Sunday, December 23, 2012

Love Reborn

Love Reborn
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 23, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3: 8-13
Matthew 1:18-25 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

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. [1]  

It is interesting the details that the different Gospel writers choose to include in their accounts of Jesus' birth. Mark includes no mention of the birth and John employs the famous and poetic in the beginning there was the word prologue, leaving the story to be told by Luke and Matthew. They go together in that they share details that are in no ways at odds with each other, but they simply include different parts of the story. They both have Mary as a Virgin. They both have Bethlehem, but only Luke explains why they young couple is heading there, and they both have the character of Joseph, but there the differences begin. Where Luke mentions the Roman Governor Quirinius, Matthew mentions the rule of Herod. Where Luke shows Shepherds and the Angel Choir, Matthew shows the Wise Men, their gifts, and the star. Where Luke includes much singing and songs of great joy, Matthew's account echoes of the screams of mothers of murdered children, all very different, but the difference I want to focus on today is that Luke seems to be about Mary and her role as the mother of Jesus, Matthew seems to focus more on Joseph, a man who is not the father, nor yet a true husband, but one who reveals dedication, trust, selfless sacrifice, strong and careful protection, wise decision making in crisis, and most importantly, as all of these reveal, a reborn love.
Why do I say reborn love? Let's just say that such devotion of a man for a woman is hard to find in the Bible before this point.  Let's take a walk through some of the Old Testament relationships between women and men. The first starts off good, helpmates and partners and naming the animals, but the precedent set by Adam and Eve is one of distrust and blame. Then Abraham and Sarah, though they walk together and go through many things side by side, their relationship is hardly what we'd call functional. Abraham lies about Sarah calling her his sister at one point, takes on a second woman to mother a child for him at another point, and then takes the kid they have together off to a mountain to sacrifice him. You have a triangle between Jacob, Leah and Rachel, the misfortune and mistreatment of Tamar, David's obsession with Uriah's wife, and the list goes on and on. There are a few exceptions but for the most part the relationship patterns are troubling.
The biggest parallel though is that first one, with Adam and Eve. I thought about titling this sermon: a Tale of Two Husbands. The I could start with an homage to Dickens with It was the best of times it was the worst of times, It was a garden plush with virginal beauty and freedom, it was a desert, tan and sandy occupied and oppressed, but in line with Dickens' love for ironic twists, you will see the man in the best of times behaving badly, without faith or devotion, and Joseph in the deserts of Roman Occupied Judea, acting as a truly righteous saint. You have Joseph showing total devotion to Mary, and true faith in God as well. Let's take a look at the situation.
In the text  we get a glimpse of Joseph's original intention. It says, that Joseph "being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." Why should he get himself caught up in such a mess? He's a good carpenter, a good catch, he thought Mary was someone he could trust, he could love, he could marry, but events had proven that incorrect, and now the best thing is just to pretend it didn't happen. He doesn't bear her any ill will, just the disappointment you find when someone is not what you thought, in fact less, it hurts but the first step in the healing is to move on, so that is his plan. The Angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to reconsider. The angel in the dream tells him the truth about the child, a wild story about his betrothed wife and the pregnancy: "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.”"
In a dream. . . I'm sure we've all here had dreams we remember. Now maybe dreams where angels appear would be different, but my dreams have details that are foggy and strange and hard to understand, even the ones that seem to be real and based on real stuff that I have going on, even the ones that seem so real it's hard to distinguish them from reality, but at the end, when you wake up, it is real easy to dismiss your dreams as, well that was just a dream, and then you go about your daily life, so Joseph's mind changing encounter with the Angel is part of his dream. Mary's on the other hand is a middle of the day, totally awake encounter. She also has the experience of actually being pregnant to give her another clue that what the angel says is actually true. She knows she has never been with a man, and now she is pregnant, she's jammed straight into the middle of a miracle that is impossible to deny, but Joseph isn't. He can get out, but he doesn't. He chooses to stay, he chooses to sacrifice, he chooses faith rather than mistrust and blame, very different from the first relationship as it broke apart in the garden of Eden.
There is something different going on here and it is an important part of the story of Christmas because without Joseph there is no story. Joseph gives Mary the cover of legitimacy in  her pregnancy, when illegitimacy would have resulted in her death either by exposure by being exiled and banished, or the more direct route of being stoned. Then Joseph saves the day again later in Matthew when in another dream he is told by the angel again to get Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem before Herod comes with his murderous henchmen. So Joseph on two accounts, believes enough and saves the child, whom he did name Jesus, there in the manger in Bethlehem.
Some of you may know, if you came to the first of the Advent Study sessions that I have been borderline obsessed this Christmas season with a poem by W.H. Auden entitled "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," that first session we read part of that poem, but we didn't read the part about Joseph. Incidentally, I'm currently writing a devotional book based on the poem, and this week I've been wrestling with the Joseph portion. Providence strikes again. I want to read that section of the poem for you and insert some of my commentary in the middle because it really seems to capture for a modern audience part of what Joseph must have been going through.
The section is titled "THE TEMPTATION OF ST. JOSEPH," and it envisions a modern version of Joseph, in the midst of a Hard Day's Night, and all he wants is to meet his love for dinner, but some strange events bring doubt into his mind, he speaks three times, and each time the Chorus of his thoughts and the voices all around him speaks. I want to share those three Chorus statements, and then Joseph's prayer following directly:
CHORUS (off):
Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.  

