Dying to Labels, Rising to Love
|St. Joseph & Baby Jesus, by Jason Jenicke|
Our text says Joseph is a good man. A righteous man. He has an impressive pedigree and follows God’s ways. On paper, he seems like a solid choice to be the father of God incarnate.
This is comforting right off the bat, because we like to know who are the good people, and who are the bad ones. These are really helpful categories in our world. Knowing what makes people good and what makes them bad helps us aspire to be good people, and also to know who the bad people are upfront so we can reject them in good conscience.
It really messes with us when those we thought were good turn out to be bad, or those we thought were bad do something good.
We like our categories clean. We like our aspirations clear.
But in the bible, when we start out thinking people are good, we often discover they’re not. And more often, the people God chooses don’t even start out good to begin with – consider Adam and Eve, Sarai and Abram and Hagar, Solomon and David, the judges, kings, and prophets, and every one of the disciples. "Good" is not something the biblical narrative is concerned with upholding. In fact, it seems eager to tear it down. Perhaps because if God chose the good people, the always upright, clearly worthy and obviously noble people, we might assume that their goodness is the reason they are included in God’s plan. And while we often tell the story of our faith that way, that is not at all how the scriptures themselves tell it.
If God cared about upholding some standard of goodness God could easily have waited a few months until Mary and Joseph were properly married. Nothing unsavory or disreputable, no need to put Joseph in such a conundrum or make things awkward and potentially life-threatening for Mary – who could legally be stoned for being pregnant by someone other than her husband.
But God is out to shatter our belief in what is right and true, what is earned and lost, important and marginal, and pull us instead into a different reality, one of wonder and mercy and trust, where God sets the terms, not us. We are creature; God is creator. We are made to receive ministry and share it with others, by a God who ministers to us in our need. We are not made to earn, or prove, or uphold something on our own.
God moves in impossibility, and not through our credentials or categories, or whatever ever false gods or measures - whether outside or inside religion – that we have erected to judge ourselves and separate ourselves.
To participate in God’s backwards and upside down reality, we have to shed the upright and clear-cut ideas we’ve put our trust in, the ones that tell us who we are and how we should be, and whether we are good or bad. In order to be ministers, we have to release what we thought we were or should be. We have to face and let go our false selves, in order to find our true selves loved by the source of all Love.
Our good-personness must die, and we must be resurrected into the grace of God who claims us, not because we are good, but because God is love.
Joseph starts out this story a good person. And then he becomes a good person in an impossible situation. His contracted fiancé is pregnant. It is not his child. He prays and frets and grieves and then he resolves to do the only good thing, the right thing in the eyes of God: to dismiss her quietly. Dissolving their marriage contract will cause her as little risk or embarrassment as possible, and it will preserve his own dignity, honor and reputation as a good and righteous man before God. This is what God would want him to do.
Nope. The angel tells him. It’s not. God wants you to do something else entirely.
God redefines "faithful" for Joseph. It doesn’t mean good. It means coming-alongside. Getting your hands and your reputation dirty. It means living in impossibility.
This is not your child. And yet he will be. You are to name him and raise him and love him. And you will walk in the shadow of the whispers your whole life. Up against your doubt, inside of this foolishness, you will live, right there against your own fear and questions and inability to even to control your own life or narrative, you will be asked to be faithful. To accept what God is giving you and follow where God is leading you. And you will take on guilt. You will appear to be something that you are not – this child’s father, and in so doing, you will become his father after all.
Joseph goes from upstanding, ethical guy, good person, to one who must constantly trust up against his doubt. He must trust again and again that there is more going on than we can see, and must be willing to live into the unknown where the rules that made sense yesterday no longer hold sway. He will let go of who he thought he was to become who he is meant to be.
But it’s not just his understanding of himself that must change. It’s also his understanding of God. Before he proceeds, he needs to decide who will be God- the god who he thought god was? The one that called him to be a decent human being, a good person who minds his own business and is worthy of admiration and respect, in a world of competition and scarcity and judgment and fear and earning God and human favor, where women get stoned for adultery and the “right” thing to do is to dismiss her quietly and go about your business?
Or the God who comes to him in angel and dream telling him that there is something beyond what we can see and hear and touch that is impossible but real? The God who invites him to step into a different reality from here on out, one defined by love and standing-with-you-ness, and grace unearned and forgiveness unmerited, where everybody has enough and nobody is dismissed, quietly or otherwise? The God inviting him into a future that is unfolding right before him in foolish and backwards and extraordinary ways?
When he gets up from that dream, and does what the angel tells him to do, he enters into a conspiracy with God that undermines the whole system by which the world operates, and so he will forever be outside it, judged and misunderstood, but he will also be set free.
The old way is dead for Joseph. And he has no choice about that. The new way opens up before him and he gets to say yes to that. He will join Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah, in bearing this secret, this absurd glory, that nothing is impossible with God, that the creator of the universe is coming into this world, alongside us.
And you, Joseph! You will be the first to hold him in your arms! You will give him your parentage and so also your lineage- through you he will be in the line of David as prophesied of the Messiah.
And it will be your job to name him “God with us,” and raise him, not as a good person who is respected in society and honored in the community, but as a vagabond and a subversive, who dines with outcasts and sinners and operates by a different playbook. He’ll live and preach not good and bad, but grace and redemption, forgiveness and freedom, connection to God and each other, abundance, gift and shalom-wholeness for all.
So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Love her.
Name the child Jesus. Love him. That is your calling.
And so Joseph wakes in the world a different person than he lies down to sleep. His old life dead. He rises to into a life defined by love.
God’s love is where it all begins and where it all ends. A force so great it has no opposite, love made us, claims us, and draws us in share it with each other and find our true selves in that sharing. Love is the reason God created, the reason God came in. That nothing might keep us from this love. Not even our efforts to be good, and worthy of such love.
To participate in the way of Christ is not to seek to be good and avoid the bad, but to be faithful, that is, broken, honest and real, to trust up right up against our doubt. It's learning to trust again and again that there is more going on than we can see, and being willing to live into the unknown, letting go of who we thought we were to become who we are meant to be. It's lonelier and more uncomfortable than just going along with the clear-cut labels and aspirational categories the world provides.
But it’s also what sets us free to truly receive the vast and bottomless love of God, the love that comes spilling out in forgiveness and mercy and peace, hope, and joy, and moves through us into the world.
Tonight we lit an Advent candle for Love. Come and find yourself held in that love.