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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 19, 2010

The blessing of God who comes, the Christ who shares our human frame, and the incarnating Spirit who births new life in us be upon us. Amen.

As you entered the church’s welcome center this morning, you may have noticed the crèche to your right with all the traditional figures arranged there. After reading the Gospel passage earlier in the week, I was musing about all the characters in the crèche and their contribution to the story they tell.

Actually, prompted by conversation in our Tuesday morning scripture group, I was wondering what we would be missing if we removed the figure of Joseph.  After all, except for this and a very few other passages, he is never mentioned and never heard from.

In Matthew’s Gospel, he eventually gets the same peculiar news that the angel has announced to his fiancée, Mary, but the angel also visits Joseph, not in the bright light of day, but rather when he jumps up in bed, in a cold sweat, to be told that Mary is pregnant, not by him, and that he is to accept Mary’s child as his own, that he is to raise the child and name him Jesus—which mean “God saves.” Thinking, again, about taking his character out of the crèche, I’d like to imagine Joseph’s reaction to that. What he might have to say? Will you indulge me?

Let me introduce myself. My name is Joseph. I’ve been hanging around your celebration of Christmas for quite a while but I suspect you don’t know me too well. I feel sort of like the father of the bride at a wedding. Nobody pays much attention to him but he gets to pay the bills.

My family is an old and honorable one. My ancestor was King David. I grew up in Bethlehem but I moved to Nazareth where it was easier to make a living. I’m a wood worker. I build furniture, frame houses, make tools for oxen.

Life was good for me in Nazareth. Just when I was thinking about getting married I met Mary. She was about 15 years old then, just the right age for becoming betrothed. That’s like being engaged but it’s much more permanent.

The period of our betrothal was a time for our families to get to know one another and work out a dowry. It was also a time when I dreamed about building our home and the wonderful life we could have together. It’s strange how life can go sour.

One day I noticed that Mary had become quiet and withdrawn. Had I done something to displease her?  I begged her to tell me what was bothering her. She began to cry. “I’m pregnant,” she said. I could not believe my ears. I knew I was not the father. Who was? My dreams were shattered.

That’s when Mary told me the story—about how an angel had appeared to her and told her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah. The Spirit of God had come upon her and planted life in her womb. I was furious. It was one thing for her to ruin our life but quite another to concoct such a blasphemous story. Finally I got a grip. There was a more important issue than my own hurt feelings. The Law said that a woman found in adultery should be stoned to death. Even though Mary had traumatized my faith, still I loved her. I’d get her away to a safe place. I’d send her to her cousin’s in the south, to visit Elizabeth. Then I would give her a private divorce. Yes, that is what I would do.

Can you imagine how conflicted Joseph must have been? Put yourself in his sandals. What would your reaction be if someone told you the story Mary told him? She was asking this kind, but simple man to believe the utterly impossible. He was a wood worker. Wood is honest. Wood has integrity. Joseph liked that—and he liked that in people as well.

After Mary left town he walked around in a stupor. He tried to work but accomplished little. He barely ate. Then the dreams started. One night it was particularly vivid. He knew this was not just indigestion. It was for real. The angel spoke very clearly: “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary for your wife. The child she bears is from the Holy Spirit. You will call his name Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph was the second person to hear the good news — the gospel — that God was moving to save the people through a child born to them, a child to be named Jesus. Typical of Joseph, this quiet, thoughtful man, he said nothing, at least nothing that we know of. In all of our encounters with Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, we never hear him say one single word. But, just imagine if he had…

That was my dream. For a carpenter, someone used to working with tangible things, it was hard to believe. What was I to do? The dreams kept coming and each one more forceful. I went to Hebron and told Mary about my dreams. I apologized for doubting her and we both returned to Nazareth where we got married immediately. I figured it would be rough going, but if God was in this mess, we would be able to handle it. As I told you, I’m a wood worker, not a theologian. I had no idea how wrong I could be…and to get through it all, I had to change my mind about a lot of the things I had believed previously…or couldn’t.

So that’s my story.  I’m not the main character here, but as you celebrate, you might want to remember in a corner of your mind that God chose me to be a part of it all—Joseph, a carpenter who believed as best he could. So, please, leave me in the crèche and maybe learn this from my story…

And just might that be? Learn that God chooses you and me to be a part of it all as well. The Creator can all upon us to do and believe some amazing things. Just like Joseph, you and I may be going about the ordinary things we do in life, passing the time in the sometimes lackluster routine to which we have grown accustomed.

Then, out of the blue, God intrudes, comes upon you. And, like Joseph, you are called to follow the strange and unexpected arrangements to which God introduces you and wherever that might take you.

Maybe, in these cold dark nights leading up to Christmas, you are engaged in some dreaming—wondering how might God be intruding in your life. How might God be trying to get your attention? Maybe like Joseph, God wants you to be aware there is something going on—something both exciting and beyond belief.

Agnes Sanford, the great teacher on healing and the spiritual life, used to say that “when God can’t get through to our soul any other way, when our conscious minds are closed to the murmuring of the Spirit, then dreams become the vehicle of moving us to another level.”

I think that level is God’s call to each of us to be a “blesser,” someone whom author Edward Hays defines as “a person who happily goes about making everything blessed simply by his or her presence. It begins with the healing of our eyes. “Blessers” bless by seeing what exists beneath the crust of the common, which then causes them to handle everything with wonder and delight. In turn, their out-of the-ordinary behavior can awaken the sleep-closed eyes of others to the magnificent, mystical, ever present reality of the sacred…one of the infallible signs of someone who has found the Reign of God here and now…”

So, yes, we will leave Joseph in the crèche. He most definitely deserves to be there for he was among the first called to be a “blesser” and wants all of us to know that, like him, God is inviting us to be a part of something larger than all of us. Be aware of how God may be stirring something up in your life. Listen for the angel who comes to say, “Don’t be afraid.” And, within your heart, keep one still, secret spot where dreams may go. You may awaken to find that, in matters of God’s love, everything is possible and good assured, but you may have to change your mind about things you previously believed…or couldn’t.

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