Joseph the Wise

December 13, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 1:18-25

We’ve been working our way through Advent, moving across a weary land toward the hope of Christmas. We’ve discovered that in the biblical version of this season, as in our time, people are anxious and afraid, not sure what the future holds.

Joseph is no exception. Like the other characters in the story, he’s also scared. What frightens him in Advent, though, is not a surprise visit by an angel; instead, it’s his fear of stigma, of violating social norms and being ostracized. Ostensibly, he’s concerned about Mary. When he learns the young woman to whom he’s engaged is expecting a baby that’s not his, Matthew says that Joseph, “Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

That reasoning doesn’t hold up. It sounds like what we would call today, “mansplaining.” Why would breaking off the relationship protect the unwed Mary? Wouldn’t that leave her even more vulnerable? Joseph’s “dismissal” of Mary seems more aimed at getting him out of a tight spot. No doubt rumors were starting to swirl in Nazareth.

We can hardly blame Joseph for his self-preservation instinct. We’ve all been there and done that – known in our hearts that we should do one thing…but then end up doing something else because of perceived pressure. Especially in a time like ours, hunkering down to protect ourselves may seem like the best thing to do.

We all have concerns in this season of uncertainty. Like Joseph and all the rest, we, too, are afraid in Advent. How we respond to our fear will determine how well we get through this time – and not only Advent but in the time ahead. Whether it’s distress at the pandemic – nine months as of this weekend; or anxiety about the state of the planet; or dread about the turmoil in our political life; or apprehension about our national willingness to tell the truth and pursue racial justice…how we face and deal with our anxieties will make all the difference in the world, literally.

Watching Joseph sort out his own angst may prove instructive for us.

We don’t know much about Joseph. He may appear in every Nativity scene – sometimes asleep – but Joseph makes only a fleeting appearance in the story. Much of what we “know” about Joseph is the stuff of speculation.

One fourth-century “account” reports that Joseph was in his 80’s when he married Mary. His first wife had died, and he had six children from that marriage. Joseph lived to the age of 111, so the account goes, and Jesus preached at his funeral. (https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0805.htm)

That manuscript is entitled The History of Joseph the Carpenter – and even that they may have gotten wrong. Matthew describes Joseph as being, in the biblical Greek, a tekton, meaning a “builder or craftsman.” Once again, a mistranslation may have perpetuated a legend – that Jesus, like his father Joseph, was a carpenter. Given the building material of the time, Joseph and Jesus were more likely stone masons.

My wife Beth and I walked the Jesus Trail through northern Israel some years ago. It starts in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth and heads into the hills of Galilee before descending to the Sea of Galilee and the village of Capernaum. I think of that walk from Nazareth when the prophet Isaiah says, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

The path is rarely level. The hills and valleys are still there, and the rough places still rough.

After leaving Nazareth and trekking through that biblical scene, we came upon the ancient ruins of Sepphoris, a thriving Roman city about three miles away from the tiny Nazareth of Joseph’s time. It’s likely that father and son walked that same path to go to work as stone masons for the Romans.

But none of this is certain; all we know about Joseph is what the gospels tell us. He serves as the genealogical link from Jesus back to King David and beyond, into the ancient history of the Hebrew people. He lives in Nazareth. And he becomes the husband of Mary, but not without some drama along the way.

Joseph decides to “help” Mary by breaking things off between them. Wouldn’t the more noble idea be to quickly marry the pregnant teenager and put an end to any gossip – which is precisely what the angel suggests to Joseph in a dream?

Joseph, it turns out, has three more angelic encounters in his dreams, and all of them have to do with the need to protect his wife and child. In one he’s told to flee to Egypt with Mary and the baby, because of Herod’s violent plans. In another an angel tells him it’s safe to return home, and the last one warns him to be careful about where they settle.

These “dreams” may simply have been Joseph’s nocturnal conscience speaking up, his “better angels” nudging him to do the right thing, He hears them, and chooses the wiser course. He stays with Mary and does everything in his power to protect her and the child.

Joseph the Wise.

In our own anxious Advent, when the world seems barely to be holding together, when the rough places are only getting rougher, the valleys deeper, the mountains higher, what can we learn from the wisdom of Joseph?

