Beth A. Faeth Dec. 24, 2017
Fourth Sunday in Advent
If you are feeling a bit unsettled this morning, I understand. The calendar says December 24th. It is Christmas Eve. It certainly looks like Christmas Eve in here. Except it isn’t. Yet. It is the fourth Sunday of Advent this morning, an unfortunate circumstance that happens only occasionally in our lifetimes. The last time December 24 was on a Sunday was in 2006, in case you are wondering. And the next time it happens will be 2023. I know of some churches that canceled worship this morning, but that seems sort of strange to me. Advent wouldn’t be complete without a fourth Sunday. Our Advent wreath would have one unlit candle . . . and that just seems sad. Advent is supposed to be a gift of time to prepare for this very day, but somehow it seems we got shorted this year.
Most of my conversations this week seemed to be about this crunch of time . . . we could all use a bit more space before Christmas. At the very least, we need this fourth Sunday of Advent—if anything, to take a deep breath, ponder the meaning of this sacred time and then think about everything we didn’t get done. The question I have been wondering is when, on this day, do we officially transition into Christmas Eve? Sitting behind me are my esteemed colleagues, both wise and worldly. So I asked them. And they shrugged. Seth suggested, pragmatically, 4:45 p.m., since that is our first service of the evening. Paula informed me she needed to ponder this in her heart and then went into her office. So I am going to go out on a limb here and declare that Christmas Eve officially begins today at noon. Sound good? The fourth Sunday of Advent is short and sweet. We better get on with it.
It seems almost appropriate, on this truncated Sunday in Advent, that Joseph is the main character in our gospel lesson from Matthew. When we consider all the elements of the scripture that reveal to us the story of Christ’s birth, Joseph receives little attention. These few verses in Matthew are about all the press he gets. And while Joseph’s role is significant, and he models a kind of faith we might want to inhabit, he is often the least remembered. Poor Joseph, who often gets mixed up with the shepherds in our nativity scenes—I mean, really, who can tell the difference sometimes? And while Joseph made an appearance in this year’s Living Nativity produced by our children, I have been told that there have been some years sans Joseph because no one wants to play him. Ouch. Poor Joseph! That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes, being Joseph in a Christmas pageant can change the whole trajectory of the story:
A church school class was getting ready for their annual Christmas program that included all the traditional roles. One little boy wanted very much to be Joseph. But when the parts were handed out, his biggest rival was given that part, and he was assigned to be the innkeeper instead. He was really bitter about this. So during all the rehearsals he kept plotting in his mind what he might do the night of performance to get even with his rival who was Joseph. Finally, the night of the performance, Mary and Joseph came walking across the stage. They knocked on the door of the inn, and the innkeeper opened the door and asked them gruffly what they wanted.
Joseph answered, “We’d like to have a room for the night.” Typically the innkeeper gets one show-stopping line in the pageant—we all know it—“There’s no room in the inn!” But this night the innkeeper, still aching from not getting the part he really wanted, threw the door open wide and said, “Great, come on in and I’ll give you the best room in the house.” For a few seconds, poor little Joseph didn’t know what to do and a long silence ensued. Finally though, thinking quickly on his feet and not to be bested by his perceived rival, Joseph looked in past the innkeeper, first to the left and then to the right, and said, “No wife of mine is going to stay in a dump like this. Come on, Mary, let’s go to the barn.” And once again the play was back on course.
It seems in scripture and in story, Joseph can really save the day.
Joseph has a dilemma. A significant one. Mary, to whom he is engaged, informs him that she is carrying a child. Not his child. In our day, this would be news to shatter hearts and relationships, but in biblical times this kind of situation would result in death to the woman, named an adulterer. And the punishment was to be stoned. Scripture describes Joseph as righteous—“a man who always did what was right.” That’s hard to live up to, especially when life presents a situation that seems to have no good outcome, and can humiliate you in the process. Scripture tells us that Joseph was to “make plans to break the engagement” or “dismiss Mary quietly.” Apparently that seemed like the right thing to do. The kind thing to do. It would also save Mary’s life. While the text says nothing about Joseph’s state of mind, I can imagine that he came to that decision with a heavy heart, aware of what he was losing, knowing that nothing would be the same. I would also suppose that sleep did not come easily to Joseph, that the grief of what was and was to come would lead him into a restless state of slumber. Cue the angel and the dream that changed everything. Bruce Epperly, a leading process theologian and author, writes, “Today’s Gospel asserts that the future of faith depends on awakening to the nocturnal messages of God through dreams and trusting the non-rational elements of life. God speaks to us through a variety of media, and not just scripture. God moves through every moment of life, providing gentle nudges, insights and synchronicities that on occasion we notice and shape our lives around. Listening to divine inspiration can be a matter of health and illness, success and failure, and life and death. In the startling account of Joseph’s dream, the Gospel of Matthew implies that the survival of Jesus depends on Joseph’s openness to listening to the wisdom of God, mediated through the unconscious.”
