A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
For some reason, this year, I’ve been seeing Nutcrackers everywhere (the performance, not the tool). From school assemblies to Lincoln Center, they seem to be everywhere. The Yorkville Nutcracker, which played at the Kaye Theater at Hunter College, is staged in 1890 and dances the familiar story against a backdrop old New York. There’s also the abbreviated 1-Hour Nutcracker, a Hip-Hop Nutcracker, a puppet version and even the bawdy, burlesque version called the Nutcracker Rouge.
I think I’ve noticed so many Nutcrackers—the creative retelling of a story of a little girl, an evil mouse-king, and a nutcracker who becomes a handsome prince—in part, because I’ve been wishing the REAL Christmas story could be portrayed, enacted, sung, or danced more fully.
I think OUR Christmas story makes for great ballet or other dance, and especially with today’s Gospel reading, I think of Joseph, the father of Jesus, as entering the story, serving his role, and then exiting with the grace and precision of a gifted dancer.
Joseph comes on stage. He plays his part fully and devotedly. And then he exits, so that others might shine.
While Mary has the leading role, with her “Yes” that reverberates throughout history and makes possible our salvation, Joseph shows up when he doesn’t have to. Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and this meant a lot more then than it does now. A betrothal was as good as a marriage, in the eyes of the law. It was just the first part of a two-step marriage agreement. Once betrothed, promises had been made, promises that Joseph could easily have thought Mary might have broken. And so, he could be forgiven for thinking about divorcing her quietly.
But he has a dream. “Do not fear,” the angel says. Do not fear, as God said to Moses; as God says to Gideon, and Ruth, and David, and Isaiah. “Do not fear,” as the angels said to Elizabeth, and eventually to Mary.
And so, Joseph shows up. He dances on stage perhaps a little reluctantly, at first. Perhaps taking his time, as he moves closer. But move closer to Mary, he does—in faith and in love.
And I imagine that Joseph takes Mary in his arms, and they dance. Not much is known about Joseph. Some suggest he was older and had been married previously, so there are step brothers and sisters for Jesus. Joseph was a woodworker, and so had a steady living. He could provide. He could shelter. He could protect. Fill with faith, Joseph was able to lead Mary to Bethlehem, then to Egypt for safety, and eventually to Nazareth. Joseph was certainly nimble on his feet.
But then, except for a few references in the scriptures in which people from Nazareth refer to Jesus as “Joseph and Mary’s son,” Joseph is not heard from again. It’s as though he enters the stage, brilliantly dances his part, and then bows out gracefully, allowing Jesus to shine. Most traditions believe that Joseph must have died before the Crucifixion, since from the Cross, Jesus places his mother Mary into the care of his friend and disciple John.
Though the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus is told and retold in many forms, if it were a dance, perhaps we could all learn a little from Joseph’s example.
Joseph shows up when he’s asked to—without regard for fear, without worry of being ridiculed from his community, but with a faith in God’s will and God’s way. Are there tasks or responsibilities or opportunities to which God is calling you, this season or in the New Year?
Joseph provides and cares and offers and supports—careful never to make it all about himself, but to support others in their roles. How might God be calling you to continue to do the hard thing, the unpopular thing, the very thing that you know is holy but might lead to ridicule?
And finally, Joseph knows how and when to bow out gracefully, allowing others to shine and grow and flourish. Is there some area or some other thing that God might be inviting you to release or step back from, so that someone else might shine?
As wonderful as Joseph can seem—as artful a dancer—one of the things that attracts me so deeply to Joseph is his humanity.
W. H. Auden gets at this in his great poem, “For the Time Being,” often referred to as the “Christmas Oratorio.” Auden imagines how Joseph must have been tempted to divorce Mary, the leave town, to refuse to be a part of this, whether God’s plan or not. Auden imagines Joseph hearing the gossip about Mary and beginning to wonder. A chorus whispers in his ear:
Mary may be pure
But, Joseph are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance… Well…
As Joseph goes off by himself to sit and ponder, he prays,
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.
But the Angel Gabriel tells Joseph a simple “No.” But Joseph asks again,
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
But Gabriel speaks for God again,
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still. (from W.H. Auden, “For the time being”)
And so, it ends up that Joseph’s dance is probably not perfectly smooth or overly rehearsed. It is improvised, like ours. The faithful dance of St. Joseph (and Mary the Mother of Jesus) is more like ours than not—lacking perfect choreography, less-than-optimal lighting, never enough time for rehearsal or planning—and yet, faithful to the calling of God.
May we learn to dance (and live) a little more like St. Joseph this season—discerning when to come in, how to help another, and when to step back—all the while, feeling free to improvise, to trip or be clumsy, and perhaps to fall and rise again, so that we too may know the fullness of God’s coming into the world this Christmas.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.