Day 22: SWEET JESUS
Matthew 1: 18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Usually, the fourth Sunday in Advent focuses on Mary – the mother of Jesus, the unwed teenage mother who consents to bearing God’s own son and sings this incredible song of revolt and upside down transformation of power while she does it.
This is almost always the lectionary pattern. Fourth Sunday of Advent: MARY. It’s not just the lectionary, either. Think of all the hymns and songs and prayers and practices that celebrate Mary – who she was, what she did, the way she responded, how she literally labored to bring about the new Kingdom of God, how she spent her life watching her own son grow into such a strange and unique man.
It’s so ingrained in me to celebrate Mary on this fourth Sunday of Advent that our worship team even chose hymns and music to match that scripture. We were going to have this great prelude today – an a capella version of Mary Did You Know, from Pentatonix.
(Side note: yes, Mary knew. An ANGEL came from heaven to tell her exactly all those things the song asks about. She was well-informed, probably more in the know than anyone else around.)
This year, the lectionary doesn’t give us Mary. It doesn’t ask us to reflect on the ways we are called to be like her, consenting, rebellious, laboring and birthing new worlds with our own lives. The lectionary, this year, doesn’t ask us to question whether or not Mary knew what she was doing, it doesn’t give us her beautiful song about the Lord lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things while scattering the proud, throwing down the mighty from their seats of power and sending the rich away, empty and unsatisfied.
And man: was I disappointed when I realized that I didn’t get to preach on Mary and the Magnificat this year. I love the Magnificat. I love that Mary was who she was. I love that Jesus’ birth is announced by an angel who comes to the least likely place in Nazareth, and announces to the least likely person that she – a teenage woman with no social standing or political power, not even a husband or a house of her own – announces that SHE will be the theotokos – god-bearer. And in response, Mary picks up on this beautiful reversal of power and privilege, picks up on the ways God upturns every human expectation, and sings a gorgeous song of revolt, a song of transformation of the very world order.
I would have loved to have preach on all that today. (Notice, how I got some of it in, even while I am telling you that I don’t get to preach it?)
But the lectionary, this year, in 2016, does not ask us to reflect on the place and person of Mary.
Instead, this year, we get the story of Joseph.
Joseph doesn’t show up at all in the Gospel of Mark, the book that was the first story of Jesus’ life to get written down. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke rely on Mark’s story to shape their own, as well as some other shared source, and Joseph is in both of these versions.
And, if you think about it, Joseph’s presence could be sort of ancillary to the story of Mary getting pregnant by the Holy Spirit and birthing the Son of God. Joseph, as non-biological father, could be extraneous to this cosmic incarnation that the gospel writers are trying to tell.
Some scholars say that Joseph got added to the story to answer the lingering questions about whether or not the Messiah had really descended from the lineage of King David – Joseph was in that line. Some scholars say that Joseph’s presence is important because he provided much needed security for Mary, an unwed pregnant teenager.
I am unconvinced by these arguments. Yes, Jesus’ lineage was an important marker of his Messiah-dom for those first followers. And yes, it would have been true that Mary would have been particularly vulnerable in her pregnancy. But given the ways that God is working in this story, choosing an unlikely person in an unlikely place, choosing vulnerability and creating new worlds out of it, I am unconvinced that Joseph’s presence was necessary for either patronage or protection. If God can bring a Messiah into the world through a vulnerable woman in a totally out-of-the-way place, then God could have handled those questions in other ways.
So: what’s the deal with Joseph?
As much as I love Mary, I do not exactly identify with her. I have a couple of friends who have spent an Advent season or two being pregnant with their children. They tell me that this synchronicity – growing a person in their own body while following the journey of Mary, who was growing a god-person in her own body – was incredibly meaningful for them. They tell me that the experience changed both the way they understood Jesus and the way they understood themselves.
I find that deeply meaningful and deeply beautiful. I rejoice with my friends who found that new perspective and deepened faith.
But I myself have never had occasion to identify with the God-bearer, seeing as how I have never had the occasion to be a mere human-bearer.
That’s not exactly the way identification works, I know. Finding that we relate to a biblical character or story is not a one-to-one correlation. The Spirit works in us in mysterious ways, connecting us to God’s story and God’s presence in unexpected and interesting ways.
Still, I know that the overwhelming focus on Mary as Jesus’ parent isn’t relatable to many of us. Not all of us have been or can be pregnant. Not all of us are chosen as unlikely bearers of God’s birth in such a visceral way. Not all of us can or will sing incredible songs of revolution and transformation that get passed down generation to generation.
So: What’s the deal with Joseph?
