Joseph’s faithful journey

Rev Heather de Gruyther, 2020-03-19 (Matthew 1:18-25)

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What an unseasonable Gospel reading! It’s March – not Christmas, although you wouldn’t think it if you look at the queues in the supermarket! But here we are in the middle of Lent forced to look back towards Christmas. I don’t know about all of you, but that seems A LONG way away now – was it REALY only 12 weeks ago? The world is a different place now.

And that’s quite scary – but it’s the festival of Joseph of Nazareth today – which is why we’re wearing our white stoles today instead of the usual Lenten purple, if any of you could see Ruth and I anyway! And Joseph knew a thing or two about fear – how could he not have been afraid, given the news that his fiancé was already pregnant and then later realising that it was with God’s own son.

But Joseph was also a man of hopes and dreams. And we can be too. I needed reminding of that this week, I’m sure many of you do as well.

Sunday’s gospel was the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well who is offered the Living Water by Jesus. In Sunday’s lent reflection I posed the question, what brings you life? When do you feel most alive? Where in your life is God’s living water bubbling up?

When we talk about mental and spiritual well-being we often ask the same questions – what do you do or can you do that makes you feel alive? It might be singing in a choir. Or walking in the countryside. Or simply visiting family and friends. As we have all had to curtail our activities this week, I’ve been thinking hard about what gives me life? If I can’t go to the places I love and be with the people I love and do the things I love – what is the meaning of life? It’s a question that many of us will be asking ourselves over the coming weeks. That all sounds rather bleak – so I’m going to ask the same question again and offer a flippant answer. But I promise it’s a flippant answer that will lead us to deeper places.

What’s the meaning of life? Simple, the answer is 42! 42. That is a reference to Douglas Adam’s classic book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – in which he writes, ‘The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.’ Well, that solves everything then doesn’t it? No? Ok, then let’s dig deeper.

42 is the number that links together our three readings today. But we have to turn back a page to Matthew chapter 1 to see it. In chapter 1 Matthew includes a genealogy of Jesus, listing all his ancestors back to Abraham. There are 42 generations. And the 42 generations are split into three blocks – which is where King David, who’s in our reading from 2 Samuel, comes in. The generations are divided from Abraham to King David, David to the exile to Babylon and the exile to the birth of Jesus. Woven into the fabric of this narrative are the themes of fears, hopes and dreams.

Abraham represents the DREAM of a nation of more offspring than the stars in the heavens. David represents the HOPE of the establishment of his kingdom FOREVER. And the Exile is the lowest point of all in the history of God’s people – representing the worst FEARS of a nation broken and scattered.

But by putting them all together like this it builds the picture and the emphasis on the final and greater HOPE of the promised Messiah, which Matthew identifies in the birth of Jesus. So, let’s turn to Joseph, it’s his festival today after all. What has he to tell us of Fears and Hopes and Dreams?

We know so little about Joseph. We know he was a carpenter, that he lived in Nazareth, that he married Mary, presumably had other children (Jesus’ brothers). We also know he was an obeyer of the law – both religious and civil. He went to Bethlehem to be counted according to Caesars’ instructions and we know he followed the religious laws because we see him presenting Jesus in the temple at 8 days old and visiting Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was 12.

But during all this he never says anything – not a single word! I find that surprising – by contrast, Luke goes to great efforts to give a lot of words to Mary. We don’t even know what happens to Joseph -he just slips out of the story, we presume he died, otherwise it would have been his duty to claim Jesus’ body from the cross and not Joseph of Arimathea.

I suspect Matthew side lined him because he was trying to make the point that God was Jesus’ father and not Joseph. But I think we can celebrate Joseph this week – not only because it is his festival today, but also because it will be Mothering Sunday on Sunday and Joseph’s place in Jesus’ story is testament to the roll of families of all shapes and sizes and forms. Like many families today – Jesus’ family was complicated.

So, what we DO know about Joseph, we know by looking at what he DID. I saw him described this week as a ‘man of action’. He goes to Bethlehem, finds a place in the stable, takes the family to safety in Egypt, and brings the family home again to Nazareth. In our reading we hear, ‘when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.’ He was not just a man of action, who did what seemed best to him, he was a man of action who followed through on God’s plan.

But among all this doing – he must have been thinking. The reading tells us that he ‘had in mind to divorce her quietly’ – it must have been tempting to just walk away. Besides the potential for scandal, I wonder what his feelings were?

Michael Card wrote a Christmas song called Joseph’s Song – in it he puts words into Joseph’s mouth as he holds the tiny new-born Jesus. And behind the words, you can feel the fear. He sings, ‘How can a man be father to the Son of God? Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter. How can I raise a King?’

He’s been given something to face that feels too big, too hard. He asks, ‘Father, show me where I fit into this plan of yours.’

‘Show me where I fit into this plan of yours.’ Joseph’s story is one of fears, hopes and dreams.’

‘I can’t do this’ is his fear. His hope is bound up in the promises of the Messiah, and his dreams…well, he certainly had those!

His fears echo and resonate strongly today, especially in this week of change and anxiety.

And this is where Joseph’s story and ours meet. Like His story, our stories are ones of fears, hopes and dreams. I was really struck by this this week when, before everything got cancelled, we welcomed children from the local school in for Experience Easter. At different stations around the church we told them the Easter Story and they shared their sorrows, gave shape to their fears and were encouraged to hope and to dream for the future.

And that’s something I’d like to encourage all of us to do – you might have to do it over the phone, or skype or on social media but one thing we CAN do at the moment is remain in community by sharing our fears and hopes and dreams because together, like Joseph’s, and Abraham’s and David’s they are all part of the story of God’s people. Right now, we are working out how to BE church when we can’t meet together in person, but by sharing our fears, hopes and dreams we can begin to answer Joseph’s other question from that song, ‘Father, show me where I fit into this plan of yours.’

Joseph got up and did what God wanted him to do. He was a loving parent. A caring partner. He followed the law and observed the commandments. In this we can follow Joseph as our role model. Many years later, Josephs adult, adopted son, summarised the law and commandments for us – LOVE GOD withal your heart, soul, mind and strength AND LOVE your NEIGHBOUR as yourself.

It seems to me, that we can’t DO much better than that at the moment, when so many of us are staying at home. But it is enough.

There’s a lot of fear around and it can be infectious – we can tell that from the state of the supermarket shelves – but Bishop Rachel reminded us this week that love and kindness are infectious too – and that they are stronger than fear. There are hopes and dreams in our stories as well as fear – but hopes and dreams are also stronger. ‘Do not be afraid’ the angel said to Joseph in his dream and the words are for us too.

Let’s be like Joseph who chose love over fear when he married Mary in an act of ordinary kindness in extraordinary circumstances. And these are extraordinary circumstances indeed – but ordinary kindnesses are powerful and full of hope and love.

Where can you act in ordinary kindness in the love of God for your neighbour – however small the act. No act can ever be too small for the God who chose to be born as a tiny infant in a stable.

All of us can do something – phone someone, pray, do shopping for someone who can’t go out, put a cheerful message in your window for passers-by and neighbours. Particularly, do join in with the National Day of Prayer on Sunday by lighting a candle in your window at 7pm so Christ’s light continues to shine in the darkness for all to see.

At midnight mass, I suggested keeping a nativity set out all year to remind us of the extraordinary ordinariness of Jesus’ birth – I’m glad, that as I prepared this sermon, I had my figure of Joseph on the shelf silently reminding me. Amen

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