First, Joseph is willing to listen. Those in power often maintain their privilege by not listening to those outside their circle. By not hearing others they can cling to the illusion that their power is a good thing, the right thing, the only thing.

Joseph is in a position of power relative to Mary. In Matthew’s patriarchal telling, in contrast to Luke, Mary has neither voice nor agency. We never hear from her. Joseph is the only one with authority to act. Mary is passive and powerless, giving Joseph little incentive to listen to her. She’s almost written out of the story – as are those in our time who don’t have seats at the tables of power.

I remember a conference we hosted here in Westminster Hall, back in the days when we could do that. The topic was affordable housing. The room was full of leaders in business, non-profits, foundations, and government – all well-intentioned, with the latest ideas. The panelists were impressive, but it struck me that no one there needed affordable housing. No one was sleeping in their car, no one living on the streets. Their voices were missing.

Thank God for the angel voices Joseph keeps hearing. Maybe they represent Mary’s silenced voice, urging him to do the right thing by her and the child, even if he’s not the father. Joseph wisely listens. We would do well to follow his lead in our time. We can be so convinced by our own voice, our own truth, that we never stop to listen to others, especially those whose voices have long been silenced.

Second, Joseph is willing to change. He had made up his mind and chosen where he would go, but then changes directions, sensing it’s the right thing to do. It’s a mark of spiritual wisdom to know when to change, to let go of positions and perspectives and priorities that no longer represent the best we can do or the best we can be.

Years ago, in another church, the city asked us to allow people to stay temporarily in our building because shelters were full – there was no room in the inn. The elders debated the question. One in particular, named Joe, was adamantly opposed and would not budge. In the end, the elders voted to welcome the people.

When the first night came to host neighbors in need, Joe was there to volunteer. He came back each night, because, he said, that’s what the church leaders had voted to do. About six months later, long after the overnight program had ceased, at a meeting of the elders Joe raised his hand and stood to speak. “I want to say that I was wrong to oppose our showing hospitality to those with no place to lay their head.” That’s all he said.

Like another Joe 2,000 years ago, this Presbyterian elder was wise enough to recognize the need to change his mind, and then have the courage to do it.

Finally, Joseph is kind. In the end, he didn’t have to listen to his better angels, and wasn’t forced to change his mind. He could have ignored the dreams, stayed the course, and left Mary behind. But he found himself tapping into the deep calling in each of us to be kind to one another. Being kind requires empathy, the ability to know and understand and share the feelings of another. Joseph was empathetic toward Mary, with a little help from the angels.

As have most of you, I assume, I have experienced first-hand what seems like the decline of kindness in our time.

About a month ago I was walking our daughter’s 100-pound dog and pushing our sleeping grandchild in a stroller, trying to keep everything going smoothly in the right direction. I didn’t notice that another man, a younger man, was walking a little dog toward me on the sidewalk. Before I knew what was happening he cut into the street to avoid us, and then as he walked by he delivered a string of invective and curses at me for not having yielded the sidewalk, with my big dog and sleeping grandchild.

It was a minor incident, but it offered a parable of our time: a stranger projecting anger toward someone they didn’t know. That’s what we do these days, even sometimes toward those we do know.

When did we become so mean? The pandemic isn’t helping, and neither do the anonymity of social media and politicians who attack others personally, sometimes even threatening them. We seem to have lost the willingness simply to acknowledge our common humanity.

Being kind doesn’t mean acquiescing to injustice. Joseph understood that. He resisted the evil intentions of Herod and undermined his power by refusing to let the empire have its way. Kindness can be a political act, especially when the prevailing powers are lacking in empathy and unwilling to think of anyone but themselves. To tweak Cornel West, kindness is what justice looks like in public.

As Christians, we will never make it to loving our enemies, as a nation we will never dismantle racism, as citizens we will never reconcile politically, if we cannot first be kind to one another.

We’ve been working our way through Advent, moving across a weary land toward the hope of Christmas. We’ve discovered that in the biblical version of this season, as in our time, people are anxious and afraid, not sure what the future holds.

We can learn from Joseph’s response to his own anxiety, as he awaits the birth of Jesus: He listens. He’s willing to change. And he draws from the well of kindness implanted by God in every human heart.

We can do the same in our time.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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