Matthew 2:10-16, 19-21, Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b
The Reverend Tom Herbek
January 3, 2016
In the late 19th century, one of the most popular painters was a Frenchman, James Tissot. He once painted a picture of Joseph. Greg Kendra saw the painting and describes it:
Joseph is shown at his carpenter’s table, with tools scattered around him. His shop is small, cramped, planks and pieces of wood everywhere, shavings piled up on the floor. The windows look out onto the bustling streets of Nazareth, where townspeople are going about their business. But in the middle of all that stands Joseph, bent over his table, his bearded chin in his hand, deep in thought.
The painting’s title says it all: “The Anxiety of Joseph,”
We tend to think of Joseph the way we see him in the manger scene outside our church, or on the cards we send, or the pageants that are staged. He is strong, stoic, patient -“righteous,” as Matthew describes him.
But Tissot understood that the man betrothed to Mary was a man of worries, and apprehension, and even fear. He must have known economic uncertainty – wondering how he would support and sustain his family, running his own small business. Like many people today, shortly after his son was born, Joseph and his family became refugees, immigrants in a foreign land – the land that had held his people as slaves. Joseph also lived with the threat of terror – a ruthless king bent on murdering children.
On a more personal level, Joseph knew the anxiety of any man about to become a father. He must have asked himself: Am I ready for this? Am I good enough, strong enough, wise enough? And then, confronting the very real possibility of scandal, Joseph must have had more than a few sleepless nights. How, he must have wondered, could he protect and spare the woman he loved?
And – like Mary, the woman he loved – he also must have thought at some point: This is not what I had planned.
How many of us have said that about our own lives? How many of us have had to face, like Joseph, a confusing world with uncertainty, and doubt, and anxiety and fear?
How many of us have felt like the man in that Tissot drawing, frozen in place, while the world moves on around us, and we stand there and worry and wonder: what do I do? How will I get through this?
But into all that, in Joseph’s complicated life, comes a voice in a dream.
“Do not be afraid. God is with us.”
And his world – and ours – is changed.
In the middle of our lives comes a voice- perhaps in a dream- that says to us, “Do not be afraid.” “No this is not what you planned. But, if you wish to live life, you must listen to the voices that tell you to forget your plans, to do something you never expected to do.”
It is interesting that only Matthew thought that Joseph was worth mentioning. For Matthew, Joseph becomes a crucial figure in the story because it is only through Joseph that Jesus can truly be the Jewish Messiah, for first century Jews. Joseph is the link to the family tree of the Old Testament King David, and so it is important that Joseph have a place in this story. And maybe there can be a bigger place for Joseph in our Christmas.
In Luke’s beautiful story, it is Mary who gets top billing. And Joseph is just kind of standing there. He is seen as little more than that guy leading the donkey on Christmas cards, or the ineffective fellow who couldn’t even find a fit place for his wife to give birth, or the tall kid wearing his father’s bathrobe who doesn’t have to do or say anything in the children’s Christmas pageants. Obviously, Joseph, in the eyes of most of us, is a highly peripheral figure in this whole story.
It’s not so strange: even when we talk about family today. In a scene often repeated, the football player scores a touchdown. Cheers come from the fans and congratulations from teammates. Nearly out of breath, he goes to the sidelines and sits on the bench. The television cameras focus a close-up shot of the hard-breathing hero. He looks directly into the camera, aware that he is the center of attention of millions of television watchers, and raises his hand. “Hi, Mom!” he says. Almost never does he say, “Hi, Dad!”
Yet, Joseph is not a peripheral character. Maybe there is a place for Joseph, even if it is not a speaking part. Without Joseph, and his willingness to set aside his plans, who knows what would have happened.
They had had their baby in a strange city, and it was time for them to consider returning home to Nazareth. But they did not. How fortunate that Joseph was willing to listen to dreams. It helped him to accept this child and to believe Mary. And once again, he was open to his dreams, and this time it saved their lives.
In the dead of night, Joseph rushed his new family out of Bethlehem, just in the nick of time. Herod had finally caught up with where the baby had been born. He ordered his troops to kill every male newborn in Bethlehem. This was the Herod who ordered the murder of his wife and three of his sons because he felt they were a threat to his power. In order to ensure that a grief-stricken mood would cover the country when Herod died, Herod left strict orders that one member of every single family in the country would be killed when the news of Herod’s death was finally announced. Thank goodness, his soldiers ignored this order after Herod’s death.
The danger to the new little family was extraordinary. Perhaps it was not coincidence that Joseph was the one who became Jesus’ earthly father. The family desperately needed a man who was willing to act on his dreams. And the family also needed a man who could lead his family in the darkness of night.
