December 19, 2010
William G. Carter
But just when he had resolved to do this, 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, 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.”
Christmas is just under a week away. The trees are decorated. The candles are lit. The carols ring out. And the angels have come. You can’t have Christmas without angels.
The angels are God’s announcers. They stand between us and the Holy of Holies, and they speak on behalf of God. Without the angels making their announcement, Christmas would be just another peasant birth. All anybody would know is that a mother gave birth to her first-born son. But then the angel speaks and we learn a good bit more about the baby.
Angels can look like us. Mark tells of an empty tomb and says, “There was young man.” He sat among the tombs and said “Why are you looking for the living around here?” Strange question from a young man. The book of Genesis says two angels went to visit a man named Lot. He received them as human visitors and gave them something to eat. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the preacher says, “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” We have every reason to think that some might be among us.
Yet the Bible is also clear: angels are not like us. Angels are not human. They belong to a different order of God’s creatures. They don’t seem bound to time and space like the rest of us. In Bible stories, they have the ability to appear and disappear. Today we learn that angels even can infiltrate our dreams. And they have the ability to terrify mere mortals. The most common response to an angel is fear, which is why most angels begin their speeches by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” And most of the time, it might not do any good. Fear does not evaporate by somebody saying, “Stop fearing.”
So today, I thought what I would do is mention three good reasons why it is risky to listen to angels. That’s what lies beneath of the Gospel lesson. Our text is Joseph’s version of the Christmas story. It is one of the few places where we actually hear something about the carpenter. It offers a three-fold warning why we have to be careful about listening to angels.
Here is the first reason: angels interrupt us. When an angel speaks, your life is going to be interrupted.
Consider Joseph. His life was going in a straight line. He had a calling as a carpenter. It was a highly regarded trade in every village. He was engaged to Mary, and probably had been engaged for a while. Quite possibly it was an arranged marriage, an agreement between two families that the local carpenter’s son would later marry a much younger daughter of the other family. If that doesn’t sound very romantic to you, there are imaginary novels you can read and movies you can watch. But the plain truth is that these were people who lived close to the soil, people whose customs were long-established, people who knew one another and lived quite close to one another. They were not strangers who met in a far-off college town. Their families were deeply invested in their mutual future within that marriage.
But then the news comes: Mary is pregnant. The child is not Joseph’s. Just when Joseph thought he knew what to do, the angel speaks in the middle of a dream. “She will bear a son,” said the angel, “and the child comes from the Holy Spirit.”
I’m sure the angel thought that was an impressive message, and to us, centuries later, it is significant in every way. But it is a disruptive announcement and hard to take at face value.
Technically speaking, every child comes from God. Each baby is a holy gift. What the angel is saying is that Joseph is unnecessary. For the child to be conceived, Joseph is not needed. On the one hand, that is an insult on his masculinity. On the other hand, God is insisting that this particular child must be born.
It is an awkward moment. If Joseph had dreamed of a perfect life, now people will perpetually whisper about him and his lady. If he had hoped for a spotless reputation, now everybody in the village will murmur that Mary and Joseph started the honeymoon a bit early. Life will be interrupted by a child. Even if the child is expected, planned, and wanted, it will be an interruption.
Just watch what happens when a young couple announces their first pregnancy. More experienced parents circle around in celebration. Congratulations float in the air. Then the old duffers turn away, wink at one another, and smile knowingly. It is a grand conspiracy of silence, and the old duffers are overheard to say, “Aren’t we glad to be through all of that?”
Two Clarks Summit professionals announced her first child was on the way. It happened exactly on their schedule. “Everything is going our way,” they exclaimed. There were lulled into thinking that the planets circled around them. And when the baby arrived, it was a new reality. That baby took a lot of work. Strange hours. Yucky-looking food. Disgusting diapers. Inconvenient illnesses. Extra expenses. Guilt that they weren’t present enough. And then the day after the mother went back to work, she was scheduled to make a presentation before the top management. She reached into the pocket of her blazer to pull out a baggie of mildewed Cheerios.
“Joseph,” said the angel, “Mary is pregnant. The Holy Spirit is giving her a baby.” The announcement came early. Joseph was not ready for it. God spoke through the angel and interrupted everything he wanted and expected. If you wish to live a perfect, calculated life, safe from every act of God, I would recommend that you pay no attention to angels.
That brings us to a second warning: be careful of listening to angels, because angels push us off the page.
