...and here's the sermon for tomorrow morning at cool Presbyterian Church in Gen-X neighborhood:
Sermon: December 30, 2007
Text: Matthew 2: 13-23
You know the feeling.
You sit up straight in bed in a cold sweat. It’s two in the morning, and you’re wide awake. A dream has shaken you out of a sound sleep, and now your heart is racing and your head is aching.
So it is with Joseph in this story in today’s gospel.
We can picture it. He’s sitting up in that cold sweat. He looks toward the heavens.
“Again with the dreams, God? This is you again, isn’t it? The last time, you sent an angel to tell me I should go ahead and marry her, pregnant as she was, despite the fact that the child wasn’t mine, because….because why? Because the child was from the Holy Spirit? It was a strange dream then, but I obeyed it, because when You send a messenger, we’re supposed to obey.
So now I have another strange dream, a frightening dream, and I’m supposed to pack her up and the baby and travel quickly to Egypt – no easy trip, mind you, with a wife who has just given birth and a newborn. Yes. Yes, I’ll go…but what is this you’ve gotten me into now?”
Yes, we can picture it, his confusion, his fear. Herod had a reputation for doing bad things. He was worse than his Roman masters. The Lord warning Joseph that Herod wanted to kill this child, well, it was a strange thing that Herod would take notice of Jesus, but strange things had been happening to Joseph lately, so he took heed and took them to Egypt. In the aftermath of that escape, a generation of Bethlehem’s infant sons was killed at Herod’s command. Then it was quiet, except for the weeping of the grieving mothers. Herod assumed he had solved his problem, this problem child whom he feared would challenge his throne.
A few years passed. It was quiet. Herod died. Joseph and Mary and Jesus were living under the radar screen in Egypt. And once again, Joseph’s sleep was disturbed by a dream. God’s voice, once again: "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." That familiar voice, once again commanding him. And all the gospel tells us is that he didn’t question, didn’t negotiate…he just did as he was told…but he was afraid. He had heard that Herod’s son, just as frightening as his father, had taken the throne. So God gave Joseph another dream, and Joseph took his little family to Galilee.
Kind of makes you wonder about Joseph, when you hear about all those dreams, and how each time, Joseph obeyed, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you want to question God at least a little? At least say “Why me, God?”
Because above all, Joseph was an ordinary man. Extraordinary things didn’t happen to him. He was just a carpenter, an older guy, lived simply. He just wanted a wife and family, and he got…this. A pregnant wife who wasn’t pregnant by him. A child who came from some sort of action of God, he wasn’t sure how to explain it. And dreams. Dream after dream, ruining his sleep, making his life so much more complicated than he wanted it to be. He was an ordinary man, and God called him to be extraordinary.
There’s a picture at the National Gallery. It is small, just a pencil sketch, really, by Rembrandt. It is later in Jesus’ life. Remember when Jesus was twelve and got separated from his parents after the Passover feast and he started teaching in the Temple? This picture tells the tale of the three of them, reunited again, heading for home. A mother, a preteen boy, the family dog, and dad. And let me tell you, dad is mightily ticked off. The expression on his face, his strong carpenter’s hand gripping his son’s wrist like a vise, his hat squashed down over his grumpy face. The tension is so high in this little sketch that even the dog is cringing, running alongside them, looking like he’s afraid he might get whacked with Joseph’s walking stick. This is not a handsome older gentleman who is distant from Mary and Jesus, this is an angry workman whose son got lost, whose wife had been a basket case for the past three days, who is wondering, for perhaps the thousandth time since the first dream, what he had gotten himself into and why he kept saying “yes” to the God who had put him there. His face is an ordinary father’s face. This ordinary, faithful man who loved a child who in the sketch is staring up to the sky as if he wants to commune with his heavenly father. This ordinary man with an extraordinary child.
And that’s the most remarkable thing of all. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is given only a hint of what is to come. He knows from the beginning that this is a special child, from God, destined to “save the people from their sins.” This is a child to fulfill the prophecies of old. Joseph knew his Isaiah, that passage that was read this morning. He knew that there was to be a savior, and God told him that this little child was it. But how was this to play out? Was this to be a military leader? A king? Joseph knew they were from the line of David, but it was beyond all comprehension, what this all would mean. And yet, although he did not know the whole story, he followed God’s directions. He acted on faith. This ordinary man who just wanted a family of his own ended up with something very different, but he didn’t shrink away from the task. He stayed with Mary, and he raised Jesus as his own.
The gospels don’t tell us anything about Joseph after the incident at the Temple, but I picture him as an ordinary father, letting his toddler son play with blocks of wood in the shop, while keeping the sharp tools out of his reach, I picture him asking the boy if he had said his prayers in the evening, telling him to help his mother with that heavy bucket of water from the well, showing him how to throw a ball. I imagine him wondering what the future held for this boy, who in childhood seemed like any other little boy. His boy, and yet not. Not his boy, and yet utterly his. An ordinary man, with a child who held the promise of us all.
Sometimes we are shaken by what God seems to be asking us to do. When I realized I was being called to ordained ministry, I said no for several years, before I was brave enough to say yes. It frightened me. I was just an ordinary woman, wanting to live my life in a way that was good for my family and was faithful to God. But God asked me to do something I didn’t expect. I sat up in bed, shaking, in a cold sweat. I was frightened, even though what God was asking of me was a great deal less than what he asked of Joseph. But Joseph was my teacher.
What did Joseph do, in those moments of his dreams? When God was asking him to do the unexpected thing, something he felt was beyond him? He said yes. And his yes was a deeply moving one.
When Jesus was born, Matthew tells us that Joseph named him. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s more significant than that brief phrase suggests. Scholars tell us that by giving Jesus his name, Joseph was identifying him in that society, in that time, as his own son. He was adopting him as his own.
There may have been whispers about Jesus’ paternity in those days; the town was small and there was little privacy. The gospel doesn’t tell us. But if there were, those whispers would have been shut down by this act, this naming. It protected both Mary and Jesus. It was a first act of love toward a child who was a mystery to him. The name, too was an act of faith. The name he gave him was Jesus, or Yeshua – God saves. An act of faith, in that name, an act of belief in the God of his dreams. And the subsequent acts of love, of protecting, of teaching, were the same beautiful acts of a caring father, an ordinary man who did the extraordinary. Why? Because this ordinary man was extraordinary in his faith, in his righteousness, in his love of his God.
So this day, after the glory and angel songs of Christ’s birth, when the presents are unwrapped and some toys are already broken, when we’re thinking we really should take down the decorations and put the tree out on the curb, when we begin to move back into the humdrum of short winter days, we remember an ordinary man who listened to what God told him in his dreams and who said yes, and yes again.
We are ordinary people. God may not ask us the big things. But there may a thousand little extraordinary ways in which we can be faithful in our days, even in these short, dark, winter days, that will make the light shine and the angels sing once again,