No Sermon Dec 4, 2011
A Righteous Man
Matthew 1:18-25, 2:13-15,19-23
December 11. 2011
I’ve heard of strong silent types, but Joseph might be the most important person in the Bible who never gets to say a word. Or at least what he said was not written down for posterity. All you husbands out there, take notice: Mary holds forth at length; Joseph’s actions speak louder than his words.
He was, according to the Gospel writer Matthew, “a righteous man.” What does that mean to you? In our day, it might mean that he was responsible, hard-working, that he tried to do the right thing. He gave money to the poor, helped people who needed a hand, and generally stayed out of trouble. Like many conventionally righteous men, Joseph quietly went about his business, and no one took much notice of him.
In the context of ancient Israel, a “righteous man” was one who followed the Jewish Law, who prayed and offered sacrifice in the temple, who kept himself clean from contact with outsiders, one who followed the rules. I suspect, like many good men of today, he was practically invisible, as he worked at his carpenter’s bench.
Joseph lived in a world of measurements and angles. He was careful with materials. He made simple, useful items for everyday households. He followed plans that would ensure consistent results time after time. He would never be rich, but he made a fair and honest living. Being a righteous man, he cared what his neighbors thought of him. He would do nothing that would bring him shame or embarrassment.
But life with God does not always follow the contours of measured righteousness. Life in God is sometimes guided by dreams, not carpenters’ plans. Joseph had his life plotted nicely. Mary would become his bride and they would have children, and he would teach their boys how to work with wood. But then came the news that Mary was pregnant—before the wedding, before they had even been together!
According to the Jewish law, he had the right to dismiss her, to walk away from their engagement, to shame her for making him a laughingstock. Because he was a righteous man, he planned to dismiss her quietly and move on with his life. But then Joseph had a dream.
An angel appeared to him, and told him to take Mary as his wife, and to care for this child with all the love and protection he could offer. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, a living embodiment of God’s ancient promises.
When Joseph awoke from sleep, Matthew says very simply that he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. But I cannot believe that he did not do some pretty heavy soul searching first. He was a carpenter, used to measuring twice and cutting once. He did not start a project until he had his materials all assembled. Would he really embark on this wild commitment, based on a dream, without weighing the costs and the risks?
As a conventionally righteous man, Joseph risked shame, when the community found out that Mary was pregnant before their marriage. If they thought the baby was his, they would blame him, and if they thought the baby was not his, they would laugh at him. And if it was true that this child was “Emmanuel”, God-made flesh, then where on earth would Joseph to find the wisdom and the courage to raise him? There were no blueprints to follow, no one from whom he could ask advice. There was only the wisdom of dreams, and the trust that God would provide guidance.
I believe he spent some time weighing the risks, and trying to control his panic. And then, Joseph stepped beyond righteousness, into the world of daring faith. He moved up the date of the wedding, offering Mary the protection of his name. It would not be the last time God spoke to him in a dream. After Jesus was born, after the men from the East came to honor him, Joseph dreamed that Herod was searching for the child and wanted to kill him.
The last thing Joseph wanted to do was to uproot his new family and travel to Egypt! But the dream was urgent and forceful. Their baby’s life was at risk. So like the Israelites of old, they went to Egypt, and stayed there until Herod was dead. Joseph’s protective instincts were correct, and he managed to find work, until it was safe to return to Israel. They made their home in Nazareth, away from the seat of power, and Joseph raised his son to be a carpenter.
In order to enter into Joseph’s story we have to read between the lines. But that is not so very different from most of us today… We go about our business, taking care of our families and our obligations, trying to do our work without complaining. Some of us stay in that world of the practical and the predictable. It’s safe, and it’s not going to get us into trouble. But there’s stuff stirring between the lines, under the surface. We follow the rules, and our lives meet the minimum standard for what it means to be righteous. We don’t always listen to deeper yearnings and sacred wisdom.
Joseph, in his quiet way, stepped beyond the contours of conventional righteousness. He broke the rules for a series of dreams. He listened for something deeper and wilder, and made choices, staking everything on his relationship with God and with Mary and Mary’s son. Maybe he kept his dreams to himself, because he knew that no one would believe him if he talked about them. Or maybe he told just a few trusted friends, and that's how the story comes down to us.
So I ask you today, how is God speaking between the lines of your ordinary –looking life? You make plans based on practical considerations, estimating costs and benefits. But are you also listening to your dreams? Are there places where angels are inviting you to take a risk, for a dream?
If carpenters’ plans stand for our practical, planning sides, then dreams stand for our intuition. Dreams stand for those immeasurable commitments and relationships that move us into unpredictable territory. Dreams nudge us to take actions that cannot be planned and mapped out ahead of time. To listen to our dreams means to ask ourselves questions, and to invite God to whisper the answers:
What do I really long for? Whom do I really love? What do I need to shelter and protect most of all? How can I hear the voice of God?
Joseph listened to his dreams and heard answers to these questions loud and clear. The path was not easy, and he had plenty of anxiety about the future. But he let God’s plans supercede his own predictable routines. He blended the wisdom of dreams and faith with the practical skills that had previously guided his decisions.
What do you really long for?
Whom do you love?
What is God asking you to protect with all your might?
In these dark nights of December, invite angels to visit your dreams. Continue your quiet journey of good work and neighborly kindness, but also consider the ways in which quiet men can and have changed the course of history.
Matthew consciously shaped his Gospel to reveal how Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecy. He inserted quotes from the Old Testament into the story of Jesus right from the beginning. Remember Isaiah, he says “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name, Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”
“God is with us.” Those four words, that brief promise spreads its wings over every line of Joseph’s story. Joseph travels far beyond his comfort zone, and finds the courage to do so, because he knows “God is with us.” He moves from mere righteousness to unscripted bold faith because he believes “God is with us.”
As we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, I am thankful for the righteous men I know, those who quietly work and care for their families and their neighbors. I am thankful for the kind of faith that measures and makes practical things, and for the kind of faith that, once in a while, listens to dreams, risking everything, to protect what God is trying to accomplish. God is with us. God is with us indeed. Amen.