CHORUS (off) :
Mary may be pure,
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance . . . Well . . .  

CHORUS (off):
Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.  

So then Joseph prays. . .
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .  

               No, you must.  

How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.


All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.  

No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.
Do you hear it? "No, you are on your own with this, you must believe. You must do what Adam couldn't do." Adam chose to throw Eve under the bus when pressed by the circumstances, Joseph has to believe in Mary and take her fate as his own, assuming her plight as his own, assuming either her sin, or her blessing as his own, and not because he knows, not because an angel came to him in the middle of the day and without question let him know the deal, not because he was forced to, but simply because God through the angel planted the seed of faith in his head and love in his heart. It sounds an awful lot like Jesus, the word made flesh assuming the sins of mankind, doesn't it. Why again because of love, and its marriage with faith.
The poem goes on from here and the narrator comes on and explains to the audience the theological situation in more detail, he is talking about what Joseph must do, as if it were a complete role reversal of man and woman and their understood roles since the fall. Again it reflects the idea that Joseph is assuming Mary's experience, living it right beside her. I will focus on just the concluding lines of the four stanzas the narrator speaks, cutting out some complicated modern juxtaposition of the story to focus on the summaries of the conflict.

 While she who loves you makes you shake with fright,
Your love for her must tuck you up and kiss good night.

Today the roles are altered; you must be
The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity.

You must learn now that masculinity,
To Nature, is a non-essential luxury.

Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.

Do you see the role reversal? He finishes the speech with the following.

Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one's days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.

Joseph and Mary's relationship and Joseph's faith and trust with her, his blind belief, his ability to love her unconditionally, even though the world would think he was crazy, because it is difficult, not many people would do what he did, but Joseph raises the standard for men and women and their relationships, a very big part then of the overall redemption of the world. Love through example. Love, Love, Love, Love, Love. . . many people would say that Matthew includes the story of Joseph because the details about his part of the story echo the details foretold by the prophets because he so often says, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" or This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son," but I think that Matthew includes it because not only does it echo the prophets it also foreshadows the love that Jesus will show throughout the rest of the Gospel, and the love Jesus is, God's love made flesh.
I share this poem by Auden with  you because art like this invites us into the situation of the text that much more. Allowing us to think a little more about a story we know so well, and therefore never wonder about. And though there aren't many Christmas Carols that raise up Joseph, there is much in his story about what it means to be in a relationship, the faith, the trust, the sacrifice it takes, and Joseph does it all, a true example of the Christian love that his adopted son will work so hard to embody. Joseph very much stands up to the Marks of a True Christian, like we studied for so long. As we step forward toward Christmas, tomorrow is already Christmas Eve, may we strive in our relationships to be more like Joseph, and give of ourselves, and give completely of our love. Could it be that Mary bore Christ, but that Joseph is the first Christian?

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 1:18-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.