Sermon for Advent 4 – Year A 2013
‘Chosen – Righteous Joseph’
School, on the whole is not good for the soul. Often as I took parties of youngsters onto the hills of Northern England I would reflect on how much more humane were our encounters away from the classroom. Schooldays we were told were the happiest days of our lives. Many, indeed in all probability most, would beg to differ.
Amongst the many humiliations of my early schooldays, one endured by countless youngsters over the ages was the weekly football. (I have two left feet, dances find me lurking in the kitchen or indeed the bar, trying to escape the horror of the invitation to dance and the inevitable disappointment of my partner.) But probably worse than the humiliation of playing Football, of endless freezing cold afternoons in the bulk buy nylon Wolverhampton Wanderers strip – the details are etched in my mind, as with an iron tool upon lead – worse than all of that was the ritual of picking the team.
Week by week the two best footballers would take turns to choose their team. Some of my gifted classmates would jump up and down saying ‘pick me, pick me!!’ and find themselves as the glamour boys, the strikers, then there were the not outstanding, but not incompetent ones who would pack the midfield, then finally the scrapings. Week in week out, without fail. Being chosen carried nothing glamourous – I was amongst the ‘no choice’ candidates – to occupy the Defence. Picked for standing around doing nothing if your team was doing well, and being shouted at by the rest of the team when, as was inevitable, the Good players ran past you as if you weren’t there and scored a hatful of goals. The PSychotherapy has been expensive and only partially successful!
Of course, the idea of being chosen usually carries with it a certain kudos. Being chosen to be head boy or head girl at school, Being chosen first for a sports team. You are Wanted – You are special, and ‘the chosen ones’ at my High school – the First XV rugby team wore their chosenness as many do – corridors cleared ahead of them – we were taught to live in fear, an almost Holy Awe of these chosen ones, who did not wear their election lightly, but KNEW they were Special.
Being chosen is also an integral part of the story of our Common Life and faith. Last week we rehearsed the story of ‘God’s Chosen people’, the Jews, as we built up our Jesse Tree, but this is chosenness of a different order. (Indeed although my spellchecker does not recognise ‘chosenness’, if your Google it – every hit is a reference to the Jewish people).
A Substantial part of the story of Israel, was the constant stream of humiliations visited upon them when they forgot that their being chosen did NOT mean that they could behave like the first XV. The focus of their faith was not that they were chosen, it was the one who had chosen them. Not WE have been called by God, but ‘we have been called by GOD’ Called not to be full of themselves, rather to be empty of themselves, and quite literally full of God, as revealed by the Temple in the midst of them. A chosenness which was not a vehicle for self regard, a cause for pride – a chosenness which required Absolute attentiveness to God, expressed in Faith Full Obedience.
Now there is One way of telling this story which goes like this. God Created the world full of goodness, chose Israel and they screwed it up, they weren’t up to it – therefore God had to put into effect Plan B. Jesus as it were as an afterthought – a second try, and indeed we might then look around us and hope that God has a plan C. But like joining the dots, its always possible if you have enough dots to draw whatever you like. So whilst there are elements of truth in the story that so many tell, it is wrong in two key elements.
Firstly that Israel was Chosen to be the bearer of the very Life of God, in the Word made Flesh – in Jesus Christ. That was Always the plan, that God himself would dwell amongst his people, and that through them All the nations of the world would be blessed.
That was what the faith of the Patriarchs in particular Abraham, ‘the father of many nations’.
And the ‘Jesus was God’s plan B story’ is also told wrongly, because it says ‘Everything had gone to the dogs – there were NONE who were righteous, none whose attention was still on God and his promise.
Yet the story of the people of Israel is throughout the story of a faithful remnant, even though the people as a whole go astray. As Advent moves to its climax, the hopes and fears of all the years are coming into sharp focus in two of these remnant of faithful Israel. Mary, who without realising why ‘has found favour with God’ – When our attention is on God, even the fact that we are attentive to him is hidden from us, and , oh yes Joseph . . . also chosen . . . like Mary, like faithful Israel, chosen for obedience.
