*Please see the footnote. As I made clear from the pulpit, this sermon in particular draws directly from material and is adapted from the sermon “God is With Us” by Fred Craddock in The Cherry Log Sermons.
The most powerful message I ever heard about Joseph
was told to me by Fred Craddick.[i]
Its important enough, to me, at least,
that I’ll try to tell it to you anew, though it is his story.
We’re getting towards the end of Advent.
Next Sunday is the Pageant! And we have almost arrived…
We are almost to Bethlehem.
The baby is due anytime.
And all we have to do now is WAIT – Which is the hardest part.
The ANTICIPATION, for me, is always the hardest right about now.
Often the most miserable room in the hospital…is the WAITING ROOM.
You try to get information—nobody will give you information.
You feel helpless.
Time goes by in a creepingly SLOW way.
NOBODY…WAITS very well!
So I suggest this morning—
–in order to occupy ourselves UNTIL the birth—
–that we do what Matthew did.
Matthew went outside and took a stroll through Jesus’ family graveyard.
We call it the GENEAOLOGY.
And its right there at the start of Matthew’s gospel.
Now I know, many people think its an incredibly BORING
way to start a book.
Who wants to wade through a list of names nobody can pronounce?
President Eisenhower once said that in his family
he was required to read through the whole Bible ONCE a year.
BUT—he was allowed to SKIP the genealogies.
…Well, we’re NOT going to skip the genealogies.
Because, this is really a walk through Jesus’ family graveyard.
And there is so MUCH to learn…from family history.
It can be pretty awesome, really.
I’ve been using Ancestry.com myself for the first time this year.
And I’ve discovered family members,
both through my Mom’s family and my Dad’s family
who have resided within 75 miles of here
going back to the 1840s.
One thread, through my mother,
I’ve traced back to the mid 1500s in England.
Richard Penkeville Goode, of Cornwall
married to Joan Phillips Downe of Devon.
All this through the power of the internet.
I’ve not gone so far as to seek out any graves, yet.
But someday I might.
I do like walking through cemeteries, though.
As a kid, I remember school projects
where we’d go to an old cemetery
and do that old crayon on paper trick
to capture the tombstone image.
Some people think of going to a cemetery as morbid.
But it doesn’t feel that way to me.
In those fortunate moments where I’ve been lucky enough
to travel to some awesome places in Europe
the spots that always stood out to me
were the cathedrals:
not just for the beauty and the architecture,
but for the sarcophagi,
the saints and the wealthy and the lucky
immortalized by stone and plaque.
And I dreamed of how many stories
lay hidden in the catacombs below…
Back to Fred, who was talking about how it can be embarrassing
–coming across graves of folk you wish you were NOT kin to.
Fred’s cousin is the one in his family who is in pursuit of their genealogy.
One year, she noted in her Christmas card,
that she was hot on the trail of a distant relative named “Jewel.”
Much of their ancestors had come to this country from Scotland, you see,
but she HADN’T come.
A few years later, he asked his cousin:
“What did you find about Jewel?”
and she said: “I found her…but you don’t want to know.”
Jewel, instead of coming to America—went to London,
where, it seems…she opened a brothel.
Fred assured his cousin that that must have been
A VERY DISTANT BRANCH of the family tree.
Sometimes, cemeteries can be haunting.
Not in a horror movie sort of way—
–but in what they reveal about relationships.
In a cemetery outside of Charlottesville, Virginia—
there is a large family plot where a whole family is buried—
–about 50 plots in all—
–EXCEPT for one member of the family—a son
-who is buried at least 50 yards away
all by himself.
Now, what’s the deal with that?
What story does THAT tell?
Cemeteries can be very revealing.
So, as we wait in anticipation for the birth…
we go with Matthew to the cemetery of Jesus’ own family.
There at the entrance is the patriarch Abraham.
There’s a simple marker for Abraham—he was a simple man.
He was a person of faith.
And on the tombstone it says, in small print:
“He was a pilgrim on the earth,
seeking a city which has foundations,
whose builder and maker is God.”
