Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 18, 2016, on Matthew 1:18-25
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
During seminary, before we had children, my wife and I spent the summer in Kenya. Our assignment was to live with an African pastor and his family. We went where he went as he preached and prayed and visited in many villages in the rural area near his. So, we learned what the phrase “A day’s walk” meant. We learned to judge distances as walking distances. Thirty minutes walk to the water source. Ten minutes walk to the nearest magazine, which was their name for the mud-hut store where you could get basic staples like oil, tea and sugar.
Many people on earth judge distances by the time it takes to walk. Even if you have a donkey or camel, those beasts of burden only move at a walking pace.
Walking to a Lousy Job
Joseph and Mary lived in the tiny village of Nazareth, about four miles, or an hour and a half’s walk from Sepphoris. Joseph was a carpenter, or literally, a builder, which in those days normally meant someone who owned no land, a peasant who hired out his labor on a daily basis at construction sites.
Nazareth was too poor and too small to have had much work, but Sepphoris was a booming construction site during Jesus’ lifetime. It was being re-constructed to make it what the historian Josephus called, “the jewel of Galilee.” So, it is quite likely that Jesus, the carpenter, walked an hour and a half to, and from Sepphoris, every working day, until he left to begin his public ministry.
Sepphoris was being reconstructed because the Romans had completely destroyed it. That is what they did to rebel towns – exactly like what the Russians and Syrians have done to Allepo.
The Politics of Oppression
It may be confusing to think of Israel in Jesus’ time because it had a king, and it was under the Roman Empire, and then somehow a Governor, the famous Pontius Pilate. Without going into detail, the way it works is that when Rome conquered a people, they had options about how local government would work. They could govern directly, by governors, like Pilate. Or they could rule by a compliant local king, which is what Herod the Great was.
Herod was brutal. He came to power by killing many of the competing aristocratic families and giving their land to his supporters. He eventually became a rich and powerful local king, who was very compliant to Rome. But when he died, in 4 BC, revolts broke out in every region of his kingdom. One of the centers of revolt was Sepphoris, which is why Rome destroyed it, killing thousands of its residents, and sending the survivors into slavery.
Did you ever wonder why, after the stories of Jesus’ birth, we never hear from Joseph again? It may well be that he died the day the Romans showed up in 4 BC. Jesus might have only been a toddler. This is speculation, but it does line up with what happened.
Jesus’ Missing Vendetta
Before we continue, let us just take a moment to let this sink in. If indeed Joseph died at the hands of the Romans as they moved massively through the country side, against the rebel Sepphoris, then Jesus could have had a vendetta against the Romans. They killed his father.
It would be all the more remarkable, in that case, that Jesus eschewed violence. He rejected the rebel cause. He taught that peacemakers were blessed with the kingdom of God. This lesson would have been hard-won, to a person whose father had been murdered.
Raised on Joseph’s Spirituality
If Jesus was raised by a single parent, then Mary was the one whose stories and prayers formed Jesus, spiritually. Whether it as Mary who told Jesus what his father, Joseph had done, or, whether Joseph did survive the massacre of 4 BC, and died later, of other causes, and so was able to pass on his spirituality directly to Jesus, either way, Joseph’s spirituality must have had a huge influence on Jesus as he grew up.
Nearly all we know of Joseph comes from the story we read today. What do we see? We see a man living in bad times. It is the time of the Roman occupation. He is from a poor village, and most likely has no land. He is a peasant. His daily walking commute takes a total of three hours, to and from his work, which is hard, physical, dangerous, and low-paying.
But there is love in his life. He has made a marriage contract with Mary’s family. He is trying to be a righteous man with respect to his fiancee, but for all of his self control and self-discipline, he comes to find out that she is pregnant.
You may take this story any way you wish. I take some of the elements of the story as a parable, or as Jewish Rabbis would say, a midrash – a creative form of story-telling to make a very serious spiritual point. One of the signs that points to this kind of reading is the way Matthew takes such a long time to list all the generations of Jesus’ ancestors through Joseph, then tells a story that removes Joseph as Jesus’ father. To me, this most obvious contradiction shows that Matthew intended us to read this story is a parable.
So, as the story goes, an angel tells Joseph that Mary is expecting a baby.
At this point, what does Joseph know about Mary? In that tiny village, certainly he knows her family quite well. He surely knows what kind of person Mary is. He knows the other young men in the village. In other words, I think he knows enough to find it impossible that she has cheated on him.
But she was pregnant.
I want to jump over the mechanics of reproduction here to focus on just one element of Joseph’s spirituality. This situation is a personal disaster for him. Not only is he poor, not only is his life arduous and his country under foreign occupation and brutal leadership, now his whole plan for a nice little righteous Jewish family has just come crashing down.
He has two options. He can take this bad situation as it is, and accept the unchangeable facts as facts, and try to see how God may be at work in spite of it all, or he can resist, and try to save his own honorable skin, knowing that if she delivers a baby short of nine months after their wedding, he will be shamed along with her.
Here is what I believe. Mature spirituality constantly weaves an uncertain and complicated path between active opposition to evil, and disciplined acceptance of reality as it is, finding God at work in it, despite the evil it includes.
Joseph has a pregnant fiancé. That is a fact that will not change. He can accept that fact and choose to believe that God can even be at work in this circumstance, or he can divorce her – which is how marriage contracts were broken in those days.
Joseph is mature enough, spiritually, to be able to look at the bad circumstances of his life, and find God at work in them. He can see in the miracle of new life, evidence that God is still with us, Emmanuel, just as long ago the prophet Isaiah took the impending birth of a baby as a sign of God’s presence with his nation.
When do you fight against what is happening, and when do you accept it and find God at work in it? This is the complicated call we have to grow into, as we mature spirituality. To grow to discern the difference. It is exactly the quest of those who pray the serenity prayer:
“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
Resistance and Acceptance
Jesus did not join the rebel cause against the Romans. But he did resist them non-violently. He did not try to overthrow Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, but he did mobilize an action at the temple to demonstrate his opposition to the injustice it stood for.
In non-violent opposition to the situation of massive poverty and hunger, he fed the hungry and taught us to share our bread for the world. In creative opposition to the culture of patriarchy, classism and misogyny, Jesus called people to share meals at table, together, men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor, native-born and foreigner.
Weaving his way, as Joseph had done, between those evils that must be resisted with action, and those unchangeable facts that must be accepted, Jesus found God’s Emmanuel, God is with us in presence and in power.
A Call to Joseph’s Spirituality
This is our calling: to emulate the spirituality of Joseph. So, what is going on in your life now? Probably there are things you do not like at all. What is mature Christian spirituality calling you to actively resist? Certainly there are evils we are called to resist. The evil of violence must be among them, as followers of the prince of peace, who would rather die than kill.
But there are other things in your life that you cannot change, that no resistance will change. The question for the mature Christian is, where is God in those parts of your life. How can you, in spite of the evil, and without pretending that the evil is good, or OK, or not really evil, how can you see God’s presence with you there?
This is the spirituality that saves us, as Jesus came to do. Jesus saves us, both from the narcissism of the “poor me” pit of self-pity, and from the soul-destroying blame-game of judgmentalism. And this is the spirituality that saves us from apathetic , do nothing by-standing, while evils triumph.
Now, more than ever, we are called to the complex mature spirituality of Joseph, and of Mary’s son, Jesus, whom we know as the Christ.
May God grant all of us the serenity
to accept the things we cannot change;
courage to change the things we can;
and wisdom to know the difference
For, we believe the promise of Emmanuel: God is with us.