Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Righteous Man: A Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25

Scripture can be found here...

So many of us experience the season leading up to Christmas through music, and I am no exception to that. Last night Joan and I indulged in our long-standing tradition of enjoying  the Burns Sisters’ holiday music by attending their concert at the Endicott Performing Arts Center. That music means Christmas to us. We are steeped in memories of Christmases past with a soundtrack of those songs that we love, baking, or wrapping presents, or unwrapping them. I’ve been posting music online each day in Advent… Advent music, Christmas music, carols, hymns, ancient, contemporary, all kinds of things that seem to speak and sing to the season. And lately—probably because I knew I’d be preaching on this very passage, this very morning—I’ve been paying special attention to songs about Joseph. Joseph doesn’t get as many songs as Mary or Jesus do. But they do exist. And today there are three particular songs about Joseph that are swirling around in my head.

You have the lyrics to “The Cherry Tree Carol” in your bulletin. This is a late medieval song, based on an early medieval text, the gospel of pseudo-Matthew. Music and memory are so intertwined; I have a vivid memory where I was when I first heard this song. It was 1982, and I was in a car on a snowy road in New Hampshire, listening to a newly acquired cassette tape by a band called “Nowell Sing We Clear.” This was, for me, one of those songs that stops you in your tracks. Prior to hearing this song, I thought I knew all there was to know about Jesus’ earthly father. But the Cherry Tree Carol persuaded me otherwise. It introduced the thought that my ideas about Joseph had been pretty one-dimensional, and that he was entirely capable of a greater range of motivations and emotions than I’d given him credit for.

In the carol, Mary and Joseph come upon a cherry orchard, and she asks him to gather some cherries for her to eat. Joseph snarls, “Let the father of thy baby gather cherries for thee.” That was the line that exploded my earlier notions about Joseph, that introduced the idea that, maybe he was just a little angry at the situation he found himself in. He was engaged to a young woman. She was pregnant. He was not the father. Why had I never imagined this possibility before? I am guessing that most of us probably have at least a little sympathy for Joseph the man, the shadowy figure behind the gospel story. Who was he? How did he cope? How did it all turn out?

As to who Joseph was, the first seventeen verses of the real gospel of Matthew provide us with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,” which also happens to be a genealogy of Joseph. Given the story we are reading today, that is both interesting and confusing. Is Joseph Jesus’ father or not? Genealogies in scripture are very careful recitations of pretty much everything you need to know about the person at the end of the line. The story of the family tells the story of the man. So, this story includes many of the giants of scripture: The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Kings David and Solomon and Josiah. But this genealogy is fascinating, and unique, because it also includes four women. And each of these women is very, very interesting. Not one of them is a Jew. And every one of them has endured life circumstances that would have been described as anything from tragic to scandalous. We have giants of the faith and we have characters that raised eyebrows. The story of the family tells the story of the men, Joseph and Jesus.

The other thing we think we know about Joseph is that he was a carpenter, and he may have been. But the Greek word we find in the gospel, tektonos, means artisan or builder. In recent years scholars have suggested that Joseph was a stonemason. Nazareth is in a part of Palestine that has few trees and little wood, but it is surrounded by an abundance of stone and rock. 

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” the gospel tells us. Mary and Joseph were engaged, but they were not yet living as husband and wife. The second song I’ve been humming lately is “Christmas Song” by Dave Matthews. Joseph has a brief mention, as Matthews simplifies the story.

She was his girl; he was her boyfriend
She’d be his wife; take him as her husband
A surprise on the way, any day, any day
One healthy little giggling dribbling baby boy…[i]

The likelihood is that Mary was quite young, but Joseph may have been somewhat older. (In case you are wondering, the Cherry Tree Carol’s suggestion that Joseph was an old man is based on a medieval church tradition that Joseph and Mary never lived fully as husband and wife.) During the engagement Mary “was found” to be pregnant. I wonder, how did that happen? Did Mary know and tell him? Did Mary start to show? Was there a baby bump? Did everyone figure it out? This version of the story is different from the one in Luke’s gospel; Matthew doesn’t tell us.

We read that Joseph was “a righteous man.” Joseph’s way of righteousness involves quietly separating from the woman he assumes has betrayed him.