Joseph is overlooked from the earliest years of our Christian walk. ‘I’m going to be Mary in the nativity!!’ is a far more joyous cry in households, than ‘I’m going to be Joseph’ – so peripheral in our imaginations to the Incarnation is Joseph, that it’s not much above being picked to be a sheep . . . ‘Mary. . . and of course angels :-)’ – ‘Joseph and the sheep’. [I’m not for a moment suggesting there are certain gender imbalances which need to be addressed here . . . ;-)]
In Year A we focus on Matthew’s gospel and thus the account of the birth of Jesus is told through the story of Joseph – not his perspective mind you. We get little or no insight into the workings of Josephs mind. I remember once seeing a wonderful stage play which was in effect an extended dramatic monologue of Joseph in his carpenters shop musing on being ‘chosen’ in this way. We like to do this – to put ourselves in Joseph’s place – but really when we do this we are dragging Joseph into ours. We project how we would feel onto him. None of us know how Joseph would have felt. And such flights of fancy distract us from what Matthew tells us.
Joseph we are told discovering that Mary is pregnant ‘being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to disgrace, planned to dismiss her privately’ – Joseph ‘being a righteous man’ . . . Sadly and I think to our almost infinite loss, the word righteous as an adjective for a man or woman, has become horribly devalued. Because of our focus on Jesus and his encounter with the Pharisees – because of our own experiences of some people with whom we rub shoulders, because of a failure to understand properly what it means to be a sinner, or a saint, indeed to totally misunderstand the Work which Jesus comes to accomplish, we do not think the word Righteous can be a truthful life giving adjectival modifier of ‘Woman’ or ‘Man’. And it has slipped from our speech. If we read someone was a ‘Righteous man’, we tend to think they are at best unutterably dull, or at worst a hypocrite – usually a combination of the two. But this is not the witness of Scripture. Indeed if we have been attentive to our Advent readings we read of ‘A righteous branch to spring up for David’ – Jeremiah’s version of the Jesse Tree.
Joseph is a righteous man – that is he is of the type described in Psalm 1 – to be righteous is to be attentive to and obedient to God Happy is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. – These are the ones who are marked as Righteous in the Scriptures. There is nothing of Self Righteousness in them – they are not absorbed in how they appear to others, they are absorbed in and absorb like Water from a stream, the Life of God. In a Very important sense they are the chosen – Called AND chosen – responsive to the Call of God – He is the focus of their faith.
One of the deepest mysteries of our faith is how God puts himself into our hands – he is in a strange sense reliant on those he has called. And this is VERY important for how we understand Jesus. Jesus is both utterly divine AND utterly human. It is all too easy to imagine Jesus as a ‘special case’ in his humanity – as if his humanly obvious righteousness, his life of prayer and fasting and obedience to what God says to him, is entirely a one off. But to do that is to as it were see his human life as nothing more than a veil for his divinity. It is as if we say – Jesus can only be attentive to the Father Because of his divinity. It is to say that it is Not human. But precisely because Jesus IS fully human, that Righteousness we see in him is not only divine but humanly transmitted, through Mary and to the external observer, through Joseph as well. The Righteousness of Jesus is utterly divine, but also though MAry and indeed Joseph, utterly human. The scriptures take with full seriousness our human nature and how our life towards God is transmitted humanly as well as through the waters of rebirth.
And Because Joseph is righteous, he is receptive to what God wishes to say. Faith revealed in obedience. The Christian life, the life of the Righteous, is a life of faithful obedience to what God is saying.
Of course Joseph at first tries to protect Mary – from the shame but then attentive, righteous Joseph is spoken to by an angel through a dream. ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ Joseph, son of David – Joseph is announced as part of that Righteous branch of David that Jeremiah spoke of, the faithful Remnant. And he is given work to do ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’ You Watch over her – and a tremendous privilege – and you will name him ‘Jeshua’ – which literally means God Saves. And BECAUSE he IS righteous, because He is Attentive and desires Only to do what God desires of Him, He Is Obedient.
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, . . . and he named him Jesus.
Exemplifying the obedience that comes through faith of which Paul speaks as he introduces the Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Obedient One, The Righteous One. And this is why as we draw ever so close to the birth of Christ, we rejoice and give thanks for Joseph and Mary – who are chosen for faithful obedience, and pray for the grace to be similarly God attentive, and obedient to what He requires of us – to his eternal glory. Amen