Joseph awakens from his dream and does as God has instructed. While Jesus’ entry into the world is fraught with details with which we may struggle and question, Joseph demonstrates a trust in God and a method of discernment that we could choose to emulate. We have all been in those situations when we doubt what another tells us. We have all had moments when we feel like everything in our life is falling apart. We have all known times when the plans we make for the future lie shredded at our feet. Joseph goes to sleep with his life determined on one painful course and, through the power of a dream and a message from God, wakes up to a brand-new opportunity. Joseph’s dream leads him into an awakening to new possibilities. Joseph’s brief but significant pericope in Jesus’ birth narrative opens us to the fact that there are possibilities beyond those made by the hands of men and women. There are solutions that are God-sent.
Joseph, however, is not typically the first character we recall when we consider the Christmas story. In fact, we could easily move through all of Advent not mentioning him at all. Of course there is Mary—and all the drama that surrounds her—and the shepherds, the angels, the manger scene. Even the ox and the donkey get more attention than Joseph. Joseph, the forgotten one. The one who becomes a silent, brooding figure in every Nativity play was actually the one who became responsible for Jesus’ survival. In heeding God’s message, sent through the foggy unconscious of restless sleep, Joseph chose faith over fear and moved forward with courage, not knowing what the future might hold.
When I was a child, my mother was chronically late to pick me up following any event—whether at a friend’s house or Girl Scouts or at the YMCA for swimming lessons, I would always be the last one waiting. And each time I would wonder if I had been forgotten. Of course, this was long before the invention of the cell phone. I would simply have to trust that my mother would eventually show up. This was especially difficult on cold winter days, sitting on the steps of the Y with wet hair. I would wonder and worry and fight away tears even though, in the depth of my soul, I knew my mom would not forget me. But feelings of the heart can sometimes be irrational, especially when we are lonely and afraid. Each time I would see the familiar headlights, I was flooded with relief, and each time I was greeted with both apology and comfort. Reassured that I was loved and safe, in spite of tardiness, I return to those childhood scenes and feelings whenever I feel insignificant and wonder my place.
Someone saw the title of today’s sermon on one of the outdoor signs this week and said to me, “I like your title. That’s how I feel.” The forgotten one. And while it broke my heart to hear that, as well as for this person to acknowledge it, I know they are not alone. Many of us feel as if we do not matter and wonder what difference, if any, we make in this world. As a chaplain on an elder-care campus, every day I would talk with someone who questioned their purpose, who felt used up and brittle, not worth much to anyone. And left with little acknowledgement, they felt forgotten. As if their story was no longer significant. There are forgotten ones all around us—the refugee, the differently abled, the homeless, the poor. People waiting to be recognized in their need, wanting—like the little girl desperate for her mom to arrive—to be reassured that they matter, that, like Joseph, their story has significance. Even in our church family there are those—especially our elders—who are wondering if their contributions matter, if their voice will be heard, if their time and talent is even relevant anymore. What will we do to reassure them that they are necessary here, that Plymouth needs their history, their hearts, their wisdom to move us forward into the next chapter of covenanted community?
Everyone has a story. And everyone’s story is sacred. Joseph may be reduced to the silent stoic figure sitting next the manger on Christmas morning, but his role is distinguished in the events that lead to that idyllic scene in the barn. The witness of Joseph calls us to cooperate with God’s work in today’s world. It calls us to respond to God’s action among us. It invites us to remain people of hope, even when the future is uncertain.
Joseph, not having all of the evidence and knowledge of the future, decided to do more than law and custom required. All because of a dream. All because he listened the voice of the Divine. He elected to do more than was expected of him. He let justice and compassion, along with God’s nudge, guide his decision about his pregnant betrothed. He was pulled, not by the strength of custom, but by the law of love. Joseph is our beacon this abbreviated fourth Sunday of Advent. And Joseph’s legacy reminds us that our stories have worth and value even when they seem to be forgotten. Joseph’s story invites us to pay attention to God’s direction in our lives, especially when we feel restless over decisions and outcomes. God invites each of us into significance, but we must not discount the signs, even when they appear in the form of mysterious dreams.
Our Advent days come quickly to an end. Soon it will be Christmas Eve. I promise. As we celebrate the birth of the Christ child one again, let us not forget how Joseph was instrumental to God’s purposes and plans.
And so are we.
Strike it and see
what fire comes
to sing in you.