Sunday sermon from the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
This morning I’d like to start with a little bit of show and tell. You might not be able to see much from where you’re sitting — though I’ll leave it out after the service. This is a relief statue by an artist named Charles McCollough called “Joseph Does His Part.” If you can see it at all, you can see Joseph sitting in the chair in the middle of the piece, a bit of a frazzled-new-father look on his face, the baby Jesus screaming a bit of a frazzled-new-baby kind of scream. Flanking them on both sides are of course the animals of the manger, who seem notably and unusually awake, and then, in the corner, on the floor, at last we find Mary, asleep, with an unmistakably contended smile on her face.
The piece was a gift the first Christmas after we had Charlie, a reminder to a new father that Joseph gets a part in this story, too. And this year it stands alongside the other creche sets we have on display, and in some ways it stands as a bit of a corrective. It’s not like we have a huge collection, but maybe five or six different creche sets, gifts from friends and family from travels around the world, and every year when we take out the Christmas decorations and unpack the creche sets I find myself in the process of trying to arrange the figures on the shelf and, after setting up Jesus, and after setting up Mary, then never being entirely sure which one of the remaining figures is supposed to be Joseph. You’ve got a couple of shepherds, a couple of Magi, and Joseph, and maybe it’s just a gender thing but it very often takes me a moment to figure out which one is supposed to be which. In some pieces you even have the baby Jesus and Mary carved as one piece, from the same hunk of wood or the same bit of stone, forever held together while Joseph, again, recedes into a rather anonymous background. So I like putting up this sculpture, even with Joseph looking very much out of his depth, even with the newborn Jesus screaming to wake the dead. It’s nice to see Joseph play his part; what’s more, it’s nice to see a reminder that even Joseph has a part to play.
Of course at first glance this is exactly the function of our text this morning from the Gospel of Matthew: a nice reminder that, even with Mary and Jesus so often carved from the same part of our imagination, that Joseph still has a part to play. Matthew is the only Gospel to give Joseph any kind of decent screen time, though, admittedly, we really only have two narrative accounts of the birth of Jesus. Mark’s got nothing on the nativity at all, and John can only tell it in symbols. So we’ve got Luke, of course, who tells the story of two women, cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, a kind of family melodrama, and the story of that quiet night in Bethlehem where everybody gets together around the manger and sings songs. It’s a very nice story, it’s the story we know all too well and the story we will tell when we gather here on Tuesday. But here in Matthew we have something different; it’s not melodrama; it’s a kind of action-adventure: it’s got Joseph’s quest to protect his family from Herod’s maniacal henchmen; it’s got the flight into Egypt; it’s got the massacre of the firstborn – it’s got heroes and villains, it’s got sexual intrigue, it’s got exotic destinations; Matthew’s story of the nativity is like the ultimate guy movie. If you’ve ever read the Nativity story and thought, “You know, they should adapt this into something that I could watch on TBS at 10:00 on a Saturday night,” Matthew’s three steps ahead of you. All it needs is a camel going off a cliff and then exploding into a fireball.
Now, it maybe the case that half of your family would want to watch the Joseph and Herod blow up camels on TBS while the other half would clamor to see Mary and Elizabeth do Luke’s version of the Nativity over on ABC Family. The truth is that if we wanted to, we could basically fight the battle of the sexes using nothing but the first few chapters of each of these Gospels. For Matthew, Mary’s little more than a sex object, pregnant without cohabitation, she’s a plot device that sets all these men in motion; on the other hand, for Luke, Joseph’s just about the same, he’s just there to drive the camel; he’s a prop to get the story to Bethlehem because of his blood ties to the city of David. In Luke, the shepherds get way more screen time. But then of course these two Gospels are trying to tell the same story for two very different purposes. Luke is consistently focused on characters at the margins of society – this is the Gospel that brought you the Prodigal Son and Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Gate – so of course Luke wants to tell a story where power comes in unexpected places, even and especially on the lips of two unlikely women. Matthew’s agenda is generally a bit different: he wants to ground the story of Jesus in the long story of Israel’s history, so that Jesus’s reevaluation of Jewish law will pack the biggest punch. No wonder he spends the entire first chapter of his Gospel just listing the generations that tie Jesus back to the house of David. And no wonder his story of heroes and villains sounds like it could come right out of Exodus. It’s supposed to. So sure, we could fight the battle of the sexes using nothing but the first few chapters of these Gospels, but I think we’d be missing the point. The point is not to argue about whether or not Mary and Joseph play their parts. The point is that both of them have a part to play.
