Fourth Weekend of Advent (A/RCL)
Joseph: Patron Saint of Those Who Pray for Grace to Do the Next Right Thing
Matthew 1: 18-25
December 17-18, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Our carillon made me feel very Grinch-like last week! At noontime one day the electronic bells began to play, as usual. I was glad to hear them until I realized the song wasn’t an Advent hymn. It was “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”! Out loud I said to the carillon in general and no one in particular, “You’re killin’ me!” We work so hard in the liturgy and other ways to honor Advent and keep Christmas at bay, unlike the rest of the world that’s been decorated for Christmas since before Halloween, and our own carillon is playing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”?? What didn’t help is that the carillon is digital and I have no idea how to delete a song from the play list or at least move it forward to December 25th!
Maybe those of you who are newer to our faith family have noticed that decorations build slowly around here? At the beginning of Advent we had just the blue paraments and the Advent wreath inside and the stable outside with a couple animals. Each week our Property friends have added figures to the crèche scene. Evergreen wreaths appeared on the windows last week. The trees are erected this week. They won’t be lit till Christmas Eve. At Holy Trinity it’s a slow process of Advent preparation for Christmas celebration. Worship resources that Neil and I use for music planning suggested “Joy to the World” as the sending hymn this weekend. Not on your life . We’ll wait till Christmas.
So what’s with today’s Gospel? “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” (Matt. 1:18a) Isn’t that jumping the gun?? Sort of, but Jesus’ birth only comes up in the final verse, and fleetingly:
“…[Joseph] had no marital relations with [Mary] until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matt. 1:25)
Other than the story of the wise men and the flight to Egypt, that’s the entirety of the Christmas story in St. Matthew’s Gospel: Mary gave birth to a son and Joseph named Him Jesus. St. Matthew says in 8 verses what St. Luke says in 74 verses. Clearly, Luke gives a lot more material to Christmas card designers than Matthew. On Advent IV last year we heard the story of the Annunciation from St. Luke’s Gospel: the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, announcing God’s plan for her to become Jesus’ mother. This year we hear the story of the Annunciation from St. Matthew’s Gospel: an unnamed angel coming to Joseph, telling him of God’s plan for Mary to become Jesus’ mother.
Poor Joseph. Pastor Lou LaFazia of the Church in Brielle preached here at our joint Blue Christmas service; he spoke about Joseph. He had a little figurine of Joseph from his childhood crèche, and pointed out how he is leaning on his staff, kind of hunched over. He suggested we go home and look at our own manger scenes, checking out where we’ve placed Joseph and noticing what he looks like. Is he resting on a staff, as if to support the weight of the world laying on his shoulders? Is he looking down, almost shyly, deflecting attention from himself and onto Mary and the Child? Is he trying to melt into the background? (I’ve gotta admit: I usually place Mary hovering over the Child in the manger, with Joseph a step or two back, removed, as if he’s better situated to scan the perimeter and keep it safe, or as if he doesn’t belong in quite the same way…. He is the foster father, after all.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss Joseph. He’s not mentioned even once in St. Mark’s Gospel. His name comes up in St. John’s Gospel only when our Lord is referred to as “Jesus, son of Joseph.” In St. Luke’s Gospel he has cameo appearances in Bethlehem, registering for the census and unsuccessfully looking for room in the inn, in Jerusalem when Jesus is presented in the temple as an 8 day old baby and again when Mary & Joseph think Jesus is “lost” as a 12 year old boy. He’s portrayed as the dreamer in St. Matthew’s Gospel, where he has a more prominent role –
· In today’s Gospel told by an angel in a first dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and commanded to name the Child Jesus (Matt. 1:20-21).
(By naming Jesus, Joseph formally adopts Him as his own.)
· Told by an angel in a second dream to flee King Herod and take the Child and His mother to safety in Egypt (Matt. 2:13)
· Told by an angel in a third dream to return to Israel with the Child and His mother, “for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” (Matt. 2:21)
We simply don’t know much about Joseph. St. Matthew describes him as a carpenter (Matt. 13:55). Most importantly, though, Matthew describes him as righteous. The only time I hear the word righteous used outside of church is on cop shows when the officer insists, “It was a righteous shoot,” and in the term self-righteous which no one wants to be called.
So what did it mean for Joseph to be righteous?
· He was law-abiding, which doesn’t mean he didn’t jaywalk, but that he kept the Law with a capital L. He was religiously obedient and kept the commandments and the whole Law as well as he possibly could.
· Sometimes righteous is even translated as innocent.
· To be righteous is to be upright and upstanding and on the up and up.
Joseph was a good guy. We don’t know if he loved Mary; in those days marriages were arranged and sometimes bride and groom didn’t meet until they were engaged. We do know, though, that Joseph loved God. Joseph showed that through his obedience to God’s Law and through his tender concern that Mary not be disgraced in the eyes of the community. When he learned she was pregnant he decided to divorce her on the QT. (Betrothal couldn’t be ended except through divorce.) According to the letter of the Law, she could have been put to death for her apparent unfaithfulness. Joseph wasn’t a slave to the Law, though. He was an upright believer who did whatever good he could and avoided whatever harm he could, always.
It would be lovely if each of our homes had a Nativity scene displayed, if not made up of little figurines, at least a picture, maybe on a Christmas card. If you haven’t already done so, set it up and check out Joseph. If necessary, bring him out from the shadows where we often find him. Give him a place of honor. He’s not just the foster father of our Lord Jesus Christ; he’s the patron saint of any of us who have ever prayed for grace simply to do the next right thing. Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham