery of the gospel. God’s call comes more than just through dreams. We need community. We need a deep awareness of God’s Word Written. We need each other. And we need the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. But running through all of these like an invisible thread of vitality is the mystery of God’s work at the margins, God’s presence in our weakness and helplessness.

Robert Southwell has expressed this truth in a wonderful Christmas poem, set to music by Benjamin Britten. Southwell was a Catholic priest in England from 1586 to 1595. Because the monarchy was trying to stamp out the Catholic Church in England, to be a priest was to be in constant hiding, knowing that every time he went to hear confession from someone, he might be arrested. Indeed, in 1592 he was caught, and tortured, and executed in 1595 at 33 years old. The reality of his hidden life gives special poignancy to the words of his poem, “New Heaven, New War”. Here are some of the words:
This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarm├Ęd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, stick to the tents that he hath pight [pitched].
Within his crib is surest ward, this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Southwell expresses the mystery of the gospel, found where human strength and success would never look. When we go to that place, we find God at work in a baby, and we find Joseph, the hidden saint, the man who did what he was told. Will you be like Joseph? Will you be so close to God, that when God speaks, you do what you’re told?