David A. Davis
December 12, 2021
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We have been creche building this Advent in our shared preaching life. As Sarah Finbow’s artwork on bulletin and banner portrays, creche building not just with nativity characters but with faithful response to the promise of the Christ Child. The simple act of hospitality of an innkeeper. The awe and wonder of the shepherds and “all who heard” what the shepherds had made known regarding what the angel had told them. This morning, we turn to Joseph. Together, we ponder Joseph. As I read to you the well-known, often heard biblical text from the first chapter of the Gospel Matthew, observe this painting from the 17th century French painter de la Tour. The painting is entitled “The Dream of Joseph.”
“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in dream…” Resolved to this. As if Joseph’s mind was made up when he fell asleep. But actually, fewer translators and translations imply that Joseph had reached a decision. If I have done my homework correctly, the New Revised Standard Version’s take on “decision made”, “mind made up”, “resolved to do this” is actually a less common translation. “While he thought on these things” (KJV). “As he was thinking about this” (CEB). “After he had considered this” (NIV). Perhaps the translators or translation committees of scholars who preference Joseph with a mind made up, perhaps they prefer a stronger, less tormented man who has discovered his betrothed was pregnant and he knew he was not the father. Cut and dried. Easy peezy. “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Taken care of, just like that. As if life is ever just like that.
Here is Eugene Peterson’s take on Joseph’s decision making and state of mind in his paraphrase “The Message”: “The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they enjoyed their wedding night, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream.” While he was trying to figure a way out. That just seems more real, more true to the predicament as told in scripture, maybe bit more genuine, less decisive and more honest to the complexity. Not convinced, not resolved, but still trying to figure a way out. Maybe it is just a bit more human. Joseph, still thinking, still pondering, still fretting, still trying to figure a way, is able to finally fall asleep.
That’s when an angel of the Lord appeared to him. In de la Tour’s painting the angel looks like a young woman. Joseph, with his head in his right hand, and a book in his left that appears to be soon falling off his lap, Joseph is far from snug in bed and sound asleep. This Joseph seems to be still pondering as sleep came upon. A more resolved Joseph would likely be tucked in for the night. Joseph with head in hand, it is a sort of universal, timeless pose of a person betwixt and between. It speaks to everyone who has had trouble falling asleep or wakes up way too early because of the worries of the day and torments of the night. It is a portrayal of something far less than restful sleep and something far more like a night that probably every one of us has experienced at some point in the ebb and flow of life.
To be transparent, historians of art point out that there is really no way to know if this “Dream of Joseph” depicts an angel telling Joseph to take Mary as his wife and name the child Jesus or an angel telling Joseph to gather up the family and head to Egypt to avoid Herod’s reign of a terror. Joynel Fernandez, assistant director of a museum in Mumbai, India opts for the angel’s first visit to Joseph. She suggests that the lack of clutter or anything ornate in the room serves to focus the eye only on Joseph, the angel, and the divine light in the room. It is difficult to see much in the painting because things are so dark. But Ms. Fernandez points out that the artist is known for his use of the technique “tenebrism” or the use of light to bring focus in the darkness. Remember Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday and the Service of Tenebrae. The radiance of the angel and the light coming from the candle, according to the scholar, are symbolic of the divine light. With the angel’s right hand, the light is partially obscured from the observer, making Joseph’s encounter with God all the more intimate. “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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
At the very least, to the untrained eye, it looks like a gentle disruption amid a fitful time of sleep. A portrayal of God’s disruptive light amid Joseph’s fret. God’s disruptive light and humanity’s perpetual yearning to “figure a way out”. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as he angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.” The angelic disruption might have been gentle, but for Joseph God’s disruption was anything but gentle.
For all the divine mystery that unfolds in the narratives that construct the Nativity, there is something almost ordinary and relatable when it comes to Joseph. The painting seems to affirm that. A pose, a face, an unsettledness all so familiar. You know that here in Matthew after Joseph brings the family back from Egypt to settle in Nazareth in Galilee, Joseph pretty much disappears from the sacred page. In Luke, Joseph sticks around to be amazed along with Mary at what others were saying about the child and to be astonished when they found the lost child sitting in the temple in Jerusalem sitting among the teachers listening and asking questions. But that’s about it for Joseph. Maybe it is a testament to nothing more than actuarial tables and just what happened when Mary married an older man. Maybe it simply underscores Joseph’s relatively minor role in fatherhood theologically and solidifies the focus on Mary and her unique relationship with God and Immanuel, God with us, the child to whom she gave birth.
But perhaps Joseph’s untold story, unfinished story forces the gospel reader to focus on not much more than Joseph’s life disrupted by God’s plan of salvation. To linger on his decision, his action, his willingness to have everything in this life upended for the sake of the one who would save his people from their sins. He could have “taken care of things quietly”. That nighttime gentle disruption became a divine, earthshaking disruption because Mary was not the only one to say yes to God. Before the promise disrupted the world, it utterly disrupted the life of Joseph and Mary. With so little to go when it comes to the bible’s description of the rest of Joseph’s life, you and are left to ponder how that brief moment of fitful rest amid the weariness and unexpected complexity of life was forever disrupted by the light of God’s presence and the promise of salvation made known in the Child Jesus, God’s Son, Emmanuel, the one who would save God’s people from their sins. Joseph, Joseph, we barely know you. Joseph and his life disrupted.
Joseph leaves the bible’s stage with so little explored when it comes to his life and faith. So the only lives to explore, really, when it comes to the disruption of God’s light, are yours and mine. The only lives to examine when it comes to the disrupting reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ, are yours and mine. The only lives to ponder when it comes to an intimate encounter with God, God’s disruptive light and our perpetual yearning to figure things out amid the complexity of life and faith, are yours and mine. The only lives to ponder when it comes to the followers of Jesus and to his disruptive grace, are yours and mine.
Everyone one of us has likely had the experience of a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a stranger saying “Hey, I hate to interrupt you.” And then they, of course, proceed to interrupt. That is how it is with the life of discipleship. Except Jesus doesn’t apologize for the disruption. Because an interrupted life, a life disrupted by the teaching of Jesus, a life interrupted, disrupted, changed, transformed for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Well, that’s called a faithful life. That’s called discipleship. Disruption comes when following the one who saved God’s people from their sins. Jesus, the Savior and the disrupter.
It the lives to ponder when it comes to the followers of Jesus and his disruptive grace are yours and mine, then the lingering question relates to the last time you felt your life disrupted by the call of God, the presence of God, an intimate encounter with the illuminating light of Christ? Because the powers and principalities, the politics of the day, and just our ordinary, sinful, human selves really do prefer, promote, favor, work toward, and aggressively pursue a life uninterrupted, unexamined, unchallenged, unthreatened. And all the while as you and I are directed down that pathway called status quo, all the while the promise, the presence, the light, the love, and the disruptive grace of the Christ Child is saying to you, “Hey, can I interrupt you not just for minute, but for a lifetime, for a lifetime and forever.”
Preparing again to receive the Christ Child in your heart, in your life, there’s going to be some disruption. It’s going to take some disruption in your life and in mine.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Quickly come!
This Sermon references “The Dream of St. Joseph” by Georges de la Tour. More on this piece of art can be found here.