He’s buried there with his son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob.
There’s NO marker there for Sarah, his wife;
NO marker for Rebecca, his daughter-in-law;
NO marker for Rachel, his grand-daughter-in-law.
I regret that very much.
It’s a sign of how women fit in back in those days.
Horribly, they were just sort of… “also.”
But there are some women in there—its remarkable—
In this cemetery—
There are FOUR women in the graveyard of Jesus’ family.
Do you remember Tamar?
The bible doesn’t present her as a very savory character,
But she is clever. She chased Judah…
and he didn’t run as fast as she could.
Rahab, in Jesus’ family—she’s like JEWEL in Fred’s family tree.
People have long sung of Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law.
When the chips were down for those two,
Ruth made sure she got pregnant—
–so that they would be protected.
And then there’s BATHSHEBA.
She’s NOT even mentioned by name—she’s called “Uriah’s wife”…
…and she was.
Uriah was a soldier and while he was away,
David, the King, just had to have her—
–and took her, and then had Uriah killed
to cover his tracks.
ALL these in Jesus’ family history.
And there’s more:
Not only are these the only WOMEN listed,
NONE of them are Jews.
And ALL of them have been touched by scandal.
That Jesus’ family cemetery would include
Four women who are NOT Jews is astounding.
These are OUTSIDERS.
These are the ones about whom you are NOT to speak.
The law SAYS—they have NO standing.
Are they now being brought in?
…SCANDAL is the Bible’s word for Christmas.
Oh, we’ve managed to hide that under tinsel and blinking lights,
But the Bible wants you to know:
Don’t go talking about Christmas
UNLESS you are ready to talk about scandal!
SCANDAL is the doorway,
It’s the invitation to understand God’s wondrous
Act of REDEMPTION.
NO other door gets us to Christmas, but scandal…
I mean, the lineage by which JESUS comes to the world—
–don’t you think that would be by the BEST, most PURE path?
NOT in the Bible—sexual scandal,
Compromised pasts—its all right here
And its NOT JUST these women—
–King David has a BIG marker in this cemetery,
A remarkable man, who climbed high and fell precipitously
by pride and arrogance and murder…
And others are there—poets, kings, scoundrels, liars,
outsiders, foreigners, sinners..
…such are the people GOD USES
The people GOD uses to insist
That grace, forgiveness, redemption
Are the way of life for ALL of us!
All these scandalous people are REMEMBERED
here in this graveyard.
This LONG line…and THEN—the LAST name…Joseph.
Does this mean that Joseph is the FATHER of Jesus?
If Jesus is a son in the line of DAVID,
Then Jesus must have been his father, right?
Was Joseph Jesus’ father?
Well…NO…yes, yes, well, NO….yes, NO, he wasn’t…
This was the way it worked:
When Joseph was engaged to a girl named Mary—
–now remember, engagement back then was a legal thing.
You didn’t get engaged at the height of romance
And then go pick out wedding invitations
And register for gifts at Pottery Barn.
Engagement was a serious business, and you could break it
ONLY by going to court.
It was the same as marriage in its binding nature—
–and Joseph was engaged, maybe for years.
Engagements lasted a long time—
as two families came together, signed the papers,
and when the young people came of age—they married.
Joseph is engaged to Mary—and he discovers…that she is pregnant.
Now, what is Joseph to do?
Mary is pregnant—ANOTHER scandal…
..in this long line of family scandals.
Matthew tells us that Joseph is a GOOD man.
A righteous man, who wants to do the right thing.
Now, HOW do you know what the “right thing” is?
What’s the right thing to do?
Here he is—a carpenter in the community—and Mary is pregnant.
WHAT is Joseph to do?
Well, there are TWO ways to go at it.
He can get the opinion of people in town.
You know how that works:
Go down to your coffee place.
Talk to folk at your health club.
What do you think I ought to do?
Get on the phone; tweet some folks; put it on facebook.
Take it to work. Talk about it at lunch.
