Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 18, 2016; 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord
commanded him; he took her as his wife…”
Matthew 1:27

You could say Joseph was the original stand-up guy. Lots of other guys would have been out of there, as soon as they learned their fiancée was pregnant — and not by them. But not Joseph. Joseph hung in there. He loved Mary, even though that put him in a very awkward situation. Even though that surely exposed him to snickering, even ridicule.

Joseph knew what love is all about — true love, anyway. He knew it’s more than just a feeling. It’s not so much what you feel, as what you do. Love is an emotion, yes, but it’s also an act of the will.

Joseph also knew love’s not something you “fall” into, helpless — not true love, anyway. It’s more like something you live into, the two of you, as life comes alongside life and two people solemnly resolve to be there for each other, come what may.

Chances are, based on the society they lived in, Mary and Joseph didn’t choose each other. Very likely, their marriage was arranged. Their two sets of parents — who had probably known each other all their lives, having grown up in the same area, if not the same village — negotiated the match for their son and their daughter.

Joseph and Mary would not have considered this unfair. It was just the way things were done. No one in their culture chose their own husband or wife.

Undoubtedly there was much talk, in those negotiations, about Joseph’s trade, as what they called in Greek a teknon, or skilled laborer. To call him a carpenter is probably not that accurate, because to us a carpenter is someone who works with wood — framing out a house with two-by-fours, constructing cabinets, building staircases.. There wasn’t that much wood around, in ancient Palestine. High-end homes were made mostly of stone; low-end dwellings of mud-brick. There were wooden rafters and doors, probably some wooden furniture, but mostly Joseph would have worked with stone or brick. Call him a mason, if you want — or, more generically, a builder.

A skilled laborer like Joseph would have been considered quite a catch. As for Mary — Miryam, they would have called her, in the Aramaic — it’s evident from scripture that she was a strong woman of faith. That would have been a big selling-point, to Joseph’s family. A pious and hard-working woman: just what their son needed.

“A capable wife who can find?” it says in Proverbs 31:10-11. “She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.”

“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,” Proverbs says, a few verses later, “but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

Imagine Joseph’s surprise, then, when Mary — pious Mary — informed him a baby was on the way. The two were contracted to be married, but they had not yet had their marriage ceremony. Joseph had not yet taken Mary back to his house. She told him about a visit from an angel, how the child growing inside her was the son of God.

Maybe Joseph thought his new wife was lying — and not a very good lie at that. Maybe he thought she was crazy. Maybe he thought she was just not the virtuous young thing her parents had insisted she was.

And so, Matthew tells us, Joseph resolved “to dismiss her quietly.” This was considered a kindness. Joseph was “a righteous man.” There was no question that he could marry her now, but there were two ways he could have broken things off: the easy way or the hard way. The hard way would have involved dragging Mary out into the street by the hair, maybe tearing her clothes, shouting at her. Joseph could have taken off his sandal and used it to slap her across the face: not only painful, but a humiliating insult. He could have picked up some gravel from the street and thrown it at her — hoping the neighbors would join in, progressing to larger and larger stones, until his rage would have found its release, at last, in her blood upon the cobblestones.

If you want a biblical example of how that scene could have unfolded, look no further than John chapter 8. That’s the encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery — you know, when Jesus says, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Yet Joseph, as we all know, didn’t choose the hard way to break his marriage contract. He chose the easy way: a whispered conversation with the rabbi, to whom he would unfold the whole sordid tale — and who would, he is certain, back him 100%.

It’s not that Joseph doesn’t love Mary. It’s pretty clear he does love her, which is why he chooses the easy way over the hard way. There was no other choice, to Joseph’s mind — and to the mind of absolutely everyone else he knew. This is what the anthropologists call an “honor-shame society.” In such a culture, individual honor is one of the most important things in life. And its flip-side, shame, is just about the worst thing that could happen to a person: but necessary for the welfare of everyone, if a great wrong has been done. If honor is the carrot — the positive incentive to live righteously — then shame is the stick. And a mighty big and fearsome-looking stick it is.

Joseph loves her, so he does resolve “to dismiss her quietly.” I don’t know about you, but that phrase has always sounded kind of chilling to me. Sure, if you’re going to dismiss someone, you can do it loudly and publicly, but it’s a whole lot easier to do it quietly.

