Advent IV, 2019
Back in the day Mitch and Bill were inseparable. They worked together as butchers at the local grocery. Their families spent weekends and holidays together, the kids were in the same school. When the union struck- they walked the line together, when it got long, they manned the voucher table together. For 22 years if you saw one, likely you would see the other.
Then the accident happened. Bill lost his focus, in an instant his hand was caught in the blade. Mitch hit the kill switch, but it was too late. Bill’s hand was nearly severed.
Two surgeries, four weeks in the hospital, months of therapy, for depression and to learn to use the prosthesis—and through it all, his good friend, life-long friend, never came to see him. The last time Mitch saw Bill was when they wheeled him out of the meat locker on the stretcher.
Mitch was a wreck—he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say. So he froze. For months he brushed off going to see Bill. Fear, guilt, anger, indecision all conspired to keep him away. And the longer he stayed away, the more obvious and painful his absence.
Have you ever faced such a situation? You are overwhelmed by the suffering of another, yet you cannot find a way to express your compassion for their situation, you can’t think of the “right” thing to say. So you avoid them. You can’t figure out what you should do to alleviate their suffering, so you avoid it.
Our culture imbues us with the sense that in such situations we must “do” something, “say” something, “send” something, in order to “help” the situation “make it better.” That’s when our cards, casseroles or money go into action. As the recipient of cards and casseroles after a family tragedy, I can attest, from the bottom of my heart, they do ease suffering. But they do not drive it away. Yet what really matters is not the thing done or said, it is the presence of another. It is the awareness that another human being still sees, still touches, still speaks, with one in the midst of suffering, that brings peace. And that is what, too often, we don’t realize.
Mitch was so upset about his friend Bill, he froze. He wanted to make it better, to go away, but did not know what to do. So he hid. When we turn away, because we don’t know what to do, or say, when we close the screen or the newspaper because the suffering at the border, or the hunger in Appalachia or the despair of communities under the siege of opioids, or another revolt in Haiti has rocked the poorest country in our hemisphere, when we turn away from those images because the suffering is too, deep, too systemic, too much, for us to fix, do, say, we have fallen short of our humanity.
It is to those moments in life that our text speaks this morning. Joseph is a righteous man, striving to live his life in harmony with the will of God. He works everyday to follow the letter of God’s Mosaic law. So Joseph has an ethical crisis when he discovers Mary is pregnant and he is not the father. To his mind she has been unfaithful to him. What should he do? What should he say? The law says she should be cast aside. She could even be stoned. But Joseph is also a compassionate man, so he decides to dismiss Mary quietly.
It’s at this point in the story that Joseph has what a friend calls a “God wink.” An angel appears and tells Joseph what he sees as moral outrage, is in fact a holy disruption. Mary’s child is not a violation of God’s will, but an expression of it. A gift from the Holy Spirit.
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” And he was “sore afraid!” he was afraid to keep Mary and afraid to violate the Mosaic law. And here, to his fear, an angel says what another angel will say at the end of the Gospel: “Fear not, God is doing a new thing in the world.” (28:5)
Joseph has been given a new commandment, a new and higher law. The angel tells him to shatter the confines of the old law in order to keep the new. Will he remain “a righteous man” in the old sense, or respond to God’s new act, walking in God’s new path of obedience?
Of course Joseph is transformed and he becomes the role model for our response. What makes Joseph righteous is his willingness to set aside his own upright plans and embrace this strange message from God. And there are two radical parts to this story we often miss amidst the pageants and poinsettias. First Joseph’s decision to jettison what he fervently believed was right and faithful and to step into this new thing God was doing. Here he both foreshadows what is to come, and displays qualities he will teach his foster son. A son who will grow up to eat with sinners, heal on the Sabbath, converse and convert Gentiles, embracing people where he finds them.
The second radical element in Joseph is that pageant vision we have of him. As pastor and poet J. Barrie Shepherd wrote:
The hardest task,
the most difficult role of all:
that of just being there.
dearest Joseph stands for that.
That’s the majesty of Joseph, he did nothing other than choose to stand next to Mary. He showed up! and he stayed. That is our model. That sometimes the most important, the most faithful, the most righteous thing we can do, is simply stand there where there is suffering, oppression, injustice, despair.
In another section of his poem, Shepherd writes:
We seem to find so little peace
of any kind these days at Christimastime.
We got so occupied in doing things,
getting ready, making careful plans,
then bringing them to fruition.
It’s the most hectic time of year, after all, what with presents to be bought,
wrapped, and delivered;
cards to be mailed,
(even to those last-minute folk
you didn’t expect to get one from this year—
and almost hoped you wouldn’t—
given the price of stamps and all).
There are trees to be bought,
set up, and trimmed.
There are parties to be given,
to be gone to, and enjoyed—
and all of this to be accomplished
before a certain day, a certain hour,
or we will have missed our chance.
It will be too late, too late to give,
to welcome, or to greet until another year,
another Christmas rolls around—
as if it ever is too late for love.
Yet that’s how we behave,
even if it’s not how we believe.
And in this rush,
this festive Yuletide push and shove,
there’s just no time for peace,
for standing still,
for simply being there in worry
or in wonder—or in both.
Let us be there,
simply be there just as Joseph was,
with nothing we can do now,
nothing we can bring—
nothing even to be said
except, “Behold-be blessed,
‘be silent, be at peace.”
Do not just do something, stand there, as Joseph did, and know that God is God.