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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What Joseph Didn't Do

Matthew 1:18-25  James McTyre Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA) Sunday, December 19, 2010  There's a story of a church Christmas Pageant.  A few hours before show time, the mother of the boy who's supposed to play Joseph calls the church and frantically explains that her son's come down with a terrible case of the flu, and can't leave the house.  The director of the pageant thinks for a moment, and says, "That's OK. We'll just write Joseph out."  They still have Mary. Still have three wise men. Still have the sheep, the shepherds, and the angels.  By the time you get all those kids in bathrobes and cardboard wings up there, it's one crowded manger.  So, the pageant goes on without Joseph.  And no one even notices.   We went last week to see Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the Clarence Brown theater, in which Sharon Gerkin proudly had a granddaughter performing, and who was, in the critics' vernacular, "Awesome."  Before the show, as is tradition, just before the lights went down, the announcer called out the night's scratches and substitutions.  "Tonight, the role of [blah blah] will be played by [blah blah blah]."   Which is always a great disappointment to grandparents, but to the rest of us, who don't know [blah] from [blah blah], it's all [blah blah blah].  So, the play goes on, understudies in place.  And no one even notices.   What difference does it make if I'm here?  Do I matter?  In a world, as Scrooge says, with, "Surplus population," does one person's position or disposition really matter?  You see this all over at Christmas.  Kevin gets left, "Home Alone," and his family doesn't notice.  In "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart's shown how Bedford Falls would have turned out if not for him.  Even "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is about the difference one blockhead can make.  What if Rudolph hadn't had a red nose?  What if Karen hadn't taken Frosty to the North Pole?   What if Joseph hadn't silently stood by Mary's side?   What if you weren't you, and you weren't here?   ---  There are only six days left 'till Christmas.  Did anyone else's blood pressure just go up?  Why are we sitting here in church when there's so much left to do?   We do, do; do, do.  The more we do, the more important we must be, right?  Would you agree with me that in the Bible, Joseph's pretty important?  But what did he do? I mean, really?  It's truer to say that Joseph's more important for what he didn't do.  Joseph didn't speak.  In all the Bible, Joseph never speaks a word.  Joseph is completely silent.  Obviously, he's an introvert.  Yea! Let's hear it for the introverts!  Don't cheer; you'll scare them.  Let's just give them a moment of silence.  Joseph didn't father Jesus.  In Matthew's begats, he's listed as "the husband of Mary."  Not the way a first-century male wants to be known.  In Luke's begats, he's listed with parentheses, kind of like Roger Maris and his asterisk.  Luke says, "Jesus... was the son (open-paren) as was thought (close paren) of Joseph.  Joseph didn't "dismiss Mary quietly" as was his right.  The Bible says, "...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife."   Two things, there: First, Joseph didn't exercise his rights, and second, Joseph didn't "be afraid."  The only description of Joseph we get is that he was "a righteous man."  What does that mean?  In the Bible, it's pretty simple.  Righteousness, in the Bible, is putting your rights at least third down the list.  After he was grown up, Jesus said the Greatest Commandment is putting the rights of God first (as in, "Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit), and putting the rights of your neighbor second (as in, "...and love your neighbor as yourself").  Joseph didn't exercise his rights, even though he was entitled.  I think it's safe to say that just about any time you hear someone saying, "Well, it's my right to... [blah, blah, blah]," they're thinking first about themselves, with God and neighbor somewhere further down the line.  What if everyone believed their own rights weren't as important as everyone else's?   Joseph didn't "be afraid."  I say it that way because I doubt Joseph wasn't afraid.  He would have had all the tough guys down at the carpenter shop, nudging each other, "Oh, look. Here's 'Mary's husband.'"  He had a betrothed, great with child, and no place to stay in a strange town but a manger.  Of course he was afraid.  But he didn't be afraid.  In other words, his being wasn't defined by his fear.  You can experience the emotion of fear without letting fear be your life.   What would you do if you weren't afraid?  What if fear didn't hold you back from saying yes to your dreams?  What if none of us were afraid to let our better angels guide us?  Joseph didn't speak.  He didn't father Jesus.  He didn't dismiss Mary.  He didn't exercise his rights,  and he didn't "be afraid."  For a person who didn't do a lot, Joseph sure did do a lot.  Someone else might have done something, and messed up the very first Christmas.  If you think because you're not doing something grand and noteworthy, if you think you're not important, think about Joseph.  Think about all he didn't do.  If you wonder what importance you might have, wonder at Joseph.  For all your limitations and for all your faults, whatever they may be, if you weren't you and you weren't here, the world would miss you.   You cannot be written out, and there is no understudy who can fill your role.   Look at the centuries upon generations God put into Joseph, a man who stands silent between the parentheses and behind his wife.  "Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah... and Judah the father of Perez... and on and on and on until we come to Joseph – the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.  Yes, it's a supporting role, but a role without whose support, the whole thing might have crumbled.  We try to do so much.  We try especially at Christmas to do and to leave nothing undone.  But Christmas isn't about what you or I might have done.  Christmas is about what God has done.  Christmas is about celebrating what God has done in Christ Jesus our newborn Lord, and also about celebrating what we haven't done – and can never do – to mess that up.  It's when we praise God for what we can't do that God uses our weakness, God uses our empty silence, as an open manger, for love's birth.