Talk about it everywhere—tell everyone:
“Did you hear about Mary?
What do you think I ought to do?”
THAT will get the buzz going…
But that is NOT what Joseph does.
He will NOT expose her.
He will NOT disgrace her.
He will NOT humiliate her. THEN what is he going to do?
He’s got friends, fresh from the synagogue, who just say:
“Joseph, just do what the Bible says.”
You can’t go wrong if you do what the Bible says.
Now how’s that for an answer?
We hear this often: Just do what the Bible says.
And yes, I believe in being guided by the Word.
But do you want to know what the Bible says?
I’ll tell you what it says: Deuteronomy 22:
“She is to be taken out and STONED to DEATH in front of the people.”
That’s what it says.
Do you mind…if I tell you right here
That it always AMAZES me that people assert
That you can just open the Bible up to some passage
And it will clear everything up.
If you dig, you can find justification for all sorts of things in there
“Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”
“Slaves, obey your masters.”
You know what the Bible says?
The Bible says that if a man finds something displeasing about his wife,
he can divorce her and boot her out.
Those “family values” are in there, somewhere, in the book.
You know what the Bible says?
“Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths closed”
Do you want me to find it for you?
Its in the book…
I have run into so many people who carry around a 40 pound Bible—
–and arrange every detail of their rigid, cold, unloving life, saying:
It’s in the book!
But it is NEVER that simple.
The Bible says…that Joseph is a GOOD man.
And he rises to a challenge that is absolutely remarkable
For his day and time.
Joseph knows and loves his Bible.
BUT he reads his Bible through a certain type of LENS.
He reads it through the lens of the character and the nature of God—
–who is loving and kind and full of grace
and ready to redeem EVERY person.
And BECAUSE of who GOD is, Joseph says:
-I will NOT harm Mary,
I will not abuse her,
–Her value, her dignity, her worth—I affirm and value.
Where does it say that, Joseph, in your Bible?
I’ll tell you where, Joseph says:
It says it in the very nature and character of God!
I am absolutely amazed that Joseph is the FIRST person
in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible!
You read it through the grace
and the goodness and the justice
and the love of God.
And if, in reading the Bible,
You find justification for abusing
Hurting ANY person—
–ANY time you read it that way—you’re reading it wrong.
The bible is always to be read in the light of the character of God.
You know, the baby is not even born yet,
Mary is NOT EVEN in labor—but Christmas is coming.
Because the one to whom God said—
“You’re going to flaunt tradition…for my sake.”
“You’re going to re-arrange your life, for my sake.”
“You are going to marry this woman, for my sake.”
He did just that!
Joseph stood by as his WHOLE LIFE got rearranged.
Christmas, for me, is coming—
–because I know when Jesus is born
those who will help teach him
care for him,
show him how to be a carpenter
take him to the synagogue
teach him his Bible—
–will be BOTH a woman who has experienced God’s redemption
from the lowest, hardest,
most scandalous place imaginable,
–and a man who knows what it is…to have his life rearranged
by such a good and gracious God.
And Christmas will last…just as long as God can find, in every community,
ONE PERSON who says—
“I will do what is RIGHT!”
“EVEN if what is RIGHT—overturns,
What is RIGHT—is to read ALL of life
–guided by the love and grace
and justice and kindness of God.
As long as there is ONE in every community willing to be rearranged
by this God—it will be Christmas.
The question is of course, whether or not I am that person?
You are that person?
Are you that person?
My prayer is that our hearts and our minds
may leap in anticipation of the one whose birth
testifies that love shall win…
May it be so.
[i] This sermon adapted from Fred Craddock’s Sermon “God Is with Us,” found in The Cherry Log Sermons (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville) 2001. pp 1-6. Further reflection aided by the sermon of Rev. Mark Ramsey “Life Re-Arranged” in 2007.
Image by Scott Granneman, used by express permission and accessed on December 15th, 2013 here: http://www.granneman.com/files/5413/1551/5113/2002-0811-graves-sunset-shawnee-pa.jpg