To me, that’s one of the joys of reading these two stories side-by-side, as if you could almost picture Matthew reading over Luke’s shoulder and saying “Yes, okay, women, cousins, shepherds, the innkeeper, the manger, the goats, the cows, – great, just don’t forget Joseph! In this story, everybody gets a part!” There’s something beautiful about the insistence that here at the foundational moment of the Christian story, that here we all have a part to play; it’s something of a foretaste of the kingdom that declares that everyone gets to be here. To that end, I hope at some point, whether here or at another church, I hope that you have had a chance to witness the great chaos of a kids’ Christmas pageant. If you haven’t, you might catch one this afternoon or Tuesday afternoon, and you might learn something about the Kingdom. Because a church Christmas pageant is not like a Broadway production in which you have a limited number of parts and you hold auditions and the best people get the parts and the rest of them don’t. No, a church Christmas pageant finds parts for everybody. If your kid shows up for rehearsal, they get a part. Heck, if your kid just shows up on Christmas Eve with a costume, they probably get a part.
But of course the challenge is that a Christmas pageant doesn’t scale particularly well. If you have twenty kids for a pageant, you can have one Mary, one Joseph, one Angel Gabriel, three wise men, an innkeeper, and then a handful of shepherds and sheep. But if you have eighty kids for a pageant, you can have one Mary, one Joseph, one Angel Gabriel, three wise men, and then dozens and dozens of shepherds and sheep. Or you start inventing characters. In the Charlie Brown Christmas special, Lucy appoints herself the Christmas Queen. In the movie Love, Actually, one of the kids is set to play the Christmas Lobster. And you know there’s no lobster in this text, and yet there is something of an affirmation that everybody gets a part. And there’s something beautiful about that image, about the manger with Jesus and Mary and Joseph and then, stretching far out into the fields, far as the eye can see, dozens, hundreds, thousand of sheep, donkeys, oxen, goats, lobster, chickens, monkeys, Christmas creatures of all shapes and sizes, anybody and everybody who could find a costume and we’re all here gathered around the manger.
But as beautiful an image as that might be, I think that if we read a little closer it gets a little harder, because the real problem in this text from Matthew is that even Joseph doesn’t actually really do anything. He starts to, briefly – he starts to disown Mary because of her untimely pregnancy – at which point of course the Angel intervenes and tells him not to, and he agrees, and for the rest of his narrative existence in Matthew’s Gospel all Joseph does is agree with what angels tell him to do. “Joseph woke from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” He has three dreams: the first one in our text today, and then one telling him to flee to Egypt, and then one telling him to come home, and every time all he does is wake up and do as the Angel commands him. It’s not bad for stage time. But it’s still not much of a character. For as poetic an image as it might be, Matthew reading over Luke’s shoulder – the reality is that Matthew seems pretty suspicious of Joseph having much agency at all. All he does is agree; all he does is whatever the angel tells him to do; and honestly he’s not any more critical to the story than the camel.
