Every angel seems to use “do not be afraid” as an opening line. No one needed to hear that more than Joseph. What was happening to him was the stuff that ruins lives! The angel’s message of encouragement was to see a difficult circumstance not with dread–but with more joy. #DoNotBeAfraid #morejoy #sfcalpres
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 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’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
“Don’t Hesitate” by Mary Oliver
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Mary as Role Model
The Virgin Mary has often been regarded as an archetypal woman, the virgin mother, meaning that women everywhere would do well if they aspired to be like Mary. The problem is, especially this time of year, that we have made Mary and Joseph, like Christmas in general, into a confection. Now, we all know that December 25 is an arbitrary date, that there was no snow, that the Winter Olympics will never be held in Jerusalem. Wouldn’t we do well to peel away some of the fake veneer and try to get at who the members of the Holy Family really were. It’s not easy. There’s not much information to go on.
We’ve all seen the images. Mary looks like a 17-year-old supermodel, always thin, even when she’s nine months pregnant, always smiling (like every mother all the time) and usually in a blue dress. And she’s white. She’s rarely if ever depicted as angry at Joseph for staying out with the boys or changing diapers or writing in the pangs of labor. Like most archetypes, Mary is an impossible role model, a woman who is rarely if ever depicted in art or literature as an imperfect human. Even last Friday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, something that leaves regular people out in the cold. The Incarnation means that God took on flesh and became a little baby, just as we were all once little babies. When we make the Incarnation and all the lore around it into something unfathomable, we do God a disservice. God with us means just that.
Not over us, not in spite of us, not better or worse than us, not way out there somewhere, but God-With-Us. This is Good News that exceeds all others.
Joseph as Role Model
Mary is often held up to young girls, especially Catholic girls, as a role model. I wonder why Joseph is not the example for boys. I wrestled with this question in a week peppered with more resignations from men that can’t seem to keep themselves under control and just before a week wherein a multiple-times-accused pedophile once banned from the Gadsden Mall has an even chance at winning a seat in the United States Senate. Why isn’t Joseph our role model, guys? Is he that unrealistic a candidate?
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. Joseph had promised to marry Mary. Then, she tells him her secret. “The Holy Spirit has placed in me a baby which will be God’s own child. I have never cheated on you, Joseph, even though I will be giving birth to someone else’s child.” What would your reaction be? Joseph knew that, if he left Mary, he would have been fine and her life would have been ruined.
Joseph must have loved her! The text implies that other men would have left Mary and let the community punish her. As a man in his society, he had more privilege than Mary. In many parts of the world even today, young women who conceive outside of the bonds of marriage or disobey their husbands or fathers are shamed and sometimes sentenced to death, often by stoning. They call this an “honor killing”— five-thousand women a year murdered to save the so-called honor of men, often the same men that got them pregnant. The same kind of mistaken masculinity, though not as lethal, has played its role in bringing about the phenomenon known as “the silence breakers” — Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Have you seen the cover of Time? There’s one woman depicted as just an elbow, her identity shielded out of the picture, because she fears losing her job. Such a reprisal we could call an “honor firing” to save face for men who have mistakenly exchanged power-over for masculinity. If you are longing for the 1950s, let me break it to you: what used to work does not work anymore. Praise God!
Role model Joseph has many things to teach us men and women today. First and foremost, Joseph believes Mary’s story. As unbelievable as many of us might find it, he believes her—because he loves her. Jospeh does not walk out on their relationship when things get crazy. Joseph listens for God, and then he heeds God’s message. In today’s scripture, the angel comes to Joseph in a dream verifying Mary’s story. The Greek word here for dream can also mean “a trance” meaning that Joseph was deep in prayer, listening, grappling, wrestling until blessed. That’s when the angel said,“Dude, she’s telling you the truth. So, stop worrying. Let go of your fear as best you can. This child is actually going to save people.” The name Jesus is the Greek version of Joshua, Jeshua—the Hebrew root meaning “rescuer” or “deliverer.” So, literally speaking, the baby in Mary’s belly is our salvation. Silent Joseph obeys God’s message and becomes a type of foster parent to Jesus, loving him as his own son: a baby that needs watching and changing and feeding and teaching.
To symbolize that we are also interested in the welfare of babies, Calvary will be collecting baby food on Christmas Eve. Emmanuel, God with Us, will be hungry!
“Getting to the Front of the Stable” by Ann Weems, from her book, Kneeling in Bethlehem.
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the creche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?
God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of the stable?
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings.
When he wasn’t in the doorway,
he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,
gently covering her with his cloak,
assuring her that he would watch the Child.
Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.
This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed the Christ Child.
As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance at this Child
who brought us life.
Joseph loved Mary more than the masculine expectations for retribution and reputation. Joseph, the righteous, upstanding, law-abiding man, sheltered a teenaged girl whom others would have cast out. Joseph knew the letter of the law was not nearly as important as the spirit of the law. Joseph followed a God whose grace knows no limit, YHWH, the God whose love is for everyone, without exceptions, and God’s intervening love transforms human history again and again. It will still transform human history again and again. Those Silence Breakers are God’s messengers, angels transforming history, warning us to get it together for the kingdom is at hand.
Who are the other angels in your life, in your life’s story?
Who changed your world forever with a simple word of defiant joy?
One of the questions I answered at my ordination was: “Will you give up the need for control?” I don’t remember how I answered. Just kidding! I said, “With God’s help I will.” At my first call, I followed a pastor who gave up on trying to control everything. He, Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski, was famous for saying, “If we can’t fix it, we will feature it.”
One Sunday afternoon as we were about to welcome some Northern California elected officials for a community meeting prior to the service, lo and behold, the sanctuary ceiling began to fall in, over the pulpit, onto the pulpit. I can take a hint from God, but I don’t know why God has to be so obvious! Realizing we could not fix it in time for Bevan Dufty and Dennis Herrera to speak to the gathering crowd and knowing that a worship service was coming just after this gathering, we simply moved the pulpit over, clear of the falling ceiling.
As people spoke during the community meeting, little snowflakes of plaster meandered their way down to the floor. We stopped to watch this new and dynamic feature in our sanctuary, and then we’d go back to the business at hand. Later, during worship, just as I was telling the congregation why the pulpit had been moved, another big slab of ceiling thwacked the floor beside me. We knew we didn’t have a building reserve, but right there amidst the crumbs of plaster and the dollars falling from the ceiling, in that moment, our worry melted into unhinged joy. It was as if God was throwing confetti on our worship service, telling us to lighten up and enjoy the journey, all the way, every foible. Little crumbs of calamity gave way to joy. No matter how hard I tried to preach that serious sermon, something told me to stop and wait, to check the air and watch for more messages, more signs of real joy, the kind of joy that comes unexpectedly. Life is full of infinite possibility, and joy is life’s way of fighting back fear and worry. Perhaps your sky is falling. This is the instant when love begins. Real joy: we cannot force it. We can only be open to receive it.
 John L. Bell, “Jesus: Contrary and Controversial” Greenbelt Festival Talks 2017, accessible online at www.greenbelt.org.uk/product/jesus-contrary-and-controversial/ (December 8, 2017)
 Mirren Gidda, “Women Are Dying in Overseas Honor Killings…” in Newsweek, May 3, 2017, accessed online at <www.newsweek.com/2017/05/12/honor-killings-violence-against-women-seeta-kaur-india-pakistan-593691.html (December 7, 2017)
 Marcia McFee, worshipdesignstudio.com, 2017.
 Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), 50. Partially available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=WqcLDqJeAEQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.