Friday, December 16, 2016
Disappointment But Not Despair: Reflections on Matthew 1.18-25 (RCL Advent 4A, 18 December 2016)
Disappointment But Not Despair
Reflections on Matthew 1.18-25
RCL Advent 4A
18 December 2016
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
1.18 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Last week I spoke about John the Baptist as one of the more mysterious and controversial characters in the New Testament. This morning we encounter another mysterious and controversial figure: Joseph the carpenter who agrees to take on a role that he could not have imagined.
In popular Christian imagination Joseph is frequently portrayed as an older man who, after the miraculous birth of Jesus, has no marital relations with Mary and devotes himself totally to caring for the nestling the divine cuckoo has laid in his nest. After the child reaches twelve, Joseph disappears entirely from the picture. This familiar image of Joseph has little to no textual basis in the New Testament and is evidence of how later Christians, after the New Testament period, sought to render Joseph a safer, a tamer, a more impotent character.
The Joseph of my imagination is neither old nor a voluntary marital celibate. He is a young man with a promising craft who makes a good marriage. He comes from a good family descended from King David and he is able to arrange a marriage to a young woman whose own family has links to the Temple priesthood.
Matthew the Evangelist describes Joseph as a ‘righteous’ man who tries to observe the requirements of the Torah and who tries to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. When Joseph discovers that he has been cuckolded, he has the right to demand that Mary be stoned to death. Instead, he chooses mercy and compassion rather than retribution, private shame rather than public vengeance, the spirit of the Law rather than its letter. He does not allow his disappointment to lead him into the black hole of despair where our reptilian brain can overpower our higher mental functions, ‘the better angels of our nature’.
Into the night of his disappointment an angel brings a dream. I think that the angel’s message has been dolled up by Matthew, so let me give a more colloquial version of the dream.
“Yes, you’ve been had, Joseph my lad,” said the angel. “But even God has recognized that you’ve handled the disappointment well. So, God wants to let you in on our little secret. This is no ordinary pregnancy and the Child will be no ordinary child. You’ve been given an opportunity to play an important role in God’s plan to save humanity from itself. So, take a risk. Hang on to your blushing and very pregnant fiancée. You’ll have some turbulent times ahead, but God is with you, all three of you. So, wake up, keep calm and carry on.”
What are you and I to make of this story? The first thing we can say is that “God guides faithful decisions.” [i] Even though Joseph could not have ever imagined the situation in which he found himself, the fact that he was a ‘righteous’ man provided him with the spiritual resources to discern a courageous path of compassion in the face of significant societal and cultural pressure to choose a different path.
We can also say that “God gives grace to scandalous situations.” [ii] As difficult as it may be to believe, there is no human situation where God is absent. Disappointment or shame or fear or danger do not have to give way to despair. I am not suggesting some naïve optimism that everything will turn out ‘all right’. I know the darknesses that can come upon us and I do not underestimate their power to pull us deeper into the black hole. What I am saying is this: for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to love, we can catch a life-restoring glimpse of God’s presence even in the darkest night of our souls. Life-altering tragedies occur and personal disappointments come to us all, but they need not lead us to believe that we have been forgotten. “In a world where carpenters are raised from the dead, anything is possible.” [iii]
And, my friends, we can proclaim that “God is with us.” [iv] God is with us in the friend or stranger who accompanies on our darker journeys. God is with us when we must confront our personal failures and seek the forgiveness of others. God is with us when the future seems uncertain and we doubt whether we have the resources to do even the least of what we believe God has asked us to do.
After all, Jesus’ last words to his disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew are these: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.20b) I am with you, says Jesus, when you face difficult choices. I am with you, says Jesus, when you face situations that tempt you to despair. I am with you, says Jesus, when your horizons seem to shrink. Jesus, Joseph’s son, said this and I think that he learned it from his father, both of them.
[i] Melissa J. Wagner in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching; Year A 2017 (2016), 33.
[ii] Melissa J. Wagner in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching; Year A 2017 (2016), 34.
[iii] Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1966) by James Goldman.
[iv] Melissa J. Wagner in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching; Year A 2017 (2016), 34.