Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2010
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. Matthew 1:24-25
The texts for the fourth Sunday of Advent are rich ones indeed, offering the preacher much of substance with which to work in preparing a homily. Some folks will no doubt go with the concept of naming. One could focus on the idea that in addition to our given names, we bear the name “Child of God,” a name given to us on the day of our baptism. Others may focus on the names of Christ, perhaps referencing the Great O Antiphons used during the last days of Advent. Still other preachers may tackle the text from Isaiah, lifting up the real source of our safety and security in the form of the promised Messiah, born of a young woman and named Immanuel.
I would like to suggest another option for this Sunday, one that points to the counter-cultural walk we Christians are called to make. I propose lifting up the person of Joseph, especially since Matthew’s gospel does highlight his unusual role in Jesus’ coming into this world. Joseph, to me, provides us with a wonderful example of a man who was righteous, who was caring, who had the proverbial rug pulled right out from under him, but who managed to respond to God’s call with obedience and grace.
Imagine you are betrothed to a young woman only to find her pregnant with a baby that is most certainly not yours. How would you react? According to Matthew, Joseph is determined to do the right thing and try to cause as little public stir as possible. He is not mean, not vindictive, and wants to shield Mary from public shame as much as possible. His love and his strength of character are clear.
God, however, has other plans that run counter to Joseph’s carefully considered decision. God intends for Joseph to proceed with the marriage to Mary. The angel who appears to Joseph in his dream explains the situation with this holy child who will save his people from their sins. The angel even takes care of the all important naming process, telling Joseph to call the baby Jesus. This is a tall order for a man in a patriarchal, honor/shame culture.
Joseph proves himself not only to be an honorable man but also an obedient Jew. He is willing to walk a much more difficult path and step far outside cultural boundaries in order to follow God’s will and intent for his life. Matthew even notes that he refrains from marital relations with Mary until the child is born, following not only the spirit of the instructions but also the letter of Isaiah’s prophecy. Could he have really understood the import of his decision and the consequences it would have on his and Mary’s lives? Scripture does not reveal any words or thoughts from Joseph. All we have is the record of his actions, but they speak for themselves and should also speak strongly to our congregations.
When I ponder Joseph and his faithful response to the angel’s instructions and how he might speak to men today, I think of the many faithful men who sit in our pews week after week. I witness the young man who loves his children so much that despite a difficult divorce he works tirelessly to see them and be a viable part of their lives. I see the grandfather who now has responsibility for rearing his grandchildren; he is tired, and he did not bargain for this role, yet he willingly assumes responsibility for these young lives. I am reminded of the fathers who work tirelessly to blend families and be a positive influence in the lives of children who are not their own.
For these men, fatherhood means different things, takes on new dimensions, brings fresh challenges, and new opportunities. What of the men who will never be biological fathers but who give of their time and resources to make a difference in the lives of young people in their congregations and communities? Do we recognize the important role of fathers and father figures in our contexts?
More and more frequently I hear references to the church becoming increasingly matriarchal in leadership and participation. This conversation is often accompanied by the lament that leadership does precious little to acknowledge men and their contributions, that church life is losing its relevance to men. I don’t have any scientific data or research to prove or disprove this claim, but I do think we would be wise to hear these words and ponder them.
Why not use the texts this week to acknowledge Joseph’s unique role in our Lord’s advent? We have a wonderful opportunity to explore the connections between Joseph and the complicated discipleship walks and difficult choices many men face today. It might just be good stewardship to do so, giving the men in the pews a much needed glimpse into the relevance of their own unique role and God given mission.
Blessings on your proclamation–wherever the Spirit leads you!