The following is a sermon preached 12/22/2013. The gospel text was Matthew 1:18-25.
There is a lot of research in education circles about learning styles. Experts emphasize that without appealing to a range of learning styles, some children are left out. There are visual learners, who learn by reading or seeing. There are auditory learners, who like to have concepts explained out loud. And there are kinesthetic learners, who learn by touching and doing. Successful teachers work to engage students in as many senses as possible to reach each student.
If ever there is a time of year that vividly engages all five of our senses, it might be Christmas. You know the five senses: touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing. We feel the cold wet of snow as we build snow forts, see the lights twinkling on rooftops around the neighborhood, smell the pine trees decorating our homes, taste the many batches of Christmas cookies, and hear Christmas carols played from just about every sound system we encounter.
But if cookies and lights and trees are the sensory experiences of Christmas, what is it that we see and hear and taste during Advent? I have tasted plenty of delicious soups and smelled homemade bread served alongside! We can imagine seeing John the Baptist, dressed in camel hair and eating bugs—a taste I would rather not share.
But what does Advent sound like? Whose are the voices raised above the din?
We’ve heard Mary’s voice. The beloved words of the Magnificat, the song she sings when the Angel Gabriel announces God’s plan to her. These are the words that make up our beloved Holden Evening Prayer, that we sing every Wednesday in Advent, coming from Mary, the mother of our Lord.
We’ve heard John’s voice, declaring repentance and announcing the Kingdom of Heaven come among us. We’ve heard Elizabeth’s voice, calling Mary “blessed among women.” A few weeks ago, we even heard Jesus’ voice, warning us of the day when he comes again.
And this week we hear… absolutely nothing. Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus Christ says not one single word. In fact, Joseph is never recorded saying anything at all in any of the Gospels.
But why? We have Mary’s words stretching from the announcement of her pregnancy to the Cross, words that we treasure! So why is Joseph silent? Couldn’t he at least have had one or two lines, just to remind us that he’s there? After all, anyone who has done theater will tell you that important characters are expected to have a lot of lines. Nobody is going to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor without any lines! How can we be expected to remember Joseph if he never says anything memorable?
But, let’s hang on a minute. Trying to look like an important character or get nominated for awards or be remembered by generations to come are… okay ways of measuring success, I suppose, but maybe not the ways God measures success.
Joseph may not look successful to us, but we are told that he is a “righteous man” descended from the line of King David. This righteous man is, as far as we know, an everyday craftsman. He’s a carpenter, working day in and day out to make a living. Maybe working with wood taught him to get his work done without talking about it.
And then this everyday guy found out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, and instead of publicly shaming her, he plans to “quietly dismiss her.” This everyday guy trusts God’s words from the angel who appears in his dream.
Joseph doesn’t say a word that we ever get to hear, but he does some pretty important work.
Even before he hears from the angel, he plans to be quiet about his actions in order to protect Mary from the legal consequences of pregnancy outside of marriage—stoning to death. After the angel speaks, he goes further against the cultural norms to take Mary as his wife, even knowing that the child she bears is not his own. And, perhaps the most surprising: he believes what the angel says to him in his dream, following God’s commands about Mary and Jesus.
Joseph may not fit my expectations of a Bible hero, but he does something better. He fits God’s expectations for him.
Joseph doesn’t need to be a great poet, because Mary is there to speak words of faith and joy at the coming of her savior. He doesn’t need to be a great preacher, because John is there to speak a message of repentance to the Israelites.
Joseph needs to be willing to hear the voice of God and obey it. And he is. Joseph needs to be willing to welcome a teenage mom into his home. And he is. Joseph needs to be willing to protect and raise this vulnerable child as his own. And he is.
We remember Joseph not because of his words of wisdom, but because of his actions. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “actions speak louder than words.” The words we speak matter, but they can feel empty without actions to back them up. Joseph knows very well that this is a situation in which words are just not enough. Instead of making grandiose promises, Joseph simply does what needs to be done. The Gospels may not record Joseph’s words, but they remember his actions.
Earlier, I asked what Advent sounds like. Sometimes, Advent sounds like the song of Mary, glorifying God with her poetic words. Joseph’s witness tells us that Advent often sounds like God’s people being silent.
The sound of Advent is God’s people being where God needs them, whether or not they are cast in a speaking role.
It sounds like Advent when a busy parent makes time to sit and read a book with a child. It sounds like Advent when drivers make space for each other in rush hour traffic. It sounds like Advent whenever God’s voice is heard among God’s people, challenging our expectations in order to be present in the world in new and surprising ways.
Maybe even in such a surprising way as coming as our Immanuel,
the promised one who saves us from our sins.
Please pray with me:
O Emmanuel, our God who comes to dwell with us, teach us to hear your voice and follow your will in our lives. Give us words to speak when they are required and the courage to be silent when no words are needed. Help us imitate your servant Joseph’s obedience to your voice. Amen.