The Fear of Betrayal: Advent Reflections on Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph didn’t stick to his resolve. He’s in all the crèche scenes.
Maybe you’ve seen the famous painting by Rembrandt in which the young Joseph, hair tousled, face lined with fatigue and strain, stands one shoulder thrust forward as if to protect Mary from the throng, gazing into the fire with an anxious look. Between his decision to divorce her and his presence at her side on that night of birthing, something dramatic must have happened. What?
Our text tells us what: a night of birthing just as real as Christmas Eve. The birth of a father for the Son of God. In his sleeping state, Joseph allowed God to speak to the depths of his heart and to offer a resolution to his dilemma that his human reason had failed to discern.
On this night, as much as on Christmas Eve, an angel hovered near, whispering a message from God into Joseph’s sleeping ear. The angel interrupted the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement that played in the theater of Joseph’s dreams. The angel replaced them with a manger scene and visions of a boy growing and becoming strong.
“Here,” whispered the angel, “is the key that unlocks your dilemma. Believe her unbelievable story. Marry her, and become the father of God’s child. He will need a father to be accepted by others as he grows to manhood. He will need, not just any father, but a father like you, capable of nurturing him, and giving him a name. ‘Immanuel -- God with us.’
“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.
“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.
“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.
“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”
In this way, I imagine the father of our Lord was born that night.
And Joseph awoke from sleep and said, “Not my will, but thine be done.”
Jesus is not the only one who needs an example like Joseph. For we all struggle with tough situations and yearn for assurance from one who knows from experience that God’s unbelievable good news is true! If we prayerfully ponder the example of Joseph this Advent, surely God will work in us as God worked in him.
I almost forgot to tell you the end of the Legend of the nuns of Loretto Chapel. It seems that one night while the sisters were praying about their predicament, a white bearded stranger appeared at the door of the convent asking for work. A toolbox was strapped to his burro and he told the sisters he was a carpenter. When they told him their problem, he offered to build a spiral staircase.
His spiral staircase was an engineering feat for its time, containing thirty-three steps and two complete turns of 360 degrees with no center support. The carpenter used wooden pegs instead of nails, and his only tools were a saw, a T-square, and a hammer.
As soon as the staircase was finished, the unknown craftsman disappeared without asking to be paid. Many today believe the carpenter was indeed St. Joseph.
Oh, maybe it’s just a legend. But I say Joseph is out and about this Advent, toolbox in hand, a model of faith in hopeful outcomes to hopeless dilemmas. Don’t expect lots of conversation from him. Expect, rather, a demonstration of how to build a despair-defying staircase.
This Advent the fear of betrayal is met by the hope of the birth of an infant savior.
O Little Town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie
Above they deep and dreamless sleep the silent starts go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
A portion of this meditation appears in Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers for Crafting Creative Sermons by Alyce M. McKenzie.
Read John C. Holbert's Old Testament reflection for this week here.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.