Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions
 

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Do Not Be Afraid

Rev. Kathy Donley

Advent Week 3 - 12/17/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 1:18-25

 

Ann Weems is a Presbyterian poet.  She has written an intriguing poem about Joseph which begins this way: 

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable? 
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand, 
and told him to stand at the back of the crèche, 
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?
[1] 

Maybe Joseph was the strong, silent type.  In Scripture, Mary speaks to the angel and to Elizabeth and to a 12-year-old Jesus and to her adult son Jesus, but we are never told about one-word Joseph ever uttered.  Maybe he was shy and would have been perfectly happy in a behind-the-scenes role.  Maybe he was the sort of wise person who did not use a lot of words, but whose counsel was respected.  We don’t know and maybe that is why he gets less attention and often ends up at the back of the stable.

So, who was Joseph?    He was a carpenter, a builder. Joseph’s family was descended from royalty.  Being part of the house of David might be something like having family ties with the Lincolns or the Roosevelts or the Kennedys.  Joseph was a God-fearing, law-abiding citizen.  He was a pillar of the community.

Nazareth was a small town with a population of 200-500 people.  In a town that size, everyone knows everyone.  Mary’s family would have known Joseph’s family.  Once they were betrothed, everyone in town would have recognized them as a couple.  And as Mary’s baby bump grew, the whole town would notice.

To help us imagine how that might have played out, I have a clip from the movie The Nativity Story.  The clip starts with Mary’s return from her visit to Elizabeth.  Earlier in the film, she left without saying anything to Joseph.  She has been gone for 3 months, which has been a long separation for Joseph.  The film incorporates the Biblical story and elements from the filmmaker’s imagination.  I invite you to watch it carefully for more understanding of Joseph.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHf6aGcrhQg

Joseph is hurt and humiliated in front of his friends, and he wrestles with what to do.  If he claims the child as his own, he will be lying and probably a number of people will know it.  If he accuses her publicly, she will be stoned.  He may be angry, but he doesn’t want her to die.  Even though he is a righteous, law-abiding person, he decides not to keep the law.  Even before his dream, he chooses to keep things quiet.  Which might have meant that people will have assumed the baby was his and he was dumping Mary.  That would have been a jerk move, making the shame to fall somewhat on him.   Or people might have figured out how advanced her pregnancy was and that conception must have happened when they were apart, and he would have been a laughingstock.  Who is going to believe her story about the angel?  What a fool he will be if people think he fell for that.    He is in a very tough spot, through no fault of his own.  

While he is still reeling from Mary’s news, still worrying about what to do, he has that dream.  The dream where the angel comes to him. I wonder if it felt like a nightmare.  Somehow Joseph trusts his intuition and his imagination.  As unlikely as Mary’s story is, he trusts the angel in his dream and he trusts Mary. 

If Joseph had made a different decision, then Jesus might have grown up without a father.  That would have been a life of abject poverty and social ostracism.  Instead, Jesus had a father who was extremely moral and responsible, but also willing to challenge traditions and rules, to act with love and courage even at great cost to himself.  It sounds like Jesus may have learned a lot from him. 

Instead of giving in to his fears and worries, Joseph took the lead from his dreams.  Episcopal priest, therapist and spiritual director Morton Kelsey wrote, “Sometimes our religious experience needs to displace our conventional wisdom.  Saints are those who follow their deepest inner promptings, even when they make no worldly sense.”[2]

The angel says to name the baby Jesus.  The name Jesus is related to the names for Joshua, Isaiah and Hosea.  Each of them come from the verb “Save”.  In a mystery far beyond the mystery of his conception, this baby named Save will save us from sin and guilt, from fear and despair and death.  This baby will deliver us from ways of living that are death-dealing and soul-destroying.   The angel says, “Do not be afraid” because the one is coming who will save us when we cannot save ourselves.  

Walter Brueggemann sums it up so well.  He says, “There are, in the world and in the church, lots of people who think that there is no saving power in their lives, and so they must manage for themselves.  And when we manage for ourselves, we grow anxious and angry and greedy and hurtful.  There are lots of people in the world who live as though God were not with us, as though we were alone in the world.  And if we are alone in the world, we must have our own way, we must hit out at others who do not agree with us, and we become a destructive force in our communities and in our families.   . . .

There is a choice to be made at Christmas, whether the angel is telling the truth or not . . . whether there is a saving among us or whether we are unsaved . . .whether God is with us or whether we are alone and on our own hook. And what we decide makes a difference about how we live.”[3]

We started with Ann Weems wondering about Joseph at the back of the stable.  Let me share the rest of the poem.

God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful 
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth, 
in spite of the danger from Herod. 

This man, Joseph, listened to angels 
and it was he who named the Child 
Emmanuel.

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries 
in the back of the stable? 
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway 
guarding the mother and child 
or greeting shepherds or kings.

When he wasn’t in the doorway, 
he was probably urging Mary to get some rest, 
gently covering her with his cloak, 
assuring her that he would watch the Child. 
Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms 
and walked him in the night, 
patting him lovingly 
until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God 
for this man of incredible faith 
into whose care God placed the Christ Child. 
As a gesture of gratitude, 
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable 
where he can guard and greet 
and cast an occasional glance 
at this Child 
who brought us life.

Joseph trusted his wildest dreams.  He believed the angel was telling the truth.  He believed in a baby named Save. His story can be a model for us, an invitation to let go of our hurts and fears, to quit worrying about looking foolish or what other people will think,  to trust that we are not alone, but that God, Emmanuel, is with us.  Maybe the gift we most need to receive this Christmas is the courage to follow our deepest inner promptings, even when they make no worldly sense. 

Amen.

 


[1] Ann Weems, “Getting to the Front of the Stable,” Kneeling in Bethlehem:  Poetry for Advent and Christmas, (Louisville:  Westminster/JKP, 1993),  pp. 52-53.

[2] Morton T. Kelsey, The Drama of Christmas:  Letting Christ into Our Lives, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 37.

[3] Walter Bruggemann, “A New World Birthed” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 23.

 

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