Archive for December, 2010

Joseph’s Dream

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

This Advent we have begun reading from the gospel of Matthew, and we’ll continue with that text until next Advent, when the rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary moves on to the gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Matthew gives us an interesting way to hear the Christmas story, because it focuses on Joseph more than Mary like the gospel of Luke does.

But we’ll open with Mary, because how can you tell the story of a baby’s birth without a mother?

Now Mary, Joseph’s fiancée, was pregnant by someone else, someone other than Joseph—

Let’s just pause a minute to feel into that.  Imagine Mary’s panic and fearfulness.  She’s been visited by the angel Gabriel, who said the HS is going to “overshadow her,” whatever that means.  The gospel of Luke tells us that she was perplexed, and that she pondered the angel’s message in her heart.

Now, however, push has come to shove and she is actually pregnant while engaged to Joseph.  This is way beyond perplexed!

What about Joseph’s feelings? Joseph no doubt feels hurt, angry, and disappointed.

The poet W.H. Auden pictures Joseph at the bar, listening to all the chatter around and to him as people digest the news:

“Joseph, have you hear what Mary said occurred?

Yes, it may be so.  Is it likely? No.

Mary may be pure, but Joseph, are you sure?

How is one to tell?

Suppose, for instance, well,

Maybe, maybe not.  But Joseph, you know what

Your world will say about you anyway.[1]

Joseph’s hurt and anger and puzzlement must have been extensive.  But at least he isn’t facing the public disgrace and punishment that Mary might have to endure.   The Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures reads: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.  So shall you purge the evil from your midst.” (Dt. 22:23-24).

The reason for this draconian law was because in a land based, patriarchal culture, the inheritance of the first-born son was the bedrock of society.  It determined land transfer, and the carrying on of the family line and name.

Even though public stoning was infrequent by the time of Jesus, it was still a very serious business to be pregnant out of wedlock.  Being engaged was a type of arranged marriage; a legally binding contract.   That is why some versions of this story read that Joseph planned to divorce Mary quietly, perhaps send her away to have her baby.  Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, and his response to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy is certainly righteous within the range of awful possibilities in the ancient world.

Having made his plan for a quiet divorce or dismissal, Joseph goes to sleep and dreams, and everything changes!  Have you ever seen the Georges de La Tour painting, The Angel Appears to St. Joseph in a Dream[2]?

Joseph is shown as old, bald and white bearded.  He’s fallen asleep at the table, his cheek resting against his propped up hand, his mouth agape.  You can just imagine his snores.  A young woman stands by the table, in shadow, her arms upraised, gesturing.  The glowing candle illuminates Joseph dimly, but the face of the young woman glows, as does the edge of her gesturing hand.

This is the message of the angel: Mary has not been unfaithful to you!  The baby was conceived, not by another man, but by the power of God through the Holy Spirit.  This special baby is to be named Jesus, or Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves,” because Jesus will save his people from their sins.

Joseph awakes, and his life is never the same.  Like Mary, he says “yes” to God’s new plan for his life.  He agrees to take Mary as his wife, and parent this special baby who is not of his seed.  He doesn’t worry about his wounded pride, or what the villagers are going to say behind his back.

Not only does he want to save Mary from disgrace, Joseph gives up his cultural right to father a son to carry on his name and property.

You have probably noticed I’ve written this sermon as if I believe in the virgin birth.  That is probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks of faith to logical people.

I don’t know where we have got the image of Joseph as an old man.  I suppose it arose since Joseph doesn’t appear in the Bible after the day Jesus is found amongst the Temple teachers, during Passover.  I’m just speculating that they assumed Joseph had died by the time Jesus grew up.

Perhaps the legend started in a very interesting ancient document from Egypt, written in Coptic around the 5th century, called The History of Joseph the Carpenter[3]. This text proclaims that Joseph had four sons (Judas, Justus, James, and Simon) and two daughters (Assia and Lydia) by a previous marriage. At age 90, after the death of his first wife, Joseph is given charge of the twelve year old virgin Mary. She lives in his household raising his youngest son James ‘the less’ along with Judas, until the time she is to be married at age 14½.  Joseph then dreams his dream, and takes Mary as wife in accordance with the angel’s direction, and the Christmas story continues as we know it.

De La Tour also painted a charming picture of Jesus watching Joseph working in the woodshop, called St. Joseph the Carpenter[4].  It depicts old-man Joseph bending over, using a cross-shaped auger.  A very young Jesus holds the candle and watches, enthralled. The candle lights up Jesus’ face, and glows through the flesh of his fingers, indicating his divinity.

This tender picture of Jesus’ upbringing by an older father continues in The History of Joseph the Carpenter. Joseph, Mary, Jesus and his half-siblings live together in peace as a family until, at the age of 111, still in incredible health and youthful appearance, Joseph dies with Jesus at his bedside, while Jesus is still a young man.

A pretty picture, but highly unlikely.  At least Joseph’s appearance at his death anyway.  But Joseph must have been a good man, as shown in his response to Mary’s situation and in his raising of Jesus.  Jesus felt a deep connection to the God he called Father and Abba, Daddy.  God was mainly referred to in male terms in those days, but not usually as Abba.   I like to think that means Joseph was a good Dad, but that’s pure speculation, of course.

But his imagined parenting skills, and willingness to help Mary are not the main reasons I’m lifting up Joseph today.   What is striking to me was his decision to listen to the angel’s voice rather than follow the law.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a righteous man is one who follows the law.     According to the law, Joseph should have divorced Mary.  But Joseph realized that it is more important to listen to God than to follow rules about God and God’s people.   There are many good things about the law—the 10 commandments are excellent rules for living successfully in community—but the law only goes so far.

I believe that thanks to Mary and Joseph, Jesus grew up knowing that the law is important, but that living in God’s presence is even more important.   I think they taught Jesus that listening for God, discovering God’s plan, and then choosing it over your own expectations and you own cultural assumptions, is what true righteousness is all about.

Joseph’s dream is important for us, too.  So much of Protestant religion is about God and theology —we read about God in the Bible and in books of theology, we recite written prayers, give away money, it’s all very wordy and sensible and rational.   There’s not much dreaming or seeing visions or seeking the spark of God’s living presence.  Because having a dream and acting on it is very scary!

Another related modern trait in Westerners is self-reliance.  We like to make “rational” decisions in our lives based on our intellects and education, not on dreams or a nudge in the heart, or on an experience of basking in the presence of the holy.  Some of you may have been raised as I was, to just to handle things myself, and never ask for help.

Joseph wrestled with his problem, but then listened for what God had to say about it through the angel.  Our God is a God of new beginnings, who is still speaking after all these years.  We often want to put a period, an end to something, but God wants to add a comma because she’s got lots more to say and do.  The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, and wrought vast changes in her life, because God is all about change and growth and new potentials.  God changed Joseph’s plan, and probably has something to say about ours, too!

We may not see angels in our dreams, or at our bedside, but I think God sends angels our way all the time.  They just don’t look like what we imagine they do.  God speaks to us through other people that we know, and through strangers, and in our hearts and dreams.  We just need to attune ourselves to God so that we can hear God’s messages!  I have no doubt that God will speak to Sojourners, too, with a dream to carry you into the next ten years.  What will your response be?  Amen.


[1] http://witheology.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/poetic-annunciation/

[2] http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/la_tour_georges_de.html

[3]http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_Joseph_the_Carpenter

[4] http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/la_tour_georges_de.html