This is an important corrective, because, as beautiful an image as our sheep- and lobster-infested pageant may be, the truth is that we love to treat Christmas like a pageant because we love to treat Christmas like something we have to pull off. The burdens we can put on ourselves to make this holiday happen are excruciating. Just consider all the things you have spent the last three weeks doing in order to pull off this pageant of a Christmas: all the cookies baked, all the shopping done, all the presents wrapped, all the travel arranged, all the beds made, all the suitcases packed, all the parties attended, all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed in this long protruded Advent runup to the pageant we call Christmas. The truth is that we hardly need a reminder of everyone’s part in this madness, because all we do is spend this season locked into the anxious frenzy of believing that our part will be the difference between a good Christmas pageant and a bomb, that somehow it won’t be Christmas if we don’t get our part together, that if we forget our lines, that if we miss our cue, that if we’ve let something slip along the way, that if we don’t evenly space the ornaments around the tree or don’t pull the roast out of the oven at just the right moment or never manage to find that perfect gift for everyone in the family, that if somehow this year doesn’t live up to the nostalgic idol in our imagination that somehow Christmas just won’t be the same.
And then what happens when you just can’t do your part? If the success of the Christmas pageant rests entirely on you, what happens when you just can’t? Maybe the checkbook feels a little light. Maybe work feels a little off. Maybe you just don’t feel yourself; make no mistake: we are in the darkest season of the year; this is when the ghosts come out, and maybe you feel a little haunted. Loneliness. Depression. Disease. Maybe you’re just not here. Or maybe you’re haunted by ghosts of a different sort, empty seats at the Christmas table, ghosts of those nearest to us whose absence is never more acutely felt than in this season when everything is supposed to be the same as it always was. The days are at their shortest and the nights are at their longest and the danger of stringing up ornaments and blasting Christmas music is that the dissonance of it all can make you think that this whole thing only works if you can put on your brightest holiday sweater and turn that frown upside-down, but maybe the thought of showing up and doing your part and singing “Joy to the World / The Lord is Come Let Us Adore Him / Did you hear the bells?” just makes you kind of feel the darkness in the pit of your stomach, and of course it can’t possibly be Christmas if you don’t do your part.
Maybe that describes you this year and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that voice in your head speaks more loudly some years than others. But when you hear it – and you will hear it – I want you remember Joseph, not because the story’s about him, but because it’s not about him at all. Because in this text there’s no room at all for the characters to get in the way of the story. In this text, the birth of Jesus presses forward, inevitably, unstoppably, a force to be reckoned with, a force to be unequalled by anything any of the characters do, be they Joseph or Mary or Herod or the wise men or the shepherds or the innkeeper or the donkeys or the sheep or the camels or even the Christmas Queen and the Christmas lobster. There is no part small enough to be unwelcome at the manger, but there is also no part large enough to change the good news of this Gospel: that Mary is set to bear a son, and Joseph will name him Jesus, and he is come to save all his people. Here on the brink of opening night, here’s the power of the Gospel: Christmas isn’t a pageant. It benefits not in the least from our best production values. It needs no stage managing. It cares not a whit whether we memorize our lines, nor whether we find our best costume nor even whether we look the part. Rather Christmas is the story that began long before our opening act, the story that will continue long after our curtain falls, the story of God loving us no matter what part we play.
So I will admit than when I took a first look at this statue I was a bit bothered by the frazzled-new-father look on Joseph’s face. It seemed to play along with every stereotype of the panicked and incompetent new father who couldn’t be bothered to get his act together. Why does Joseph have to look so terrified when he’s just trying to do his part? But in light of this Gospel of course that’s precisely the point. We can look terrified. We can look frazzled. We can stand with Joseph and Mary in that manger and look panicked or afraid or desperate or haunted. We can stand out with the sheep and the camels and the lobster and feel the darkness of the night surrounding us and the chill of the wind of the bleak midwinter. We can play our part in this story with every ounce of our humanity still intact – our sins, our brokenness, our fears, our jealousies, our selfishness, every ounce of it; this is the only part we have: to gather around the manger in faith, to gather around the manger in joy, to gather around the manger in the simple hope of seeing God do God’s part.