Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2007
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Isaiah 7:10-16 Romans 1:1-7
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Matthew 1:18-25

Who was Joseph?

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” So begins Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, a story that in his telling gives Joseph quite a significant role to play. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and a mother, but it’s Mary – not Joseph – that I tend to think about at Christmas, Mary who gets the spotlight as the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. Of course no crèche would be complete without its figure of Joseph, but usually I don’t pay much attention to him. He wasn’t Jesus’ ‘real’ father, and in the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy, Joseph never says a word, he doesn’t even speak, whereas Mary (in Luke’s Gospel) gets to sing the “Magnificat.” I usually think of Joseph as a minor character in the drama of salvation, and soon enough he slips off the stage upon which Jesus’ life plays out, like a fellow with a bit part who quickly disappears into the wings. My Bible commentary points out that Joseph is mentioned only a few times in the whole New Testament, and that he drops out entirely by the time that Jesus begins his public ministry.

And yet here is Matthew in this morning’s Gospel, speaking of Joseph’s place in the story of Jesus’ birth, and I thought to myself: maybe it’s time to take another look at Joseph. Who was this man, and what did he do that enabled Jesus to be born? For all of us who long for Christ to be born again in our hearts, and in our homes, and in this troubled world of ours, what can we learn from Joseph?

The first thing to say is that Joseph was a “righteous” man. That’s not a word we often hear these days, unless we place in front of it that troublesome little word, “self.” Self-righteous – now that’s a word we recognize. “Self-righteous” conjures up images of a holier-than-thou type of person who looks down with contempt on lesser mortals. When we feel a surge of self-righteousness, we pull ourselves away from other people, and look down on them with pity or with scorn. I hear a tinge of self-righteousness, a kind of malicious glee, in some of the comments now going around about Britney Spears’ 16-year-old sister, the star of “Zoey 101,” who finds herself pregnant and unwed. Self-righteousness makes us feel superior, and gives us license to blame and shame and to point an accusing finger at other people.

But that’s not how Joseph was. He was not a “self-righteous” but a “righteous” man. To be righteous is to live in right-relationship with God, to be straight with God, to seek to do God’s will. Joseph didn’t indulge in self-righteousness, even though the culture that surrounded him instantly judged and condemned a girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. I can imagine Joseph’s confusion and anger and sorrow when he heard that his betrothed had conceived a child. I can imagine him wrestling with shock and disappointment. But it seems that Joseph’s deepest commitment was to do what was right in the eyes of God. Rather than rush to judge or condemn, rather than take revenge by exposing Mary to public humiliation, Joseph treated Mary with respect and tried to protect her from the jeers of the crowd. And so, the Gospel tells us, “[he] planned to dismiss her quietly” [Matthew 1:19]. That decision must have been a costly one, one that required a strong dose of self-discipline and self-restraint.

So that’s the first thing I see in Joseph: a man committed to doing what was right, even when it came at personal cost. I see Joseph in every person who is quietly trying to do the right thing, even when there are no reporters or cameras around to make it public, no witnesses but the eyes of God. Heaven knows it’s hard to do the right thing. We see human fallibility wherever we turn, from the major league baseball players who couldn’t resist taking illegal steroids to the C.I.A. using torture to interrogate suspects and then destroying the tapes that recorded it. Doing right is no small thing, especially when no one is looking.

Some of you may have come across the rules for a good life that were laid out back in the 18th century by John Wesley, the Anglican priest and early leader of the Methodist movement. Here is what John Wesley wrote:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

I was so taken by that quote when I first read it that for years I kept it posted on our refrigerator. I think those words fit Joseph. He was a righteous man; he wanted to do what was right with God. That’s our own first step, too, in preparing for Christ’s birth. We clean up our life. We re-commit ourselves as best we can to doing what is right.

But there’s more. Joseph was also listening for God’s ongoing revelation. He was open to surprise, available for fresh encounter. When an angel of the Lord spoke to him in a dream, Joseph paid attention. Joseph knew, as we know, too, that the holy Mystery we call God can speak to us in our dreams, in our intuitive hunches, in that little flash of insight that opens up a new perspective and a fresh possibility. I don’t imagine that Joseph went through the day dutifully following a rigid set of rules, as if religious texts and religious traditions were like a handbook that tells you exactly what you’re supposed to do in every situation, or like a paint-by-number set in which all you do is color inside the lines. I imagine that Joseph lived with a prayerful awareness that the universe is much more magical and mysterious than that – that reality is not a closed system but is wide-open, and much more than a linear, logical, and predictable series of events. An angel can speak to us in a dream; a voice can sound from within a burning bush; we can quiet our minds in prayer and suddenly perceive something we’ve never seen before, or discover that what we had in mind to do was not at all what the situation requires and that we are being called to do something else entirely. Things are not always what they seem. As Hamlet says to Horatio, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

And so, “when Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife” and he named the child Jesus, which means Savior, just as the angel had told him to [Matthew 1:24-25].

So that’s the third thing to say about Joseph. Not only is he a righteous man, committed to living in right-relationship with God and to doing all the good that he can; not only is he a prayerful man, listening to his inner wisdom, ready to let God speak to him in a dream; he is also a man of action. He hears God speak in his depths and he brings it forth into the world. He makes manifest the word from heaven that came to him in secret; he listens to it and decides to change course. “Yes,” he says to God, and to Mary, “I will be a father to the child. I will claim him as kin. I will guard him and stand by him and keep him safe from harm.”

Because of Joseph’s willingness to respond to God and to accept the task that was given to him to do, Jesus Christ was born. Joseph may not get all the glory at Christmas, but without him – without his commitment to doing what was right, without his prayerful, willing spirit, without his decision to take the action that God was calling him to do – who knows whether Jesus would have been safely born into the world. It was Joseph who ensured Jesus’ safe delivery, and soon after that it was Joseph who protected his wife and newborn son by fleeing into Egypt and returning only after Herod had died.

I’ll tell you why I am drawn to Joseph this year: because he was an ordinary man trying his best to listen to God. And his willingness to serve God turned out to be enough: he had a role to play in the larger drama of salvation. Some might say that Joseph’s role was just a small one, but even so it was a necessary one. It was an essential one. And I think that’s true for us, as well. For all we know – and we may never know – the small good thing that we do today or tomorrow will make an immeasurable difference to someone else, and to God.

I think of Helen Keller, and her willingness to do whatever next good thing came across her path to do. She knew her limits. She knew that she was only one person, and that she herself couldn’t save the world. And yet, she wrote somewhere, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

Joseph did not refuse to do ‘the something’ that he could do, and so Jesus the Messiah was born, and human life was changed forever. With Joseph beside us to encourage us along the way, perhaps we too will open ourselves to listen to where Love is calling us to go and to follow where it leads. Perhaps we too will stand with Joseph in that Bethlehem stable, gazing at the newborn Jesus and marveling at the ways of God.