Friday, December 17, 2004

Sermon: Advent 4 - Year A

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

I played Joseph in the church Christmas pageant when I was a boy. Being about 8 or 9 years old I thought I had really hit the big time. The older kids always played Joseph. I was usually shepherd, or even at one time a sheep; “baaing” away from the back of the crowd, nestled uncomfortably between the rear end of the donkey and the angel robes that stunk like mothballs. But as I was immersed into my new role, I was surprised to notice how limited my part was. As Joseph, husband of Mary, guardian of Jesus, my job was to walk with Mary to the manger then to stand there. I didn’t even have to look holy because no one was looking at me. The real action was taking place at the manger. Or on the hillside where shepherds cowered in fear and angels sang glorious songs of praise. Or the roadway where the three wise men carried richly symbolic gifts for the Christ Child. Me? I was a lump. Bland scenery strategically placed to fill in the gaps, with nothing else to do but to be a statue. No lines to read. No songs to sing. Nothing. It was the best job I ever had.

But I wonder if that’s what we do with Joseph, relegate him to the margins because we don’t know really what else to do. Joseph is part of the story. But not hugely. Peripheral, he just goes about his work unnoticed until we need something from him.

But take a magnifying glass to him and we get bigger picture. His fiancĂ© gets pregnant and he’s not the father. So instead of exacting revenge on this helpless young woman by crushing her under the full weight of the law, he was going to cut off the engagement quietly so she wouldn’t be punished. At least not by any legal means; she still had to deal with the baby. But then the angel in his dream tells him that the baby is God’s child, so Joseph just shrugs his shoulders and marries the girl.

It could be easy to ignore Joseph because he is so quiet. He just calmly goes about his business. He doesn’t have very much to say. We can’t help but listen to loud mouthed prophets spitting truth at us. And we’re drawn to crowds of angels singing noisily in the sky.

But it is the Josephs who keep the machinery of the salvation story well oiled. Folks like Joseph don’t know the difference between doing God’s will and just plain old doing what needs to be done.

Internet sage Real Live Preacher says,

“Turns out Christianity is an Eastern religion. The earliest Christians were Hebrews. Semites. People of the East. They did not know how to separate mind from body. They were holistic before holistic was cool.

“In our world we have separated mind from body to our great loss,” he goes on to say. “Here a man may betray his wife and neglect his children, but say he loves them ‘down inside’.

“Bullshit. There is no ‘down inside.’ Love is something you do, not something you feel.

“Likewise, we think having faith means being convinced God exists in the same way we are convinced a chair exists. People who cannot be completely convinced of God’s existence think faith is impossible for them.

“Not so. People who doubt can have great faith because faith is something you do, not something you think. In fact, the greater your doubt, the more heroic your faith.” (RLP, the Preacher's Own Story)

Joseph knew this instinctively. Sure he had his questions. Anyone would have. Was that really an angel in his dreams or was it just the bad batch of wine before crawling into bed? Did his wife really get pregnant by God or is that just a story she made up to get herself out of trouble? So, yeah, he had questions. Good questions. But they didn’t bog him down from doing what needed to be done.

So not only did Joseph have a role to play, he played it very well. The NT takes pains to show us that he didn’t take the first bus out of town when Mary told him he was pregnant and that he obviously was not the father. And he didn’t drop everything and disappear when the angel came to see him. He married Mary. He got her to Bethlehem. He found lodgings for his family. He took his place at her side and dealt with whatever came their way. He listened carefully around him to the danger to his wife and newly born and adopted son, and rustled them out of Bethlehem to the safety to Egypt. (adapted from Peter Gomes, Sermon)

Because for Joseph, faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

On other words, at the heart of the story is a good and just man who wakes up one day to find his life ruined: a baby that’s not his, his trust betrayed, his name devastated, his future destroyed. It’s about a righteous man who looks at the mess that is his life, a mess he had absolutely nothing to do with creating and believes that somehow God is present in it. With every reason to walk away, Joseph stays put. He makes the mess is own and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born. (adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Believing the Impossible)

Because for Joseph, faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

But isn’t that the way God seems to work; behind the scenes where there’s no TV camera in sight? I’m thinking of people who run the cans over to the food bank when the bin gets full. Or the quick phone-call to the widower who just lost his wife, simply to see if he needs groceries, because they both know the only food he can make is cereal and toast. Or I’m thinking of the couple who find the time to drop off a pick-up truck at a man’s house who’s stuck in the hospital, and check back with him to see if he needed anything to make his stay more bearable. To the casual observer, these are not heroic acts. But to the divine observer, no greater heroism exists.

Because to these people, faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

Faith is making other peoples’ mess our own, and finding God hidden in it. Because these people know that God is found frolicking in the clutter, buried in our dirt, and wrestling with us in the mud because that’s where God needs to be: embroiled in the waste of our lives and mixed up in the chaos of the world.

These people, people like Joseph and people like you and me, insist on trusting that “God is still being born in the mess, among those who still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.” (BBT, ibid)

Or to say it another way: faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

May this be so among us. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to hearing this Sunday ...

First to hear if this is your sermon, or if it gets 'sanitized' - last time you quoted RLP in a sermon it was cleaned up from the posting and didn't carry the same weight as reading it - so I'm curious to hear whether it's "male cow's #2" or as written ...

Second, I'm reminded of my first year religion class at Camrose with Dittmar Muendel (an excellent teacher). One of the main things I took from his class was (roughly paraphrazed) 'faith without doubt becomes knowledge, and knowledge has no place for faith'.

See you Sunday,