Sermon December 11 2022 – Living the Dream (Joseph) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever had one of those dreams that is SO VIVID, that you still feel it like it was real, even after you wake up?
Neurological and sleep research suggests that this doesn’t actually happen to everyone. Some of us are more prone to it than others: re-experiencing a vivid dream maybe even hours later. With the residual feelings of it still so present that all day they keep playing on us, jarring us with adrenaline rushes. And we keep having to kind of on-purpose remind ourselves that it was actually just a dream.
As, one imagines, Joseph must have, in the passage that Anne read for us earlier from the gospel of Matthew. Because… what a dream.
Not merely because it was a visitation by an angel – which in an of itself would be rather extraordinary, to put it mildly – but because however it happened, and we are clearly not dealing here with the empirically testable, this dream has broken its way into Joseph’s entirely reasonable, entirely righteous, in fact rather compassionate, plan for how to deal with his betrothed having turned up inexplicably pregnant –
And turned it upside down. He’s been directed, in fact, via this dream, not to just not dismiss Mary quietly, but in fact to dismiss his PLAN to dismiss Mary quietly. He’s been compelled via this dream toward an action that at once turns its back on every accepted rule for “how things ought to be” and every accepted expectation for what’s due to and demanded from a righteous man –
But is, nevertheless, clearly identified as the right thing to do. Even though it doesn’t sound like it. The gospel doesn’t tell us so, but I bet that Joseph had some significant residual dream-feelings hours or days or weeks after this particular angel-visited dream. Sudden rushes of adrenaline, jarring him at random intervals.
And yet, he doesn’t resort to “it was just a dream”. Which is quite extraordinary.
Because just think about what this dream demands of him. Joseph is a good man, a faithful man, a righteous man. He exists in, and has only ever behaved honourably in, a community and a society in which what’s been promised him, as a righteous man, is in effect rank. Stature. Pre-eminence.
Not necessarily in an oppressive power-over sort of sense, but in an identity sense. Joseph is a righteous man in a patriarchal society that inherently accords authority and importance to righteous men. He would surely, and reasonably, have been raised to assume this as his birthright.
And I think it’s crucial to take that seriously. Because if we don’t take it seriously, then we actually miss the significance of what this angel is telling Joseph to give up.
If we don’t take it seriously, then we actually miss the significance of what Joseph manifests, in this passage. And that is, in all honesty, what shouldn’t have to be courage but somehow weirdly IS courage. Which in some ways is kind of sad, but there it is. Sometimes things are kind of sad.
Because what Joseph walks back from, in doing what the angel tells him to do, in taking Mary to be his wife –
What Joseph walks back from, all he walks back from – but it’s a big thing for him to walk back from – is that birthright. Of automatic status, of entitlement, of the inherent primacy of rank of being a man in a patriarchal society.
Because think of it: what Joseph walks into is a marriage not only to a woman who’s already expecting – which in his society immediately dishonours him, makes him look ‘weak’ or maybe even ritually ‘unclean’ or whatever sort of delightful first-century language would be used to describe such things –
But on top of all that, Joseph walks into a marriage in which the woman he’s marrying is literally carrying the Messiah. She has literally been raised up as having found favour with God sufficient to being the mother of God incarnate.
Joseph’s marriage to Mary is literally in this moment the only marriage in Israel in which regardless of how he and Mary decide to work out the mundane details of their day-to-day married life together, Joseph as the husband cannot have a single illusion that somehow as a man he more perfectly approximates the image of God than his wife does. She’s been chosen to carry the Messiah.
Joseph cannot possibly have a single illusion that he’s due any more divinely-ordained authority than his wife is, just by virtue of his birthright. Identity. Inherent status. She’s found favour with God – she’s been set apart.
What Joseph accepts, in making Mary his wife, is the radically unexpected-to-him identity of being… ordinary. No better, no worse, no more entitled or not to automatic stature by virtue of birthright… than anyone else.
And if it’s sort of sad that in doing so he’s actually quite brave – and I think it kind of is – that still doesn’t diminish the fact that it IS quite brave. It’s a brave thing, commanded or not, for him to relinquish the security of specialness -- to shift out of that place of automatic status in society just by virtue of who one is, into being just like everyone else.
