Stepping into New Space
Today’s story is about genealogy, about right relationships, about fear, about faithfulness, and about naming. Let’s start with the genealogy. When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see him saying that Jesus was born “according to the flesh” in the clan of David, that is, his parentage was from that clan. Back in those days, they didn’t know about what happened with sperm and egg to make a baby. They thought it all came from the man. Think about this!
Matthew is very clear that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. What we don’t know is how they understood that. Because what comes next in the Romans passage is also very interesting. He says, Jesus was declared to be the Son of God – when? – after the resurrection. Paul was saying: Of course he comes from the line of David, that would be expected – but there were a ton of folks who were descendants of David, after all, the man had a lot of concubines and several wives, and this was how many generations later! But since the Messiah would come out of the lineage of David, of course Jesus came from this line. But for Paul, the critical aspect of Jesus was not his birth, it was what happened after his death.
OK, so let’s go look specifically at Matthew. The first sentence sets us up for “a good story.” Here is where we tend to get into trouble. We want this to be a factual thing. We want to be able to pull up the birth records and to look at his baby book and at Mary’s diary and the letters she sent to her friends. We want to be able to figure out exactly what happened. So we look at the gospel narratives, and what we find are stories, not facts. We know a few things. We know that something was fishy about the birth of Jesus. The reason we know this is that later on, people who are angry at Jesus call him “son of Mary,” which is a way of calling him a bastard. It does not take much to put two and two together. Mary was pregnant, Joseph was sure this was not his child. It would not have been any kind of a big deal if he had known it was his child, because they were already betrothed. In that time, the betrothal was the big deal, the wedding was a formality, a good excuse for a party. If the wedding got moved up, oh well, that is to be expected. You notice that in the same sentence it says that they were engaged, and that he was her husband. They were as good as married, they just hadn’t consummated the union yet, only, oops, she’s already pregnant.
When I moved from Los Angeles to Oakdale, a farming community in the central valley, I was totally shocked by the number of pregnant girls at the high school. In the high school in Los Angeles, I knew of one girl who had gotten pregnant, we all knew about it, and she had to drop out. In Oakdale, there was a PE class for girls who were pregnant! As I studied the situation, I realized that it made sense. In a farming community, kids got married earlier. If she got pregnant, usually they would get married and move in with one of the sets of parents until they finished school. He was usually already working for his father anyway. Making it work to get them both through high school was a very good thing.
Thinking about Mary and Joseph in this light, they were already promised, and she gets pregnant. Just one problem, Joseph is quite clear that he is not the father. However, he cares for her. He knows what happens to pregnant girls that are not married, they are stoned to death. So he is trying to figure out a way to deal with all of this, and he has a dream. Remember Tevyeh in Fiddler on the Roof? When God wants to send a messenger, an angel comes in a dream. Does this actually happen? Who knows?!? That’s not the point! What we have is a story where something does not make sense in a big way, so obviously there was an intervention of some sort. It does not make any sense at all for Joseph to accept Mary as pregnant, or to accept Jesus. But he does. So clearly, something happened that was “strong” enough to make him do something that would have been totally out of character for him to do.
So there was a dream. In the dream, the angel comes and tells him to go ahead and marry her. The angel agrees, this is not his child. However, if you had a dream and an angel told you to do something, would you do it? Especially if you believed things like that happened? Of course you would! And then we see the culmination of Joseph’s faithfulness. He names Jesus. Of course, his name is not Jesus. It was the Hebrew Yeshua, a derivative of Yehoshuah, or Joshua. And what does Yehoshuah mean? It means Yahweh, the Lord, is salvation. This also reflects the prophecy from Jeremiah (23:6) that says: “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Savior.”So how do we get to Jesus? Because the Greek translation of Yeshua is Iēsous, and if you say the Greek word out loud, you can easily see where we get Jesus from that.
Back to Joseph’s faithfulness. He names the child in accordance with what the angel has told him, that is, that this child will be the savior of the people. So I’m going to switch gears here for a few minutes, and ask you to consider Joseph as an archetype. What do I mean by that? An archetype is: An original model after which other similar things are patterned. This can be good or bad. A “bad” archetype is Dracula. Joseph is a good archetype. If we look closely at Joseph, as an archetype, what do we see? He has several qualities that are listed in the story. He is a righteous man, that is, he has a good relationship with God. He is caring and thoughtful. And then the unthinkable happens. He is a good solid sort of man, but he has his values. He decides to divorce her, but quietly. He will simply return her to her parent’s house. They will ship her off to her cousin’s house to have the baby. The cousin will keep the baby – since the cousin has not been able to have one. She may just stay with the cousin, to help. This all sounds reasonable to him. But he doesn’t do it. There is this angel, this dream, he is mightily confused, but he does not divorce Mary, and he names the baby.
I think Joseph, as an archetype, is very important for our time right now. There are so many strange things happening, things that just don’t make sense, at least for our old world. I have one friend who worked and worked to get a therapy internship at a particular agency. She was so excited about getting the job, and now, seven months later, she has given them notice. As she told me her story, I suggested that if she looked at it another way, that she could see that God was caring for her, taking care of things that were really critical. She kind of blinked, and said what? So I started telling her the very positive things I was seeing in the story she was telling me. Yes, it was frightening to give notice when she did not have another position. Yes, she had fought so hard to get this one. But if she could let that go, then perhaps she could see that her supervisor was praising her work, would obviously give her a good review, that it was very clear to the supervisor that this was simply a bad match, the supervisor was not telling her that she was a bad therapist. And already she has had a good interview with another place, and an even more interesting possibility has shown up, something she could never have dreamed of. It is one of those “out of left field” kind of things.
What is happening with my friend I see happening all over. Things that we thought were set, are not. Can we, like Joseph, be open to doing something that a short while ago we would have thought was unthinkable? Can we step out into a strange new place that God has opened for us? Another thing I think about with Joseph is how he dealt with his friends. I expect that his friends knew. This was a village, after all. I also expect that they were told about the dream. And I expect that they understood, sort of. And, they probably were grateful that they did not have to do what Joseph was being asked to do. But we are not asked to do what is asked of another. We have our own calling. When we left Atlanta, a lot of people knew what was going on. They knew that we were packing everything up and moving to California, with no jobs and no housing. All we had was permission for me to look for work in this diocese (which clergy must have before they go to a new diocese). But we felt called, we did not have a dream, but we simply knew this was what we were called to do. Many people in Atlanta came to us, almost pleading, saying, I cannot do what you are doing! Our answer to them was always, you are not called to do what we are called to do.
The question is this: what is it that you are being called to?
We are not called to do what Joseph did, and it is a good thing! What he did was enormous, incredibly courageous, in his time and place. We are called in our own place to do our own courageous thing, to step outside the bounds, to do what needs to be done for those who need our particular help. When that call comes to us, let us remember this humble strong man, and step forward into the new space, with God’s help. Amen.