Sermon At Seekers, 26 December, 2004
Our reading this morning recounts the story of Joseph‘s vision. It was after Christmas. What a time it is, after Christmas. The shepherds have heard, the angels have sung, the star has shone, the Wise Men have given gifts, Christmas was over and Joseph was sleeping. We are gathered here in this post-Christmas worship, most of us glad that life will soon return to the patterns we know. We too want to rest after the intrusion of Christ’s story into our routines.
Joseph was sleeping. He was still in Bethlehem, which Matthew implies here, and tells us later. An angel comes to him in his sleep. Why come while he is sleeping? Joseph has already had an angelic visit, according to Matthew, and the last time Joseph was awake when the angel came. Why wait now until he is asleep? Don’t we expect God to be consistent, and plan for when the word will come to us? I am grateful we worship a God that resembles, in some respect, the ‘trickster’ God that the Navajos worship: Coyote God who never does things the way we expect.
Maybe the angel came at night to emphasize the urgency of the situation. For this message was more frightening than the other angelic messages. Of course, God’s word is usually challenging in some way. This time, the angel does not say ‘Fear not’. This angel says ‘Get up. Get your family and get out of town, now. Go to Egypt, and live there until its safe here again. For Herod is going to be looking for your special child, to kill him.”
What a dream; what a vision! This child, worshipped by shepherds and wise men already, the source of Good News, has just become a danger. If we have a hard time with the fact that many around us do not accept the Christ child as the promised Savior, think what Joseph must have felt. This was shocking news to him. Do you think that he wished, as we often do with our Christmas presents, for a different Christ? Do you think Joseph wished for a Christ who was not hunted, or feared; wished for a Christ who did not have to die?
What to do? What do we do with bad news, with the hard news that is often a part of this world? Did Joseph yell at Mary while they were leaving? Did he take out his frustration on his family? That is what often happens to me, and I think, to you too. We get angry, and express it to those who are close to us. Words get short, emails get terse and tempers flare. Did that happen to Joseph? Matthew does not say, but he does tell us that Joseph went as he was told. On the strength of a midnight vision, he takes his entire family to a foreign country.
Joseph has my sympathy. Living in another country has its own difficulties. There are culture clashes, language difficulties, homesickness, all of these. For what? Because of visions, dreams, angels, for crying out loud. What kind of life was that for a carpenter? A good clientele is hard to develop; it is hard for an artisan to succeed at a small business. Moreover, if he just went to work for others, he could never reach his own dreams.
For I believe that Joseph, like all of us, had his own dream. Maybe it was to be the best carpenter in the town, or maybe it was to become an architect and build entire buildings. Maybe it was to make a new line of furniture. We all have the dreams, our own dreams, and it is hard to set them aside for the visions that God gives us, or for the visions and destinies of others. Nevertheless, sometime it has to be.
Joseph is not mentioned much in the scriptures. He is mentioned in the Christmas accounts of Matthew and Luke, and is mentioned in the story about Jesus, age 12, being in the temple. Moreover, in that account, Joseph’s name is not even mentioned. Beyond that, we hear nothing of this man. Did he die young? Did he travel to a foreign country and not make it back? We do not know; he just disappears. However, when he is mentioned, he does the right things. He accepts Mary as his wife, and the official story of the divine pregnancy, surely not an easy story for a young man to accept. In addition, here he does what he is told. Further, when he is told that things are safe, he is concerned enough about his young family to return, not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth. Therefore, Joe is one of my heroes. He gets little press, and is rarely the focus of the story. Nevertheless, he did what was right.
Isn’t that what most of us are asked to do? Few are the shepherds, and fewer still the Wise Men, or even Wise Women. Most of us are just ordinary folk, asked to respond to a God in our daily lives, seldom famous or well known.
Then, after Joseph had taken his family away, the remaining children, the small ones of Bethlehem, are killed. If Joseph had it hard, what about all of these families, people whose children had not been born under a star, infants who had not been worshipped except by their own parents? What of them? Why could God not send a vision to all of them? Why could God not send a vengeful angel, an angry angel, to Herod, to prevent all of this murder?
It seems even worse because Matthew asserts that the visit of the Magi that caused this. Herod does not even suspect that a new king has been born until the Wise Men appear and ask for directions. Then he is so angry because the Wise Men are warned, in another dream, not to go back and tell Herod where the child is.
Why did the last act of the Christmas story have to be this? Wait, this was not the last act of the Christmas story. That was the resurrection, which came after a painful crucifixion. Oh, even the greatest of memories have pain in them. When I think of evil, my head just hurts. I often feel so helpless, so un-believing, when I think of all the things that happen in our world that are wrong, that are so unnecessary, so bad.
What makes all this worse, from a believing perspective, is the suspicion that Matthew in telling this story is just trying to explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but wound up in Nazareth. Luke has Joseph and Mary visiting Bethlehem because of the Roman census, with the implication that they immediately returned to their home in Nazareth. Matthew implies that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem when all the angel visits occurred, and just wound up in Nazareth because of the threat from Herod.
When it comes to believing, like all realities, we are asked to take all or nothing. It feels too self-serving to say I believe in the Christmas story, but only the pieces that I like, or the pieces that fit into my view of the world and how it is, or should be. Over this holiday, I had a conversation with my youngest son, Jon, about believing. I told him that I believe on Tuesday, disbelieve on Wednesday, doubt on Thursday and believe fervently on Friday. No wonder I appreciate a God who does not always do things the same way.
It is hard to believe. It is hard to wake up from our sleep and realize that after the angels, stars and gifts, evil still tries to hurt us, and God still calls us to go to strange places. It is hard to accept that not all dreams and visions are pleasant good news. That is exactly why we need the Good News in the first place. Herod was already in power! (By the way, doesn’t it seem like politicians have not changed much. If I were to compare Herod to George Bush, could you tell what my political leanings are?)
So what is this gruesome last Christmas story all about? Well, for one thing, it is a test. It asks the question of whether or not we can hold on to the Good News as we return to our routines. It challenges us to continue with the joy and enthusiasm that we felt on Christmas Eve when we first heard the angels and saw the stars. It asks if we can carry the Good News with us through the tragedies that are a part of this life.
We have waited and served; can we continue to do so? In a recent sermon, David described every day as Judgment Day. Can we live that way? Can we share the Good News and prepare our own lives for Christ as we do those everyday things that must be done?
It also asks how we will respond to the larger culture we live in. How do we react to the ones who still cause the death of innocents? I will answer this question by quoting Marjorie Bankson: “Because we are a small community, where we can let ourselves be known and loved in spite of the Sadducee shoes we may be wearing, this is a place where we can loosen the grip of fear that our culture promotes and dare to let love in….”
As we try to work out what we believe, can we say, as Anna Gilcher asks us to say, yes and yes! Can we affirm the believing and the doubting, the hurting and the enthusiastic, the hoping and the despairing? Can this community remain a wonderful haven for the faith-challenged, people like me?
In the last verse of this passage, Matthew makes the point that all this occurred to fulfill prophecy. It all happened because of promises God had made long before. What promises of God do you hold on to? Can you feel them even when you cannot see them? Can you say with Muriel Lipp in her poem NOW?
we shall arrive
see the loved faces
Like Joseph, we are called from our sleep to go to strange places for reasons that are not always our own in a world filled with danger. Let us bear proudly the Good News as we go.