But Joseph does it. He’s commanded to do it, of course, by the angel, but still – he does it. And I suspect that it probably wasn’t easy for him. Raised all his life to assume his automatic stature as a man, to assume he’s entitled to authority and respect, to assume he’ll be head of his household, and divinely ordained so –
I suspect it wasn’t easy for him to adjust to what was being demanded of him… for the greater good. Because of course it WAS for the greater good – it was necessary to the protection, safety, care of the mother… and the child who would be Messiah.
Which I suspect Joseph occasionally had to remind himself. When someone sneered at him, say, as less than a man, because he’d married someone “already defiled”.
Or when he wished he could order Mary to come home already from her cousin Elizabeth’s house, since as her husband he ought to be able to do that.
Or when he’d really had enough already with Mary forever “pondering things in her heart” when she really ought to have been looking to HIM, her husband, for answers to all her questions.
But this was commanded. For the greater good. In fact, it’s the very first thing demanded of someone other than Mary herself, in the commencement of what we now call Christmas. God’s radical act of entering the world to overturn the way things are toward a new age of peace and justice – this demand that Joseph shed the birthright entitlement inherent in the patriarchal “way things are”…
And instead embody in his living that new way God ushers in. In which each of us and all of us are no more entitled to automatic respect or authority or success by birthright than anyone else.
It’s a piece of, it’s inherent in, the ‘preparing the way’ that these Christmas stories proclaim to us – the ‘preparing the way’ that we’re called into and challenged into in this season. Poetically rendered as “mountains lowered, valleys raised up”.
And if we’re still kind of working on it – and we really are, and in a multiplicity of ways that go far beyond gender to encompass race and class and heritage and wealth – Joseph is a challenge to us. But he’s also a gift.
He’s human. And the comfort and security of his specialness and normativity is hard to let go of. The assumption of a secure place at the top by virtue of birthright is hard to let go of.
But part of the gift of the Christmas story for us is this image of Joseph doing just that. Understanding that what God is beginning, in this incarnation into the world, is the dismantling of what we’ve built as humans: a world in which some of us have gotten so used to being the norm against which others are measured that we don’t even realize it.
We don’t always grasp the import of the fact that the way we may experience the world isn’t the way the world is for everyone. That whatever hurdles we’ve personally bootstrapped our way over, our essential experience of the world may well have been shaped and also softened by privilege of gender or orientation or race or class or heritage or wealth or education.
And the Christmas stories overturn all of it. Because what’s at the centre of God embodying Godself into the world, what’s deliberately lifted up in these stories, what’s deliberately privileged in these stories…
ISN’T the primacy and experience of a Joseph or a Herod, or even the good citizens of Bethlehem or the wise scholars of Israel –
It’s the woman Mary, and a bunch of shepherds living rough, and some foreigners turning up on camels. Who find God Incarnate not in a palace but in emergency shelter. Which like ALL emergency shelter is only temporary, and God Incarnate shortly thereafter winds up bundled into his swaddling clothes and fleeing Herod over the border as a refugee.
And that’s why Joseph is important for us, if we’re used to being the norm, if we’re used to a world that privileges our experience. Because what Joseph does, that sets the Incarnation off into that whole bigger world-overturning Christmas story, is he on-purpose relinquishes his own specialness.
And that’s what allows God in, to reshape the world into real justice. It’s a challenge for us, but it’s also part of the gift that this story gives us: this image of Joseph handing over his entitlement to his entitlements. On purpose. In service of a greater good.
And sure, righteous man or not, I’d be surprised if he didn’t carry residual discomfort after that dream he had, for the remainder of his life.
But as the angel might have said to Joseph, and could also gently say to us, tough luck. God-with-you is demanding. It’s peace but it’s also justice. It’s light but it’s also transformation. It’s a dream, but it’s also real life.
But as Joseph found out, handing over his entitlement to his entitlements notwithstanding, it’s entirely surviveable. In fact, it’s holy.
Thanks be to God, who made Joseph, who makes us, strong enough for humility. Amen.