Sunday, December 22, 2019

Do not be afraid to…..

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy TX 77493

Advent 4 2019


One of my clergy friends said that Joseph was always the easiest part to cast in the Christmas Pageant. This was because he just had to stand there and not do anything. I’ve been pondering that remark and the role of Joseph in the whole story. Our gospel today is from Matthew and Matthew is the only one who does anything with Joseph.

Poor Joseph he doesn’t play a part in Mark or John for he is not even mentioned since they both begin with the arrival of John the Baptist and Jesus as a fully-grown man. Joseph is long gone. He gets hardly a mention in Luke for Luke focuses more on the women in the story, Elizabeth and Mary in particular. But in Matthew, Joseph while not getting a speaking part, does in fact play an important role. So, what can we learn about Joseph and what does that mean to us?

Now Joseph has a problem. Engaged to be married he finds that his bride, Mary, is pregnant.  Being a “righteous man” as the passage says, he knew that according to the laws in Deuteronomy, he was entitled to return Mary to her father and have her stoned for the dishonor that she has brought on their houses.  At the least he was entitled to have her publicly humiliated and end the marriage contract. Joseph has not heard the grand announcement of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel only appeared to first Zechariah the father of John the Baptist and to Mary. Mary and Elizabeth had a meeting, which affirmed for Mary what was happening, but both Gabriel’s appearance and the meeting with Elizabeth are only described in Luke’s account and Joseph is nowhere to be found. In Matthew as well, nobody had filled Joseph in yet on the story. Then Joseph in a dream hears the words that announce a message delivered by an angel. Joseph then follows the direction of the angel and to the surprise of everybody does not put Mary aside, but does in fact take her as his wife. Imagine the scandal that would have caused. Who knows what people would have thought in that society especially in a backwater like Nazareth.

Take a moment and put yourself in Joseph’s place. For this is a place in which we have all found ourselves at one time. Maybe not this specific situation, but the conflict is one with which many can identify. Imagine how he must have been feeling. Joseph has already tempered his actions, he had already decided to take a kinder approach and then the angel asks him to do even more. The angel asks him to do something that will in all likelihood bring embarrassment or shame to him.

Joseph and Mary live in an honor shame society. Honor is everything and anything that brings shame is to be avoided. To the rest of the world, who have not heard the angelic message, it will appear that the child is probably his or that Mary has become pregnant by someone else. Either way, great shame was involved for they were not yet married. There is disagreement among scholars about the betrothal and marriage rites of the time. Yet Joseph does as he is told and even more.  Mary too must know that she is being asked to face the same shame from those who do not know what God has asked of her, but she has the wonderful words of the angel Gabriel for strength.

A little more cultural context is necessary. The passage says that Joseph was a righteous man. That does not mean being generous, kind, or especially nice. Being righteous just meant law abiding. The law in this case is not just the 10 commandments, but all of the laws contained in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This angelic request creates a tension between what was acceptable social and religious behavior and an act of even greater love and compassion than would be expected, required or even allowed.

This is the link in today’s passage with today’s world. In today’s world we often find ourselves in a tension between what the law seems to require and what the command of Love requires.  There are many parts of the bible especially the Hebrew Scriptures that we no longer observe. The holiness codes are full of things we would never follow, but some that we do.  The examples are numerous. One Levitical law, that I found especially amusing having lived near an ocean for the last many years is that any home with mildew in it is required to be torn down or burned to the ground. Well that would make most of us homeless at least in the hot humid summer. Most of us are committing sins just sitting here today. How many of you have mixed clothing with cotton, linen or wool fiber in it, which is also prohibited by Leviticus. Disobedient children could be taken out and stoned. The list goes on and on.

The problem is praying our way through these contradictions. There are passages in the New Testament as well that make us uneasy. There is a tension in Matthew’s Jewish community between following the letter of the law, the Torah, and the supreme demand of love that Jesus brought to the members of Matthew’s community. When asked what was the greatest commandment Jesus answered about loving God and loving neighbor. Then the really important line, on these two hang all the law and the prophets. That right there is the scale we use to weigh our choices.

We live in that same tension today. The disagreements that plague Christianity today are ultimately about Biblical authority, better read as interpretation, the question that faces all of us is about how we read the bible and apply the teachings to our lives. Ultimately this is a question of what do we mean when we say the Bible is the Word of God. That then leads us into a discussion of how we read Holy Scripture and how we take that interpretation into our daily lives. Joseph face a difficult decision, well it wasn’t difficult if he followed the strict interpretation of the law, but he has had this vision in a dream that goes against what he has been taught. How does he resolve this? Well we know that he resolves it by allowing love to trump law. He listens to the vision and does the unexpected at least by society’s standards.

So take a moment and put yourself in Joseph’s place. Imagine that you are lying in bed and an angel appears and says, “Do not be afraid to…..”  What does that angel ask you to do? What is God asking you to do that may be hard, that may be something that you do not want to do?  What is it God is asking of you that seems to contradict what the letter of the law or our society says, but that in your heart you feel you are called to do? Where is the tension between what you have heard and been told to do by society and what Christ is calling you to do instead?  These are the questions that this passage asks us to examine today. However, as you ponder these questions do not forget what the angel Gabriel told Mary, “with God all things are possible.”