Friday, December 20, 2013

The handyman of the Lord - Sermon for Advent 4C

The handyman of the Lord: homily on Joseph's dream

Behold the handyman of the Lord”
Thus a small boy of my acquaintance, composing his own lines before playing Joseph in his school's nativity play.
He was doing his best with an unpromising part that mostly involves holding a lantern and knocking on unfriendly doors – but when we reflect on to-day's gospel we realise afresh how vital it was that this Joseph listened to his dreams, which were every bit as significant as those of his forbear with the amazing
techni-coloured coat.

Clearly our Joseph is a busy man – so busy that God can only get through to him when he switches off and goes to bed.
Does that sound at all familiar?
It might be worth contemplating later – if you have time!
Certainly Joseph has a lot on his plate.
We don't know how or from whom he heard the news of his fiancee's interesting condition – and can only imagine the dismay, grief, anger the tidings provoked.

All his hopes, plans and dreams shipwrecked in an instant!

Disappointment for him – but something far worse for Mary.
We are told that Joseph was a righteous man, - but to be righteous under the Law would surely lead him to heartbreak.
You see, the Mosaic law was clear and uncompromising: the sowing of wild oats was not acceptable.
Since Mary's pregnancy owed nothing to her betrothed, both she and the father of her unborn child should be put to death by stoning without further ado.

That was what the law demanded, the proper punishment for sexual sin – though a more generous option was available, - the quiet divorce.
It seemed that Joseph must choose between his love for God, represented by obedience to God's law, and his love for Mary.

Righteousness was set to cost him dear, even if he tempered it with compassion.

With this decision and its ramifications going round and round in his head, small wonder Joseph's sleep was plagued by vivid dreams, and visions of angels.

I'm always wryly amused by how often in Scripture an angel's opening gambit is “Do not be afraid”
Who could fail to be at the least thoroughly disconcerted by the appearance of a heavenly messenger – even before listening to his message?
Angels never arrive to confirm the old order, but to herald the dawn of something new as they point to the evidence of God's future breaking in to our present.
Exciting? Possibly.
Challenging? Certainly.
Reassuring? Probably not.
And it is this future that Joseph is asked to embrace.
He is invited to set aside the strictures of the Torah, “the way we do things round here” and revert to Plan A.
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife..”

It seems he doesn't have to choose after all – not if he can take a leap of faith and believe in his dream.

We don't know if this was a struggle for him.
Our reading of this passage is coloured by the assurance that
the birth of Jesus took place in this way” we know from the outset that the birth WILL happen...forgetting that Joseph had the option to derail the whole thing by clinging to the letter of the law, and the familiar habits of a righteous Jew.
Surely a huge chapter of uneasy conversation and the dawning of cautious hope is glossed over as Matthew tells us
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded...”

It sounds so simple, even glib, put that way...but I suspect it wasn't.
Trust and obey” is all very well as the chorus of a song – but in my experience that kind of trust is costly. Wrangling with God, whether by night or day, is a familiar part of the journey of faith – and like Joseph we do have a real choice – to go with the grain of God's will or to resist and cling to our own assumption of how things should be.

The weight of Scripture and tradition or a troubled and troubling dream, urging a new compassion?

Which would you use as a guide?

You see – it really isn't straightforward!

Whatever fightings and fears Joseph experienced,
however he got there –
his dream carried the day.
So it was he who named the child and thus plunged himself forthwith into the upside down world of God's kingdom – for in the act of naming he proclaims the babe his own – but the name that he bestows in itself proclaims that this child has another father and a different future.
You will call him Jesus – for he will save his people from their sins”

A name and job description in one...too bad if Joseph had hoped to assert his paternity and satisfy convention by giving the child a family name.
This is the new order in which nobody will have to reap what they have sown – not even a single mother in rural Palestine – for grace and redemption will be available to all.

Fresh hope delivered at the point of darkness and despair.
Joy coming in the morning.

And Joseph's own role in salvation history?
Is he simply required to get out of God's way...just a token figure there to meet the demands of social convention?
The 3rd leg that will stop the stool from wobbling?

He never speaks – not once in all the gospels – but though he is a man of few words, who might seem most at home in the “supporting cast”, his actions really matter.
Mary is passive - “Be it unto me according to your word”, - but Joseph will, again and again, be required to do something –
To safeguard God's baby son by giving him and a name and an identity as the Son of David...
To provide safe escort for the journeys – to Bethlehem for the birth, to Egypt for safety's sake.
Perhaps even to act as midwife, helping that child into the world – delivering the one who would deliver us all.

Joseph's actions make a difference.
Matthew wants us to know that they are part of the way that prophecy is fulfilled – even as they seem to challenge the old order and point to a world changed beyond recognition.
Joseph is a key player after all. God is relying on him – HIM – to bring his plans – and his Son – safely into the world.

We shouldn't be surprised by this – even if Joseph was.

Trudging beside the donkey in a thousand nativity plays, he can stand for each one of us.
God invites us to collaborate with him, to further his plans in our time – but it is always an invitation, never a bullying demand.
While Mary was uniquely blessed as the God-bearer, the Mother of God – the Christ-child needed a father too – the handyman of the Lord, the carpenter who worked with the grain of God's will to make something beautiful in our world...

Let's take our cue from him – and join in with that work today.

No comments: