Most everyone in this sanctuary today will have a dream dying experience sometime during your lifetime. By that I mean a time when you watched your dreams float away due to illness or death or the end of a relationship or infertility or cancer or financial issues or decisions of others that are completely outside your control. Most of us know what it is like to have a dream die. If you have had a dream die than you can get in touch with what Joseph was going through in our scripture text for today.
The story begins like this:
Now 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.
Joseph had been betrothed to Mary but they had not yet established a home together. That was the way it worked back then. Joseph knew that when the time was right Mary would be his wife. We wrap this tale in the genre of a love story but it really was more like a contract. Mary’s father had agreed to marry her off to Joseph, the carpenter.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place like this….when God was ready to come to us in the flesh God chose a peasant teenage girl and a man who worked with his hands to be the parents. He chose real people and that choice caused them real challenge and heartbreak.
Joseph was a righteous man, the scripture says. He was tzaddik, which means he was unflinchingly faithful to the Torah, the Law of Moses. John Ortberg describes it like this:
Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep his carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to make a few extra drachmas. He was a tsaddîyq; that was his identity. Everybody knew this about him. Nobody invited Joseph over to have ham sandwiches with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was what people wanted to be.
Joseph was also a man who had dreams. They weren’t dreams about power and privilege. They were dreams about being faithful…dreams about family and home. In his woodshop, when he was not building things for others, he was building furniture for the home he and Mary would create. He imagined their wedding night and the little boy named Joseph Jr. who would follow him around in the shop, eager to grow up to be just like his father. He dreamed of family dinners around the table he had built for their home and their religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem. He imagined his large family joining together with his brothers’ large families for Sabbath dinner. He knew what his life would look like and he dreamed about it. He was ready to be a married man…to enter the world as a full adult.
And then Mary showed up in his workshop to tell him that she was pregnant…by the Holy Spirit. That was a new one. She told him that the child she carried was the Messiah. That God had chosen her….and therefore, him….to be the parents of God in the flesh. Either she had lost her mind or she thought he was stupid. Neither boded well for him. Suddenly Joseph had to make a decision. What was he, a tsaddik man, going to do?
What do we do when we face a dilemma in which all the choices are bad ones? Worry. Agonize. Overeat. Snap at our families. Try to get others to make the decision for us so that we can blame them if it goes awry. We can get in touch with Joseph’s agony. We have all had to make a decision when all the options seemed like negative ones.
This is how Joseph saw it…he could either be kind by quietly divorcing Mary or publicly divorce her, which would not only humiliate her but put her well-being in jeopardy because she could be stoned to death for adultery. That thought horrified Joseph. This woman he dreamed of creating family with would instead die a horrific death. Back and forth he went between the only two possibilities he thought he had. Finally, he decided to divorce her quietly. There would still be gossip but, at least, he would not be haunted by her death and the death of her unborn child. “That is what a righteous man does,” he decided. She would have to deal with the consequences of being an unwed mother all on her own.
But you and I know that somewhere along the line, Joseph changed his mind or we wouldn’t place him in all our crèche scenes. Joseph is a very present character in the story of Jesus’ early life. He walked by Mary’s very pregnant side all the way to Bethlehem. He found a stable in which she could give birth. He greeted the shepherds and the magi when they showed up. He was with Mary when they took Jesus to be blessed in the temple. He helped Mary and the baby escape to Egypt for their safety. He was there with Mary when Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and they thought they had lost him. What happened to his decision to divorce her quietly? Something happened that made him fully commit to parenting this child he knew was not his own.
An angel showed up….that is what happened. Be wary of angels. They show up in the New Testament whenever there is a very real reason to be afraid and they say, “Don’t be afraid.” They appear when someone is being asked to believe the unbelievable. They happen upon the scene when there is heavy lifting to be done. Angels are needed when a new level of tzaddik is required.
That is exactly what happened to Joseph on the day when his dreams died. After Joseph decides that he will privately divorce Mary and let her deal with the circumstances, he finally falls asleep. It seems that while God chose a peasant girl to be the mother of the incarnation, he didn’t want her to go it alone…. so….time for an angel.
While Joseph sleeps an angel hovers over his sleeping body and whispers into his ear, “You have another option, Joseph. You can choose to believe her. You can choose to believe that God needs you to be the father of Immanuel. You can enter God’s story and be depicted on Christmas cards and painted by the Masters. All it requires is everything you’ve got to give.”
Alyce McKenzie a professor at Perkins School of Theology imagines what the angel whispered in Joseph’s ear like this:
“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.
“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.
“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.
“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”
With Joseph’s dreams gone the angel invites him to replace the old dream with a dream in which he lives a very challenging life but this one has new meaning and purpose. And so, Joseph left the 2.5 children and a two-car garage dream behind in favor of a dream in which he provided safety, guidance, nurture and role modeling for the One who was the Light of the World. Joseph woke up a different man than when he fell asleep and I’m guessing that God chose him because Joseph could let his dreams die while a new one resurrected.
It hardly seems fair that Joseph plays such a back seat role in all our nativity scenes. Hardly any Christmas carols or anthems even mention him. But Joseph matters to the story. He matters because he represents us in the crèche scene. We have a choice to make also. Do we believe in the deep truth of this outrageous tale or do we dismiss it privately? Do we dream little dreams about perfect families and nice homes or do we dream outrageous dreams about harboring Christ? Do we reject the challenge because it asks too much or do we disrupt our lives to keep the incarnation safe from the Empire? Can we see beyond our wants to the needs of the world?
This is no small choice for Joseph or for us. Joseph lost his status as the tsaddik man….well, at least in his life time. When he took Mary to be his wife he in essence allowed people to think that he had sex with her before they were formally married. He was no longer considered righteous, but a hypocrite. His friends and neighbors no longer looked at him with respect and adoration.
But being a truly righteous man, those things no longer mattered to Joseph. Once Joseph laid eyes on that baby he knew he made the right choice. He had sacrificed his reputation for something larger….for God to be born on earth that we might know that true righteousness isn’t about the love of the law but about the law of love….he sacrificed and received true joy.
Years after Joseph died, when Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount he said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I bet Jesus was thinking of Joseph when he said those words. Joseph, who found new righteousness, new life, new joy, new hope, a new dream in welcoming the incarnation. We get to make the same choice. Choose well. Amen.