The third song rolling around in my head was written by Brandon Flowers and Elton John. They put it all out there, all the possible roiling emotions.

Is the touchstone forcing you to hide, Joseph?
Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph?
When the holy night is upon you
Will you do what's right, the position is yours…
Do you see both sides? Do they shove you around?
Better you than me, Joseph
Better than you than me…[ii]

How did he cope? Joseph doesn’t shame Mary, he doesn’t drag her to the town square for what, according to the laws of Leviticus, could have been a death sentence. He quietly ends the engagement. But the songs speak to the gaps in the story. Was he brokenhearted, or did his heart turn to stone or ice? Was he furious? Are the rumors eating you alive? Let the father of thy baby gather cherries for thee. Better you than me, Joseph.

I love the sheer messiness of this story, the story of the birth of the Messiah. Classic Christian theology tells us that Jesus was like us in every way except sin. That, apparently, includes a complicated, slightly scandalous family history, including folks who were

Less than golden hearted
… all soul searchers
Like you and me[iii]

All these songs make specific what is strongly implied in the gospel story: there was a crisis. Rumors were flying around, and an explanation was needed. And, thanks be to God, the righteous man Joseph was a dreamer as well as a doer. He was able to hear the words of the angel whispering in his ear while he slept:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” ~ Matthew 1:20-21

Do not be afraid. Usually when we hear those words in the mouth of an angel, she is referring to her own terrifying splendor. But here, the angel says, do not be afraid to marry this woman. Do not be afraid to adopt this child, for he is meant to be your very own son.

And this is another emotion that Joseph may have been feeling—and we don’t have to go searching unusual Joseph songs to find it, it’s right here in the gospel story. Fear. Joseph may have been afraid. We take blended families for granted. All of us, it seems, come from them, or are forming them. But in the ancient world, marry a woman who was pregnant with a child not your own was to potentially subject yourself to a lifetime of ridicule or worse. Exclusion. Ostracism. Never again being seen as what you are—a righteous man.

Do not be afraid. Those are God’s words to Joseph, whispered to him in his dream by the angel. The angel tells Joseph something else: to name the child, Jesus. This is the adoption moment, the moment in which Joseph names the child. It is the moment when the community will know:  whatever has happened, he is the true father. And “Jesus” is a name that comes from Greek and Hebrew words meaning “salvation.” Rescue. Joseph, the angel whispers. You might think you are rescuing Mary and the child. And maybe you are. But the deeper truth of it is this: he will rescue you.

How did it all turn out? The three songs end in very different places. “Better you than me,” sing Brandon Flowers and Elton John, over and over again. At the end of the Cherry Tree Carol, Mary is sitting on Joseph’s knee, and Joseph is speaking to the baby in her womb—such a typical, tender thing, something fathers have always done.

Then Joseph took Mary, all on his right knee,
Saying, “Tell me, pretty baby, when your birthday shall be.”

“On the sixth day of January my birthday shall be,
And the stars and the elements shall tremble with glee.”

We know how the gospel story turns out. Joseph doesn’t—not yet. Whatever his internal struggles, whatever his emotions, he was a righteous man. He is a model for us. Here’s what righteousness looks like: He is not vindictive. He is gentle and caring, even in the midst of confusion and hurt. Persuaded by the angel of his dreams, he lets love guide his actions, and not fear. Wherever Jesus came from—and we are told, he is from the Holy Spirit of God—Joseph becomes his true father on this earth. He provides Jesus with a stable, blended family, woven together by love and commitment, not very different from the kind of family we see all around us, every day, not very different from the families we will forge ourselves, or the families we come from.

At the end of “Christmas Song,” Dave Matthews has Jesus singing words that could have been from Joseph:

Father up above, why all this anger …
fill me up with love
Fill me with love love love…

I think that’s a good place to end our exploration of Joseph. A late 20th century prayer in song, suitable for every person, for every situation. A prayer to help us find our own righteousness in the midst of confusion and chaos. A prayer that we will never stop needing. Father up above, fill us with love, love, love. Amen.

[i] Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, “Christmas Song,” Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College, 1999.
[ii] Brandon Flowers, Elton John, and Neil Tennant, “Joseph, Better You Than Me,” The Killers (RED) Christmas EP, 2011.
[iii] Matthews and Reynolds, Op. Cit.

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