Maybe Joseph is here for many purposes. Maybe one of those purposes is to serve as a model for participating in God’s new reign, God’s birth into the world, God’s transforming power of salvation and incarnation – participating even when we are not the so-called ‘chosen’ one, even when we don’t get fancy Greek titles like theotokos, even when the kid is so clearly not ours, even when we could easily choose otherwise.
Maybe Joseph offers a model for those of us who feel a bit distanced from God at work in the world, a bit distanced from the hungry and the poor and the disenfranchised that God promises to fill and lift up and make first in line, a bit farther removed from the action of God’s transformation in real time.
Because Joseph could have so easily said “no.” In fact, that’s what he was planning to do. He and Mary were betrothed, but when he found out that she was pregnant – and that it clearly wasn’t his kid – he planned to get a quiet divorce. He wasn’t going to make a big scene, he wasn’t going to hang Mary out to dry, exactly, but he was going to quietly walk away and resume his own life, away from this particular drama.
How often are we – the ones who might feel a bit removed from the action of justice and transformation – tempted to walk quietly away and resume our own lives, far away from the drama of world-shaking, power-shifting, kingdom-inbreaking presence of God?
How often? I confess to walking away every single day.
A few months ago, I went to hear Rev. William Barber speak. Rev. Barber is the head of the NC NAACP and the architect of Moral Mondays here in North Carolina. If you haven’t heard him preach, you should. I knew that he was a powerful preacher and a force for justice here in North Carolina, but I had also felt stuck on the outside of his movement, as a white person newly arrived in the state. I’m not a part of the black church tradition that formed Rev. Barber, I’m not really the target demographic for the NAACP, and even though I am attracted and intrigued by the ways he is witnessing across the nation, I still felt like an onlooker, an outsider, a hanger-on.
But here’s what happened when I heard Rev. Barber speak: he told the story of being invited, several years ago, to preach out in Western North Carolina. You might have read about Rev. Barber being threatened and arrested in various contexts – notably kicked off an American Airlines flight or arrested in front of the state capital. But this story that he told was about traveling into a tucked-away mountain county where he knew the Ku Klux Klan to be active, and where he was quite literally scared for his life. His church sent extra people with him, and the group that invited him took extra security measures.
I cannot imagine doing life like that.
When Rev. Barber got up to speak out in western NC, he said that the crowd was mostly white. He preached – his message about justice and fusion coalitions, connecting people across lines of race and politics to push a moral agenda on those in power. After he spoke, he said, this group of what he called ‘old white mountain ladies’ got so excited that they begged Rev. Barber to start their own chapter of the NAACP.
Rev. Barber’s message of cooperation and justice, mercy for the least of these and accountability for the powerful was so convicting that these white mountain ladies wanted to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
That story convicted me, not because I want to join the NAACP, exactly, but because I am from a long line of old white mountain women. I have heard story after story of my great-grandmothers riding up and down the Appalachian hollers, delivering babies and caring for their coal-mining husbands. Rev. Barber laughed a hearty laugh when he told this story, but when I heard it, some door opened in my heart. Maybe, I thought, just maybe there is a place for me in this movement, too. Maybe I can work together with all kinds of different people to make a new world possible, too.
I think that heart-opening feeling must have been how Joseph felt when the angel came in a dream and said “Hey, Joseph! I know what you’re planning – to quietly slip away from the action and go back to your own quiet life. But DO NOT BE AFRAID! Yes, this baby is not your biological child. Yes, you have been a bit distanced from the action. Yes, Mary is the one carrying the child. But there’s a place for you here, too. You have a job! You have an important role in this drama. YOU get to name this child – Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus the Christ. Don’t slink away, just yet. There’s a place for you in the new kingdom, even if it feels like you’re supposed to steer clear. Stick with us. It sounds insane, I know, but just give it a chance.”
Maybe a door opened in Joseph’s heard during that dream. Maybe he heard the invitation, like I did, to take his place in the movement of God at work in the world.
What insane invitations are God’s angels whispering to you? To adopt a baby that is not yours? To join an organization that seems to be meant for exactly the opposite of who you are? To endure ridicule and get ostracized for following some absurd intuition? How is God asking you to stick around? Where is God asking you to lean in, instead of sneaking out? What is it that you are afraid of?
Because God’s word to Joseph is God’s word to us: Do not be afraid.
There is a place for you in this coming kingdom of justice and mercy.
Even if it seems insane, even if it makes no sense, even if no one else around you will understand: stick around. Draw nearer.
Do not be afraid. The Lord is here, with us, and things are about to get messy.