Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent 4: The Guy Off in the Corner (Matthew 1:18-25)

Where does Joseph fit into the Nativity story?
          It should have been different.  By “different”, actually it should have been the predictable way.  This way, well….it was not the most commendable of stories to get around town.  A young virgin finds herself in a family way, and well, people start talking about all manner of things.   “Virgin birth” is most decidedly NOT among the suggestions.  Instead, it’s a bit of a scandal, a whisper campaign about to get underway.  It is improper, inappropriate, and most importantly, difficult to explain away.
            I wonder about Joseph.  He’s been around town for years, yet right now, he feels as if under friendly fire.  He’s the subject of curious stares, hostile looks, and the occasional salacious and conspiratorial wink.  He does not return any of these jibes or criticisms.  Instead, he holds his head high.
             So, is he a proud man or a fool trying desperately to save the remaining shred of dignity and decorum he has left?

             The Bible is rife with stories of rogues and scoundrels.  Jacob, the trickster, occupies much of Genesis, getting in and out of trouble with as much talent for getting out of it as he does getting into it.    Abraham, the great patriarch, is a complex figure.  Read the whole Abrahamic cycle of stories and you’ll find a guy that might look good in a Sunday school quarterly but really is not that out of place with the great flawed figures of other literary works.   The list could go on, but we need to keep our "G" rating for the Sunday morning worship service.

             Among this checkered history of the people of God and the reality God still used these people, despite their failings and flaws, Joseph really is a dull figure.  He does not have any great faults or failings.  In fact, he’s an astonishingly graceful character, not wanting any fuss and more important, any harm to come to this young woman now on the cusp of public shunning.
             Joseph wants to do the right thing.  He’ll likely take heat for it.  The conservatives in the community will be likely disparaging him around the clock as if a hapless politician in a modern cable news channel’s crosshairs.  He’s going to lose face, but he has decided quietly in his own way that it’s all right.

               Yet alas, we tend to forget Joseph in the manager scene.

               When I worked for Cokesbury (back in its long gone brick and mortar days), we would assemble several Nativity sets for display (and hopefully purchase) to show our customers. We tried our best to offer a variety of Nativity sets from around the world, each beautiful in their own way, the product of hard working artisans getting a better deal through a Fair Trade cooperative.
            I remember well the great debate the store staff had over one such Nativity set from overseas.  We unboxed the set and realized that each piece was hand carved stone,  and not one piece had a great deal of detailing.  Thus, was this lump of stone a shepherd or a king?   Poor Joseph, though, was the hardest to identify.  He had no staff in hand or crown on his head.   Instead, Joseph was deemed to be the only piece that did not seem to have any other purpose than to be “the odd man out” in the Nativity of roughly fashioned angels, sheep, shepherds, kings, and animals.

            It can be an odd situation in life:  being the honorable type that still goes without notice.   The little guy tends to be lost in the shuffle, the guy who just does the right thing year round because that’s the way he’s wired.  There’s no desire for attention or credit.  No, that type just quietly makes sure that the good is taken care, regardless of the time or season.

          Garrison Keillor celebrates that type of person in his ongoing stories of life in small town Minnesota.  The typical Minnesotan in Keillor’s stories tends toward a near allergic reaction to pride, attention, or notice.   The “look at me” tendency of our human nature appears to be replaced by the raspy voice of an old Lutheran waving off the cheers with a word of “Ah, shucks, guys, it was nuthin’, don’t ya know” and then he passes you the plate of lutefisk.

            The story of the birth of Jesus could have ended before it started, primarily in the shunning of Mary, or worse, the type of punishment common in the day’s culture, which again, once described, goes beyond the “G” rating we tend to classify “Bible stories” under.