Throughout history, people have raced into the darkness in terror, journeying to strange lands to escape danger. It is ironic that we begin this new year with more refugees in our world than at any time since WWII. It is ironic that we focus today on a refugee family in Matthew’s gospel.
Poet Ann Weems wrote a poem entitled “The Refugees”:
Into the wild and painful cold of the starless winter night came the refugees,
slowly making their way to the border.
The man, stooped from age or anxiety,
hurried his small family through the wind.
Bearded and dark, his skin rough and cracked from the cold
his frame looming large in spite of the slumped shoulders:
He looked like a man who could take care of whatever
came at them
from the dark.
Unless, of course, there were too many of them.
One man he could handle . . . two, even…..
but a border patrol . . .
they wouldn’t have a chance.
His eyes, black and alert,
darted from side to side, then over his shoulder,
then back again forward.
Had they been seen?
Had they been heard?
Every rustle of wind, every sigh from the child,
sent terror through his chest.
Was this the way?
Even the stars had been unkind-
had hidden themselves in the ink of night
so that the man could not read their way.
Only the wind . . . was it enough?
Only the wind and his innate sense of direction….
What kind of a cruel judgment would that be,
to wander in circles through the night?
Or to safely make their way to the border
only to find the authorities waiting for them?
He glanced at the young woman, his bride.
No more than a child herself,
she nuzzled their newborn, kissing his neck.
She looked up, caught his eye, and smiled.
This church has welcomed refugees before: a family from Laos, and a family from Togo.
Our family raced out of Togo in the dead of night, steps ahead of the soldiers who were to take “Mama”, their mother, to prison because she was a minister in the wrong church. They jumped into a dugout canoe and paddled across the river in the darkness to reach the shore of the neighboring country, Benin. Thank goodness the warning came in time for them to race out of their home to take refuge in Benin.
Night journeys have a way of dramatically affecting us. I would imagine that the night journey of Mary, Joseph and the baby must have dramatically affected all three of them. Their narrow escape in the dead of night must have helped them to realize that God was present with them in a special way. Sometimes it is in the darkness of our life that we find out about those things that make life livable. All of us have been through night journeys in our lives, times when we must escape dangers and make snap decisions that will forever impact us. All of us will face darkness and danger again. The darkness may have nothing to do with the time of day. And the danger may be physical or emotional or spiritual.
Sometimes we need the darkness in our lives. When we suffer from violence, even if we escape it physically, it can leave emotional scars, however. One MCC student I had, who had escaped from Bosnia in the height of the “ethnic cleansing”, found it impossible to adapt to normal life again. Sometimes the darkness of life leaves terrible scars.
But, for some people, night journeys make them stronger. One Vietnam veteran who came to me for counseling in 1976 recounted to me the terror of the night, when he was in his foxhole and surrounded by Viet Cong. A tiger jumped into his foxhole and raked his back. Unable to utter a sound, he grabbed his knife and killed the tiger in the black silence. As he told me, however, after that night he knew he could survive anything. It allowed him to survive the wounds and the rest of a very difficult life.
Sometimes the experiences of the night make us stronger. Sometimes the experiences of the night help us to understand our life as a special gift.
In 1967, as a freshman at Virginia Tech, I and my buddies were heading back to college late on Sunday night – actually in the early morning darkness of Monday morning. We were in a convertible with the canvas top on. All three of us in the back seat were sound asleep. Suddenly, out of the blackness, a huge buck ran in front of the car. The convertible hit him hard and he flew over the top of the car, flipped upside down, and the antlers ripped huge strips out of the top of the car, missing the heads of those of us sleeping in the back seat by inches. The experience of that night journey caused each of the three of us sleeping in the back seat to realize that life could be cut short in an instant. None of us were ever the same after that.
Sometimes we have to give up our plans, and sometimes we have to leave in a hurry, and sometimes we need to listen to the dreams and the voices in the middle of the night- dreams and voices that call us into new directions.
In 2016, we may face darkness and dangers. Yet, out of the darkness, we may have to make decisions that will have lifetime impacts on us. We may find a strength that we never knew was inside us. We may find sources of guidance that we never expected: dreams or conversations or journeys or quiet moments of reflection or prayer. In 2016, in some clear and assuring way, may we know that God is present in our lives, even in the darkest moments, even in the nighttimes of the toughest journeys, even in the foreign destinations that cause us to leave what is comfortable and familiar, even when it is not what we had planned.
May the God of light be our guide and our strength throughout this New Year.
And just as Joseph heard, may we also hear the comforting words: “Do not be afraid. God is with us.”