Below is an audio link to the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
Advent 4 Year A
Church of the Ascension
December 22, 2019
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus. (240)
Sometimes we come to a place that is a metaphorical crossroad in our lives. A place where we are faced with choices about which direction to travel.
Sometimes we are painfully aware that we are there, because the choice is very stark and clear. Other times we only understand that we even made a choice in hindsight, when we look back from a distance and reflect.
Either way, a choice was made. A choice that reflected our values — that spoke to what is most important to us.
And the decision we made, maybe large, maybe small, has sent us along a particular path by which so much of our life after was forever altered.
We’ve all been there, right? And more than once in our lives, yes?
Last week, we heard Ed preach SO beautifully and exuberantly about one such choice: the decision of Mary, mother of Jesus to say YES to God. We heard about her YES, YES, a thousand times YES, and we heard about how full of passionate joy she was after her giving her assent. So much so in fact, that she could not help but spread that joy and share it with those around her. Mary is, in the Christian writings, the most prominent female example of what Irenaeus calls, “the glory of a human being fully alive.” Her voice, in the Magnificat, soars with agency, righteousness, and clarity — full of God, full of the best of humanity, full of life.
Mary is enough. And Mary knows it. Indeed, she’s more than enough, just as she is.
She knows that she is beloved of God. And because she knows this, deep in her womb and in her bones, Mary will not let her voice be silenced.
Mary is called to be a prophet, and she answers that call with every cell of her being, bringing God into the world through not only her person and her personality, but also her physical body. Her passion and her conviction obviously influenced those around her — most notably her son, Jesus. Whenever I get the chance to preach Epiphany, I always reference how that story shows us Mary welcoming the stranger, modeling that practice from the very beginning for her son. One can easily imagine that in countless ways, Mary had a huge influence on him. It’s quite clear to me that he learned so much from his mother.
But what about Joseph?
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never spent much time thinking about Joseph. But one of the things I found most surprising last February when I went on pilgrimage in the Holy Land was the active, loving presence of Joseph. One feels his spirit so poignantly there. That trip made me reassess Joseph. It opened up space for me to realize he was a much larger part of the story than I had ever realized before.
And thinking back on that experience, I now read our gospel text for today with fresh eyes. I hear it now as the prophetic call narrative of Joseph.
Up until this moment in the story, Matthew tells us, Joseph had already been a righteous man. By this, we know that he observed God’s laws and followed the commandments of the Torah. Joseph lived an honest, honorable, and in his case, humble, life. The Palestinians Christians in the Holy Land told us that “carpenter” is perhaps not the best designation for Joseph’s work; there are very few trees in Palestine. They think he was a stonemason — someone who worked with his hands for sure, but in a medium that requires incredible strength and takes a profound toll on the body.
Local Palestinian legend says that Joseph (and Jesus) probably worked in Sepphoris — a highly cosmopolitan city where wealthy Romans and Judeans mixed. It was only 4 miles from Nazareth. After the death of Herod the Great, to quell a rebellion, the Romans had burned Sepphoris to the ground. It had to be rebuilt in Jesus’ life time. Local tradition also says that Anna and Joachim — Mary’s parents, lived in Sepphoris. Even if Jesus and Joseph did not actually work there, one can easily imagine Jesus visiting and staying with his grandparents from time to time. So he might have helped build the luxurious residences that were financed by the oppressive Roman taxes on his people. He would have seen the mosaic floors, the Roman style villas, the extensive marketplace of goods from all over. And he would have seen the stone Roman ampitheater — where the “hypocrites” — or actors, plied their trade. As much as we like to joke about the gospels emphasizing what a backwater Nazareth was, and at the time, it truly was, it was also right next door to a major cultural crossroads city — and one that Herod Antipas chose as his governing center in that region.
Given that it was being rebuilt during Jesus’ lifetime, Joseph and Jesus could very well have been two humble stonemasons working in that environment.
One can only wonder how they reacted to what they saw there, and what they spoke of together, father and son, as they walked home to Nazareth. Was Joseph a steadying influence on his oldest child? Or did he share Mary and Jesus’s passion for justice for their people? We know Joseph was probably already dead by the time Jesus began his three year ministry. That’s why we never hear about him after the incident was Jesus was 12 in the temple. But what thoughts might they shared during those long walks home? It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?
Now some of you might be wondering how I can speak of the gospel text today as a prophetic call narrative, since prophets are usually thought to be noisy types. And since we have, as near as I can tell, no record of Joseph speaking in any of the gospels. None of his own words are recorded. You might be wondering: what kind of prophetic voice is silent?