The Bible offers a long record of how God gets involved in people’s lives. There are plenty of stories about unexpected pregnancies. In her old age, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. In her barrenness, Rachel is surprised with a son. In her disgrace, Hannah makes a deal to hand over to God her first-born son, if only God gives her that child. And ancient Elizabeth discovers her old husband Zechariah, a temple priest near the end of his career, finally has the ability to produce a child.
In this sense, Mary is in a venerable Biblical tradition of God’s surprising birth announcements. But she is also different – for she and Joseph are not yet married. The Bible had words about that situation, as well. What does the Bible say? It says Deuteronomy 22: “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” Any question? That is the rule, when a man discovers his fiancée is pregnant by somebody other than him.
For a lot of people, clear rules give great comfort. Everything is fixed and settled. Nothing is left for discussion or debate. Just open the book and follow the rules . . . except that we have a clue here that Joseph is struggling to merely follow the rules. Matthew tells us a few things about him. Joseph is a tzadik – a “righteous man.” That means he takes the scriptures seriously. But we are also told he is “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace” and “planned to dismiss her quietly.” That is, he is going to take a softer, more compassionate approach to the ancient rules of Deuteronomy.
But then the angel speaks and says, “Joseph, take Mary as your wife.” Even though the rule in the Bible said, “Get rid of her,” there is a higher authority than the rules. And that is the authority of the One who makes the rules.
Now, this is hard for a lot of people to understand. They read the Bible. They find direction and purpose for their lives. They trust that the world is ordered in the ways that the Bible describes. They love the commandments: “No idolatry,” “No murder,” “No coveting.” No – no – no. But then something happens, something indescribable, something spiritual – and it scares them because it’s not on the page.
It came up often in the ministry of Jesus. The Bible said, “Don’t touch a leper” – and Jesus touched a leper and healed him. The Bible said, “Don’t associate with sinners” – and Jesus invited himself to share meals with them. The Bible said, “Stop work on the Sabbath” – and Jesus labored tirelessly to preach, teach, and heal on the Sabbath. Maybe he picked up this attitude from Joseph and how Joseph treated his own mother.
As somebody notes,
“Joseph is a good man… He loves his Bible and he knows his Bible... But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” Where does it say that, Joseph? It says that in the very nature and character of God.”
He was leaning in this direction, because he was a good man. But the angel appeared in his dream and pushed his compassion even further. That is to say, if you prefer a flat obedience, a life of inflexible rules, be cautious of listening to an angel.
This brings us to the third warning: Be wary of listening to an angel, because angels call us to make commitments and keep them.
Now, I wish to sift out any casual notions that Joseph was merely being a nice guy. We have been trained to think of him as a benevolent character on the front of a Christmas card, standing silently. No, the call of God upon his life was greater than that. He was interrupted by the announcement of a baby that was not his. His view of scripture and the moral law was filtered by the love and compassion of God. Now the angel invites him to keep his engagement, to stand by his betrothed, to forgive the intrusion of God upon her womb, and to raise Mary’s child as if it is his own.
I cannot imagine anything more difficult. I have known plenty of people who prefer a lofty aesthetic, an ambiguous piety. They talk about faith in general. They discuss endlessly this idea and that. They love the decorations of Christmas, the poinsettias, the perfumed music, the high drama, the beautiful art. But ask them to pin it down and they disappear.
The angel says, “Take Mary as your wife. Take her child as your own.” Do you know what that means? It means to dig in where you are. Trust the love you have for others. Take care of the persons God has put in your life. Welcome them as holy gifts, in all their specificity – even if it means handling dirty diapers, consoling those who cry in the night, and committing all your resources for their food and safety.
There’s a woman I know. She gave birth to two boys of her own. When they were mostly raised, she agreed to take in a foster child, an infant. She fed the baby, held her close, asked her sons not feel jealous. She has since taken in a number of foster children, all of them infants, many with profound needs. Most of them, she handed back to their parents when the time was right. She has cared for those, and begun their lives by surrounding them with the care and attention they needed. “It’s what I had to do,” she said. “And with each one, my ability to love grows even greater.”
The angel said to Joseph, “Raise the child as your own.” Take care of him. Give him a home. Instruct him in the carpenter shop. Teach him how to love God. These were the specifics of his assignment.
Today I think of Joseph. He could have lived the insulated life, the inflexible obedience, the ambiguous piety. He might have coasted along for years, uninterrupted and unaffected. Instead he listened to an angel who spoke to him in a dream, and he took Mary for his wife. He made a home for an unexpected baby named Emmanuel, God-with-us. It turned his future upside-down. Ours too.
I’m OK with that. How about you?
(c) William G. Carter
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