I am preaching this Sunday, and we are going through a series of sermons based on characters of the Christmas story. So, my assigned character for this Sunday was Joseph and my sermon title (also assigned to me) was “Joseph, Unwavering Faith.” However, I made a couple changes to the bulletin, and it will appear as “Joseph: Unwavering Faith?” The texts I am using are Matthew 1.18-25 and 2.13-15. I know there are some different ways of going about writing an “open-source” sermon, but this week I’m just going to be writing it online. I’ll be drafting, editing and revising the sermon within this blog post. So, if you want to follow along and leave comments, that would be great! You can Subscribe to the Comments of this post to keep up with the conversation. I have no idea if this will work – or if this is even a good idea – but I thought I’d try it out for this sermon. Join the conversation & sermon-writing below.
Matthew 1.18-25, 2.13-15
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
“But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’
“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus…
“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'”
Joseph: Unwavering Faith?
When I used to think of someone who truly exemplified the Christian life, a person who was 110% devoted to Christ, someone with “unwavering faith” – I thought of Mother Theresa. She’s one of those iconic people we think of as a pillar of the faith and a faithful servant. About a year and a half ago, you may remember a book that came out entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. It is a book filled with private correspondence between Mother Teresa and her confessors and superiors. It is a fascinating book – because through her writings, we see a Mother Teresa unlike the one we normally think of. We see a Mother Teresa who is tired, depressed, weary and fearful. She doubts God’s presence and has a hard time believing that Jesus is near her. In one of the letters, she writes to one of her confessors:
“Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
Some were saddened to hear these types of sentiments coming from Mother Teresa; however I think becoming familiar with another side of Mother Teresa only helps to make her faith and work even more inspiring. This is a Mother Teresa we can relate to. This is a Mother Teresa who aches, who looks at the hurt and despair in the world around her, and doesn’t know what to do about it, doesn’t know where God is amid the suffering. As seen through these letters, Mother Teresa suddenly becomes more human.
Allowing Joseph to become more human allows us to feel more connected to the Christmas story, more connected to Joseph and to the many thoughts he must have been experiencing as he entered into this magical story himself.
The last time I preached, I talked about how important I believe stories are to our faith formation. In addition to the stories of scripture, I am also very intrigued by the stories between the stories. The spaces, or holes, that exist within scripture, where information is left out. For example, we don’t know much about Jesus’ thirty years on earth before he began his ministry. There are so many of these potential stories, stories we don’t get to hear in the Bible. In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, we have another example – a wonderful story rich with imagery – just picture an angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream and delivering him the news…it’s pretty amazing. But what I want to hear more about is the time between when he had the dream and when “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.”
What must have been going through Joseph’s mind? He had a plan all figured out. Yet here comes this angel of the Lord – in a dream – and completely turns everything upside-down. When Joseph wakes up, the first thing running through his mind might have been “I need to take Mary as my wife…wait, what? No…I need to divorce her – we can’t stand up to this scandal.” Yet there was something deep inside him, something that went against every other piece of common sense he had, that told him he needed to be with this young woman.
Unwavering faith? Maybe – or maybe it was just a single strand of faith. Faith that the prophecies and dreams would come true.
And what about Joseph’s second dream? Another encounter with an angel of the Lord telling him that his newborn son was in danger and that he must flee to Egypt. We are told Joseph got up, took the child and Mary and left for Egypt. Just like that. But again, I want to know about the story within the story. Here it is – the night after a joyous and miraculous birth of the baby that would change everything – they were exhausted – and Joseph wakes them up in the middle of the night and says, “We must go.” Can you imagine the conversations happening between Joseph and Mary? “Why me? Why us? What is it we’ve been chosen for?
Unwavering faith? I don’t know. Joseph’s faith was certainly greater now than during his first encounter with the angel of the Lord. And how here he is, schlepping through the Sinai desert, with Mary, and Jesus cradled in her arms. They appear to be the portrait of faith – two people following God’s commands and calls on their lives without even blinking. Almost like a game of Spiritual Simon Says. Simon says take Mary as wife. Simon says get up. Simon says go to Egypt. But to believe in the humanity of Joseph and Mary is to acknowledge that they must have had fears, doubts and even disbelief at times.
However, amid possible questions, and doubts, and frustrations…Joseph obeys the angel of the Lord and takes Mary as his wife. Amid all of the uncertainty and anxiety, they get up in the middle of the night and go to Egypt.
Unwavering faith? I don’t know – maybe. But it does seem that both Joseph and Mary were ultimately faithful. When decisions needed to be made, they followed God. When the time came to name the baby boy – he was named Jesus.
When I think about Joseph in this story, I think about someone who must have been confused and distressed about the whole situation. Someone who is looking at his life and I imagine him picturing a huge rushing river ahead of him that he has just been told he needs to cross. He doesn’t know how he’ll make it through the rushing waters, nor how he’ll be able to trust God enough to bring Mary and Jesus with him. But yet, there is something compelling him to keep moving forward – there is something bringing him to the river – something deep within him saying “Go. Trust.”
There is a speech that has received a lot of attention recently because of its last line: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” – a line that President-Elect Barack Obama used in his Super Tuesday Speech. The speech is credited to a Hopi Indian Elder from Arizona, speaking about times of transition and change. As I think about the emotions Joseph must have been feeling in this story – and as I think about the feelings I’ve had during times of uncertainty and change in my own life – these words seem to speak deeply to those situations. I would like to read the speech this morning:
“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people this is the hour. And there are things to be considered:
“Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relationship?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.”
He clasped his hands together and said: “This could be a good time!”
“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel that they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
“Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is here with you and celebrate. At this time in history we are to take nothing personally – Least of all ourselves. For the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
“The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
How many times have we been faced with a situation that feels and looks like a great river with swiftly moving waters? Times when we are afraid, and we just want to hold onto the shore? Joseph and Mary certainly may have wanted to do that…but faith calls for something more. We may still have those feelings, we may still doubt…but faith is about letting go of the shore. Faith is knowing and trusting that the river – that our situations – that our dark valleys and times of frustration – knowing that those times have a destination. And allowing ourselves to push off into the very deepest parts of those circumstances and trust.
God doesn’t demand unwavering faith from us. God doesn’t ask that we hide our questions, or our doubts, or our lack of faith. But we are called to let go of the shore – to trust in God’s presence – to have just enough faith. And as the Hopi Elder said, “see who is here with you and celebrate…the time of the lone wolf is over.” God doesn’t ask us to have faith alone. God certainly didn’t expect Joseph or Mary to make their journey alone – for they had each other and the incarnate God with them. We have faith in a community – with each other – with each person sitting in these pews this morning.
“There is a river flowing now very fast…Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is here with you and celebrate…the time of the lone wolf is over.”