            Yet it is Joseph and Mary alike who say “yes” to the call of God to bring into the world the Christ child.   Despite the rigors of pregnancy and childrearing, despite the tenuous navigation of a culture’s purity understandings, this couple works through a difficult situation.  The old spiritual sings, “Mary had a baby”, and the gospel writer responds, “And Joseph and Mary raised him right!”
            At this point in the Advent season, you know Christmas is just around the corner.  Perhaps you just got around to putting up your tree.  Others may be so busy that they do not realize that Christmas is just next week.  (And retail stores are standing by in hopes you will come by and buy them out of everything!)
            For pastors, the Fourth Sunday of Advent can seem the less important item on the "To Do" list with all of the other Christmas festivities to help plan and lead.  I remember spending more time figuring out how to wrangle unruly kids for a Christmas pageant than I did for a sermon one year.  Bringing peace to the Middle East may be easier than dealing with a six year old shepherd ready to use his staff over the head of a wise man.
             I remember sitting in my pastor's office, trying to figure things out, and there sitting in a chair was the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  She looked rather calm, just sitting there and grinned at me real big.  
           I could not understand why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene and pleased with itself.  “Why are you so happy?  Don’t you see that I’m in the middle of a great big week?  I have a sermon to preach, and yet there's countless other things taking up my attention right now. Can’t you tell I need help?”
            Advent 4 just laughed.  “Did you look at the Matthew reading yet?”
            “No, I’m too busy.  Got to get things done.”
            “Well, make sure you read that passage,” this Sunday said. "You'll thank me." Then, it went back to reading its magazine.

            Later, I sat down during a quiet moment in the office and pulled out a Bible.  I found the passage for Matthew, and I could see why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene.
            There, in the midst of a story about life seeming to go haywire, off the map, or getting dreadfully difficult, the angel of the Lord appears.  In the midst of the seeming chaos and turmoil, the angel tells what this baby ought to be called.
            “Call him Emmanuel, or that is, God with us.”

            God with us….In the midst of life, in the midst of trying times and challenge, in the midst of mourning a loss that we likely bear for what is best described as a season, the faith we try our best to keep revolves around this radical assumption that God humbly(!) dwells with us.

           God with us….Nothing, not a thing about human life is exempt or beneath the Christ.  Indeed, Jesus knows the fullness of being human just as surely as he was divine.  Jesus does not check out early or take the easy path around pain and suffering.  Jesus even dies.   Talk about God with us!
            The story we tell of Jesus is shaped by the pattern of life, death, and resurrection.  We might forget that story’s full “arc” (i.e. to understand Jesus is to understand that he does not ever check out of life experience).  Preacher Fred Craddock has quipped, most of us, when we think of life and death, we hope that when our time comes, we can call in sick (Sorry, we’re not coming in today!) or take an incomplete on the test.

            I suspicion if there’s any good connection between the gospel reading and the harried pace of this week, with its mourning and its scrambling to get everything “just right” in time, it is this assurance that God is with us, no matter what might befall or bedevil.  After all, Jesus did not exempt himself from the fullness of life.  He lived, he cried, he got angry, he hungered, he mourned, he dreamed, he spoke out, he loved his family and friends.

            I know that we tend to look at a child and say (sometimes with delight, and sometimes with disdain), “Yep, he’s just like his mother”, or “Yep, she reminds me of her daddy”.  I know poor Joseph does not get much credit (after all, he only appears around Christmas, then just disappears from the gospels after the first chapters).  I think, though, that there’s something of Joseph in Jesus, not that it would be DNA.  Instead, we see a bit of that dreamer, who always sought out how to do the right thing, how to open his heart and mind to God’s good intent, with trust, obedience, and a whole lot of concern that he managed to do the right thing.

            In the midst of the Advent season, nearing the Christmas Eve celebrations, in the midst of family gatherings, in the midst of times of mourning, loneliness, or hardship (cause the holidays do not exempt us from such experiences), we are a people in search of what it means to live life well, or at least how to get through today or this week.

            And the fourth Sunday of Advent, perhaps overshadowed by the holiday rush and the rush to get things done, just politely reminds us:  “Don’t forget:  What you are feeling now is not lost on God.  In fact, God decided to get down in the trenches with us.

           When the angel says, ‘call him Emmanuel’, the angel meant just that.”

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