And yet, I would say to you that Joseph’s actions are prophetic: prophetic witness does not only come in the form of speech, it comes through action as well. Joseph’s radical choice not to “dismiss” Mary once he knew she was pregnant — that was a faithful and profoundly prophetic act. Here was a righteous man who was called to follow the Spirit deeper into relationship with God—to answer God’s call and follow a particular path — one that he might never have imagined choosing before Mary came into his life. This dream we read about in the gospel text today, this dialogue, this silent conversation with God’s angelic messenger marks the shift in the narrative for Joseph. And how does Joseph answer? He does so by choosing to do justice, love mercy, and walk humble with God.
We do know from the story that he was already predisposed to choose mercy over punishment — the law at that time would have required him to have Mary stoned to death once he learned that she was pregnant. His earlier inclination to “dismiss her quietly” shows that he was someone who understood that God’s mercy desires us to follow the spirit of the law over the letter. Dismissing her would still have exposed her to the shame of being pregnant without a husband, but it was at least better than stoning. Perhaps that example of right understanding (and the underlying tenderness that it spoke of) was the reason God chose him — God entrusted him — God empowered him — to be the human guardian of the Christ child, to be the one who protected the Word made Flesh and made sure that this baby was kept safe so that he could grow and thrive and become what he was foretold to be. God used that tiny crack of tenderness within Joseph to let the light pour in.
Joseph was able to trust, even when the unexpected happened. He came to the crossroads, and he chose to allow God to lead the way. I think that part of the reason he did so was because of Mary. By the time he made this choice, he had already come to know, and listen to, and understand this young woman he was engaged to marry. He must have truly loved Mary — yes, perhaps in a romantic way, but most importantly, in the way of one spirit calling to another. He must have felt his heart kindled into flame by his association with her. Here was a man who was already predisposed to kindness, to justice, to mercy — and then he met a woman who was, literally, on fire with God’s love — so much so that God’s love was pouring out of her, growing within her, and shining all around her. Haven’t we all felt THAT also — that enkindling of our own hearts when we meet someone who is clearly and deeply resonating with the Spirit —not for their own self aggrandizement, not for a tele-evangelist type show, not for the purpose of domination over others, but truly, fully resonating with the Spirit. We recognize that they are actively participating in a way of knowing, of holding, of channeling God’s presence — of manifesting that within which we live and move and have our being, and we respond to that instinctively. Such Godly presence is contagious, we feel it, we catch the spark, we too are moved in ways we cannot quite express with words, but we KNOW, we KNOW it when we are near it, and we feel it starting to flame within our own hearts.
And that, that right there, is a sign of the crossroads.
And when we come to that place, it’s extraordinary. But it’s also scary.
It’s enticing, but it’s also troublesome.
We too are being called to go deeper, and some part of us wants to answer, wants to be brave, wants to say, “yes, yes, a thousand times yes,” just like Mary.
But we may also hesitate.
Do we answer that call?
The call that comes from one heart to another?
The call that spreads like wild fire and challenges us to “be not afraid?”
What if — what if — it takes us into danger?
What if, what if, it asks us to do things that will make us stretch beyond our comfort zone?
What if, what if, it changes our whole life?
This is why we need to hear about Joseph.
We need to see and know the story of someone who made the choice to answer yes to that yes.
But not in some loud, public, and over the top way.
That wasn’t how Joseph lived his life..
Instead, he quietly did the right thing, over, and over, and over again.
Do we think Joseph didn’t encounter any grief over his decision to stay with Mary?
Do we think Joseph wanted to flee to Egypt?
Do we think Joseph thought it was exciting to know his child had a target on his back?
Do we think Joseph relished the idea of traveling almost 400 miles on foot overland with a toddler?
I’m going to guess that every one of Joseph’s actions took him out of his comfort zone.
And yet, in response, he quietly did the right thing, continuously and consistently. Never asking for accolades, or thanks, or even notice. Just carrying on — putting one foot in front of the other. Over and over and over again.
There is a lot to be said for faithful endurance.
There is a lot to be said for carrying on in the face of uncertainty.
Here is my Advent prayer for each of us:
This season, and every season, may we find the courage to be like Joseph.
May we remember him each and every day — as we encounter the various crossroads of our lives.
We don’t have to shout from the rafters.
We don’t have to make a show of being holy.
Instead, we can quietly, honestly, and persistently, be like Joseph.
We can choose to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
May it be so.