“....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…’” — Matthew 1
A little over a week ago, the kids got their parts for the Christmas Pageant. One little girl, about seven years old, came back to her mother, and her mother asked what part she got. The little girl very seriously replied, “Head Angel,” and then victoriously pumped both her hands up in the air and said, “Whut! Whut!”
Of course, the most coveted role is that of Mary, but there are a number of other choice roles. Being a shepherd is cool among the boys. You get to dress kind of raggedy, and you get to walk with those shepherds crooks which both make you feel a little bit like a bishop, and yet should the need arise… you could be a ninja. That is, of course, one of the greatest challenges of Christmas pageants — keeping the shepherds from going ninja. It’s great if you get to be one of the three Kings. You get to dress up like royalty and carry rich gifts for the baby Jesus.
Even some of the minor roles are pretty exciting: Getting to go about on all fours and baa like sheep, getting to be Mary’s faithful donkey, or even one of the cows. In more extravagant productions, a role as one of the three camels of the Magi might be available — now that’s a role that carries automatic prestige.
But there’s one role in the Christmas pageant no one seems to be vying for… the part of Joseph. Is there any worse role in a Christmas pageant than that of Joseph? Joseph usually only gets to stand there. Sometimes he’s the unlucky guy who gets to knock on the door of the inn only to find out there’s no room.
Of the four Gospel writers, only Luke and Matthew have birth narratives. Whereas Luke's story (Luke 1:5-2:20) focuses on Mary, Joseph is the main character in Matthew's account. So, once every three years in our lectionary we take out Joseph, dust him off, and he gets to take center stage.
And after reading this account, we have to say Jesus' human dad was incredible! Can you imagine Joseph’s emotions just in one night we read about in the gospel today? He's gone from excitement about his pending marriage, to what had to be a feeling of betrayal by his virgin bride and her father, to a hard decision to end the farce engagement quietly.
It sounds like Joseph loved Mary. Bare justice according to the Old Law would have been to shame her publicly. But his regard for the law was balanced by a sense of compassion that exemplified the higher values of the Kingdom that would one day be proclaimed by his son. Grace was at work in Joseph’s situation. In the midst of his grief, his inner turmoil and probably his sleepless night, he must have finally dozed off, and God sent an angel.
Now in our society, angels are seeing as kind of fluffy things… kind little cherubs you glue to your dashboard or put on Christmas trees. But Scripture gives us another picture — especially of announcing angels. In an article entitled, “The Truth About Angels in the Bible” Candida Moss writes:
" ... The Angel Gabriel, best supporting actor of modern nativity plays, is less serene when he announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah.
When Zechariah protests that he’s getting on a bit, Gabriel replies ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words … you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
|If you meet an angel,|
you should probably run.
That’s how he delivers the good news. As the poet Rilke wrote, ‘Every angel is terror.’... If you’re looking for spiritual assistance then you should call a saint. If you meet an angel you should probably run.” — The Daily Beast (8/15/13)
But as Joseph wrestled in his sleep, not knowing whether to follow his heart and take Mary to be his wife, or to give in to his crushed honor, and divorce her, an angel came — maybe it was Gabriel again who had also appeared first to Mary and Zechariah — and gave him the strength to follow his heart. And with Joseph's acceptance of Mary as his wife, he becomes Jesus’ adopted father, and makes him legally of the tribe of David. Though most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospels, he carried out an astonishingly important task: He accepted and raised the son of God.
Joseph reminds us of how important dads are, but specifically dads who are vulnerable. Men are often taught to be tough and invincible, but look at Joseph. Look at how vulnerable he made himself. He opened himself up to the ridicule of his family and society. He took the word of an angel who came to him in a dream. How incredibly vulnerable Joseph was! But also, how incredibly courageous! You know, that’s what it takes to be courageous — the ability to be vulnerable.
Think about any act of courage in your life or in the lives of others, and you will see that each of these acts required a person to be incredibly vulnerable. And we hate to be vulnerable. We want to appear competent and able to handle anything. Isn’t it funny that when we meet someone new, the first thing we are looking for in another is that human vulnerability? It tells me that you will understand me. But at the same time vulnerability is the very last thing we want others to see in us.
When you have a child, I think it is the most vulnerable can ever be. That little person has complete access to your heart. More of us dads need to be like Joseph… vulnerable… courageous.
We don’t hear much about Joseph after the nativity stories, but there’s a lesson in that too. By raising Jesus, Joseph did a lot of meaningful things without any fanfare. Joseph surely deserves a lot of our respect, for without his gifts of hospitality, acceptance, and love, the story of Christmas would have no beginning. And with these gifts, Joseph is a model for all who are called by God to serve in supportive roles.
At the beginning of this gospel Joseph was trapped as many of us sometimes are between what appeared to be two equally bad choices: making a big scene about Mary and publicly shaming her or ending the marriage contract privately. But because Joseph was the man he was — vulnerable, courageous, open to God— he was able to find the third way. What surprises me about Joseph is that he shifts from "binary thinking" to considering a third option: to take Mary as his wife.
I wonder how often we are caught in a two-sided ethical dilemma when God actually has a third way in mind that has not occurred to us. So many people nowadays have the tendency to think in terms of either–or. Sadly, it often takes the form of being the kind of person who says, “It’s my way or the highway.” Even if we are not that arrogant, we sometimes get stuck in the same kind of thinking in our own lives: “I’ll either win or lose… I’ll get this great job I want, or I’ll give up… I’ll lose fifty pounds this year, or just forget about it.” Joseph allowed himself to be vulnerable enough to relinquish his own plan for his life so he could respond to the spiritual reality that was unfolding in the midst of this human drama. Perhaps if we could unclench our fists around our plans… God could find a third way for us. It’s scary being vulnerable like Joseph, but it’s also the basis all great acts of courage.
We are so grateful that, just like Mary, Joseph said, “Yes,” to the angel. There have been songs written about Mary singing a lullaby to Jesus, like all mothers do to their sleeping babies. But a more recent poet, Ron Klug imagined another lullaby — one that Joseph sang long after Mary and the child fell asleep that silent Christmas night...
Sleep now, little one.
I will watch while you and your mother sleep.
I wish I could do more.
This straw is not good enough for you.
Back in Nazareth I'll make a proper bed for you
of seasoned wood, smooth, strong, well-pegged,
A bed fit for a carpenter's son.
Just wait till we get back to Nazareth.
I'll teach you everything I know.
You'll learn to choose the cedarwood, eucalyptus and fir.
You'll learn to use the drawshave, ax and saw.
Your arms will grow strong, your hands rough - like these.
You will bear the pungent smell of new wood
and wear shavings and sawdust in your hair.
You'll be a man whose life centers
on hammer and nails and wood.
But for now,
sleep, little Jesus, sleep.
— Ron Klug,"Joseph's Lullaby," Decision, December 1973.