The Advent question is this: How does a word of God come among us, how is it conceived, raised up, given life? How does a message, a newborn relationship, a call to serve, to heal, to teach, to love, to live out God’s love first take root in our minds, hearts, priorities and purpose? How does God’s life live in our lives?
The answer to that question is in the history of the church, for we are the record of the life and ministry of Jesus, of God’s word in flesh, over time, seen and lived out in history, geography and community. The recorded lives of the saints, of the apostles, of the martyrs all answer that question in some detail. To start with the scripture, the wrestling with revelation and community that we see in the writing of Paul is a part of our history; and in the life of Peter, as we see the disciple changed from saying too much and doing too little; changed to see the hand, the breath, the life of God grow strong in the life of Peter and makes him strong, turning him to a rock of faith, a witness and a martyr, sending him out to preach good news, to be good news.
So the last two thousand years is enlightened by the bright witnesses of saints and martyrs, agents of mercy and forgiveness, of poetry and politics, of repentance and new life. They comes in different shapes and sizes, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, quite a variety. Like that rather sweet (some would say saccharine) hymn, “one was a soldier and one was a priest and one was killed by a fierce wild beast.... [and going on] you can meet them in schools or in lanes or at sea; in church or in trains or in shops or at tea / for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too!”
Someone just like you and me was Maximilien Kolbe, a Franciscan priest incarcerated in a prison camp in WW2 Germany, he was a neighbor, a friend, a person of prayer and reconciliation to all around him. One day, standing in a room where a group of men were set aside for assassination, sentenced to death, and hearing one man cry out, “but I have a wife and child,” Kolbe said, “send me” and went to his death as an apostle, a martyr, a saint of God’s creative mercy, sacrificial love and saving spirit. These people continue the saving acts of God to be witnesses, lights of God’s love, agents of God’s love.
A lot of us simply try, day after day, with varying degrees of success, “to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” We do what we can, and most of us are, if not rank sinners, are somewhat damaged goods, just like most of the apostles. We all start out slowly just like them: less stained glass saints than sick people getting better, made more healthy by living day by day in the light and love of the life of God we see in the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection, the sacrifice and the salvation offered by this Jesus. In this Peter and Paul are a lot like us. And so are Mary and Joseph.
Mary and her husband offer two pictures of how faith can come to us, as well as two ways of responding to God’s action in our lives. So they serve as models of witness, pilgrimage and wonder. For Mary it seems more clearcut, easier, maybe she is younger, more able to say yes, to be formed with God’s image within her, to be a vehicle for Gods action to be born out of her assent.
Sometimes the message comes and is seen clearly, and we say yes! Even if it’s a surprise, if it takes us into new beginning, if it meets us at our most inexperienced, we say yes, willing to be a vessel and vehicle of a new graceful message, and Mary has this experience.
But other times it comes slowly, over time, after deliberation and at some cost, and Joseph is a model for this experience. Some traditions states that Joseph was older and -- let’s face it, when you’re older these experience, of a new life in faith, new duties, new directions, take more time.
It couldn’t be easy for him. “The woman you are planing to marry is pregnant, and it is not your child!” Joseph shows he’s compassionate right at the start, when he decides to end the relationship without publicity. He could move to a more violent response, it would have been in accord with scripture - and there’s one more reason I am no fundamentalist - but he is merciful, determined to put her away: simply to give her up: maybe he gives the whole matter over to God. And then he has a dream.
Maybe you’re not like me, but I’ve had a few dreams in my life that have been very helpful; where a problem has been solved, a new option outlined. I’ve awakened with more than a few sermons where a new ending came into being, and sometimes my mind has been changed by an insight that allowed a new possibility.
So Joseph has a dream where he is told that the woman he planned to marry is pregnant with God’s child, Emmanuel, God with us. It is not as dramatic, as immediate, as the experience that Mary has in Luke’s Gospel, and we don’t get a pretty speech in response. But Joseph wakes up resolved to do as the angel has commanded and he takes Mary as his wife and gives his life to protect, to father this new beginning as best he can, this new birth of God into the world.
And I wonder if he always had doubts? This morning I hope so, for then he is a model for all of us who sometimes doubt. Because he still followed through, made room and gave comfort for that miraculous birth, husbanded the life that allowed God’s word to be made flesh and blood, born of Mary, “according to your word.” Joseph supported this, witnessed this, gave his life, the life he had to live and to offer, so that God’s word of hope and love and reconciliation might live.
Did Joseph live to see Jesus die? Was he there to see the resurrection light and life at the end of it all, that new beginning. We don’t know. He fades out of the Gospels when Jesus is a boy. Maybe like Moses he dies in sight of that promised land, and will be carried along in hope, like us, Maybe, like us, he gives his life to protect and honor and witness to a newborn life that he doesn’t fully understand, maybe all his days he would still look at this growing Jesus and wrestle with the inconceivable fact of him. Even as he came to love to child he raised as his own, even when he had held the child who would, by God’s grace, become a savior, held the one who would carry him to a larger life. We just don’t know.
So then Joseph is a sign of faith for us. And maybe St Joseph prays for us today, joins us in all our doubts and hopes, as we carry this surprising child, and prepare to try to care for this soon to be newborn hope once again; not with all the answers, not with the great assurance that Mary had, but with resolve to preserve and protect, to hold and watch and witness as we can, to offer support and strength, to husband that hope, to raise that new beginning, as another gift of God comes to be born in our lives.