Just ask anybody who’s ever been fired from their job, in a corporate environment. Rarely does this happen with anger, with a public shaming. There’s a protocol for it. The boss calls the employee in, explains that the company’s downsizing, positions are being eliminated, and we regret that yours is one of them. Here’s an empty box, you can fill it with your personal items from your desk. We’ve already deactivated your keycard, the security guard will escort you to the door, we wish you well in all your new endeavors. No muss. No fuss. Goodbye. Good riddance (though they never say “good riddance”; it’s just implied).

There are some ways in which the quiet dismissal seems even worse than the angry one. When people part in anger, at least there’s some passion there.

Quiet dismissals are a whole lot more common than you may think. “I think we should start seeing other people, but don’t worry: it’s not you, it’s me.” That’s a whole lot easier than “I’m tired of you, get out of my life.”

Quiet dismissals are the rule when it comes to writing off whole classes of people. Like the poor. “Do you know what the problem is with poor people? They’re lazy. Don’t want to hold a job. They just love to eat at the public trough.” And with a huge generalization like that, every low-income neighbor of ours — every one — is conveniently dismissed. There’s no need to try to understand how a disability — physical or mental — can impact the situation. There’s no need to wrestle with the question of how one person — even two people — working at a minimum-wage job in this State finds it so difficult to locate affordable housing. There’s no need to engage the reality that huge numbers of people living below the poverty line are either children or the elderly. Once you dismiss them all as lazy, you never have to think of their circumstances again.

Quiet dismissal is the rule, these days, when it comes to a whole lot of racist behavior. Sure, there are a very small number of people in this land who cheerfully call themselves white supremacists (and proud of it), but there are a whole lot more of us who just feel more comfortable when we’re in a room full of people who look like us.

There was a famous study done of people who work in the human resources field, who were given nearly identical piles of resumes to evaluate. One group of managers got a stack that had 100% Anglo-American-sounding names. Another group got a stack with a certain number of resumes whose names sounded African-American or Latino. The job experiences listed on the resumes were identical to those in the first group: only the names had been changed. Well, you can guess which resumes got sorted into the pile for an interview.

I’m sure you could ask those managers if they were racially prejudiced, and they’d all deny it vehemently. But somewhere they’d been taught to quietly dismiss members of certain racial groups. It had been become second nature to them. Their dismissal was so quiet, so subtle, not even they were aware of it.

It says in our scripture passage that, after hearing from the angel in a dream, “when Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” Well, of course he was dreaming, so if ever he was going to act on the message God had just given him, he had to wake up first. So, in that sense, awakening is a perfectly ordinary thing for Joseph to do.

But I think we can see waking up as a powerful symbol of something we all need to do more of in our lives, especially at Christmas-time. It’s so easy for us to sleepwalk through these weeks of Advent. There’s so much that needs to be done, so much pressure we all feel under to make for ourselves, and for those we love, a meaningful holiday. Advent is meant to be a season of simplicity, of quiet but intense focus on the good news of God coming into the world as Jesus Christ.

Yet, how hard it is to approach the season that way! How hard it is to find the time to achieve that sort of spiritual focus, to cultivate that awareness of the divine presence in our world and be thankful! How hard you and I have to squint to pick out the shimmering points of light that are all around us in this holy season! How hard it is to attune our ears to hear the sweet whisper of angel-song!

Joseph had heard what Mary told him about her visitation by the angel. He’d heard her explain, with a catch in her voice and a tear in her eye, that the child in her womb was the son of God, implanted there miraculously, by the Holy Spirit. But Joseph didn’t get it — not just yet, anyway. Maybe he disbelieved her. Maybe he did believe her, but his first reaction was to say, in response, “That’s a wonderful thing for you, Mary, but fostering the son of God is not the job I signed up for!”

You can hardly blame him. The Incarnation is a mind-bending concept, if ever there was one!

Frederick Buechner, in one of his books, spins a sort of parable about what it means to wake up to the good news of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Let me share it with you now.

I do know that Fred Buechner lives on a small farm in Vermont. He doesn’t say so in the book, but I have a strong suspicion the story is autobiographical:

“The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they’re about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor’s sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.

He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle….

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: ‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation,’ as the Nicene Creed puts it, ‘came down from heaven.’

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.” [Whistling in the Dark (Harper & Row, 1988), 29-31.]

A great deal of what passes for Christmas preparations, my friends, is not a preparation for the real thing at all. It is distraction. It is deflection. It is sleepwalking. My prayer for you — and for me, as well, because I, too, am easily distracted — is that sometime in the week to come you and I may find our way to that place where, as our next hymn puts it, “Love has come, a light in the darkness.”

Let’s sing it together now, shall we?

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.