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The Fear of a Ruined Reputation

Date:12/20/20

Passage: Matthew 1:18-25

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

You know what I really miss about Christmas this year? A Children’s Christmas Pageant. I almost yearn for all of the chaos and the craziness of costumes too big for little bodies, crowns of magi falling off of heads, and babies, unlike Jesus, “crying they did make.” We experience this type of fun during Eventful Advent and Posada y Piñata. My previous church had a family service on Christmas Eve where children would do a pick-up style pageant, dress up as their favorite characters from the nativity, and act out the Christmas story on the fly. Kids would scrounge and scatter to find their favorite costumes and props on racks and tables set up in the Narthex. Once dressed, they would scamper to their pews ready for the service.

At 4pm on Christmas Eve, the Sanctuary would fill with dozens of cotton ball sheep, spotted cows, and droopy-eared donkeys; a host of angels with fabric wings and crooked halos; five or six magi bearing gifts (because who wouldn’t want six gifts instead of three?); and two or three Marys with their soft blue head coverings passing around the baby doll Jesus. They would then act out the Christmas story with the same amount of passion and chaos as was probably felt the very night Jesus was born.

Our girls were very familiar with this annual tradition and would often have their minds set weeks ahead of time on who they wanted to be in the pageant. Annaleigh knew, one time, that she wanted to be a magi so she could carry a beautiful gold box to the manger. Another time, she was excited to test out the role of Mary and hold the baby doll Jesus.

Well, one year, Beatrice announced what she wanted to be in the pageant. “I want to be a jo-fish,” she proclaimed. Amanda confused, said, “A what?” Beatrice with more vigor and umbrage repeated her request, “I want to be a jo-fish!” “Oh,” said Amanda. “You want to be a goldfish.” If you know Beatrice, her demanding to be a goldfish at the manger and at the birth of Christ is not that outlandish of a request. You probably also know that Amanda is quite the saint and an amazing mama because she thought for weeks about how she would create a goldfish costume for the Christmas Eve pageant. Would this fish need fins? Would it need a fishbowl? Would the goldfish be out in the fields with the sheep or in the manger with the donkeys and cows? She wondered if Beatrice thought the magi were bringing gold-FISH, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus?

Well, Christmas Eve was fast approaching and the goldfish costume had yet to come into existence. Amanda, just to be sure, asked Beatrice one more time what she wanted to be for the Christmas pageant. Beatrice said once again, “I told you I want to be a jo-fish.” Amanda, beleaguered by Beatrice’s request, told her that she wasn’t really sure how to make her a goldfish costume. Beatrice, obviously frustrated and all the surer of her pick said, “I don’t want to be a goldfish mama, I want to be that baby’s daddy! I want to be jo-fish!”

Seriously, is there any more insignificant role in a Christmas pageant than that of Joseph? Mary gets to hold Jesus and welcome all the visitors, shepherds hold their staffs and watch sheep and adore the Christ child, angels sing in chorus and announce the birth, the wise magi get to wear their finest cloths and bring expensive gifts, and even the children cast as sheep, cows, and donkeys get to make a whole lot of animal noises. But Joseph simply stands there, behind the manger, behind Mary, behind Jesus, behind the scenes. It seems for most people that Joseph is an incidental figure in the Christmas story.

Columnist Dave Berry agrees. He remembers participating in Christmas pageants as a child at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. He thought being Joseph was a terrible thing since Joseph had to hang around with Mary, who was played by a girl. As Joseph, you had to wait backstage with the girl and walk in with the girl. He said, “You felt like a total wonk, which was not helped by the fact that the shepherds and three kings were constantly suggesting that you really liked this girl.” Berry remembers that during the pageant Joseph tended to maintain the maximum allowable distance from Mary, as though she were carrying some kind of fatal bacteria. Being Joseph was the worst.

No one wants to be Joseph. Being engaged to Mary, and then finding her to be with child – I’m not sure Joseph even wanted to be Joseph. He was filled with fear because his reputation was ruined. His spirit was ruined. His family was ruined. His emotions were ruined. The messiness of his life was put on full display. Mary was pregnant and Joseph had no good options. Divorcing her quietly was all he could do to keep her from being killed. A divorce would also leave her without any support or care. However, if he married a seemingly unfaithful woman, according to Levitical law, he would be tainted by her sin. He couldn’t have this child in his family. Joseph’s genealogy, his genesis, his birth story, led back to King David and all the way to Abraham. Mary’s child would be an interloper into Joseph’s celebrated lineage and would ruin his reputation.

But as we know from the names at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph’s ancestry, his family, was already pretty ruined and messed up to begin with. Abraham tried to sacrifice his oldest son; Jacob cheated his brother out of his birthright; David murdered a man and stole his wife. Tamar tricks her father-in-law, Judah, and Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a foreigner who wriggled her way into the family tree. This honorable, average Joe is at the end of the line of one big, messy and ruined family. But that’s the way God works in the world, isn’t it? God births hope, God births peace, God births joy, God births love, and God births beauty out of the ruined pieces of our lives.

Pastor Katie Hines-Shah, in a Christian Century article, wrote: “God has always worked through messy and broken families, restoring them and bringing hope. Isaac will not be sacrificed; Judah will have sons. Rahab will save the people; Ruth will be claimed a matriarch by a people not her own. God will choose the unlikely one, the second son, the barren woman, the one who seemed beyond redeeming. Shame and heartache are not foreign to God.”

I think we sometimes fail to truly realize Joseph’s heartache and anguish because we have unintentionally domesticated the Christmas story. Whether by hearing it read in hushed tones by candlelight, or because of beloved hymns casting a rosy hue around it, it’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people, with real problems, and with ruined reputations. Yet, in our imagined and perfect nativities, Jesus never cries, Mary looks more like a blushing young bride than a woman who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective, and paternal. But that isn’t the world in which God came. That isn’t the family into which Christ was born. Joseph was disappointed, heartbroken, and afraid. He needed an angel. He needed the reassuring dreams of God to give him hope and confidence that indeed new life would come from his ruined reputation.

And indeed, new life did come from the ruins. “Mary will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” And Joseph named the Christ-child not only at the direction of the angel but to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” Emmanuel, God with us. God REALLY with us. God coming to be with us as we truly are. Not as we know we should be; not as we are trying to be; not as we have promised to be, not as we will someday be, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment.

And, if God brought hope among the fears, doubts, and grief of Joseph, God can birth hope in the brokenness and ruins of our lives, too. God created the world out of nothing but decided to do something in Jesus that was much more difficult – enter into humankind. God entered into the human family with all of our messiness and mistakes, sins and sorrows, failures and faults. God redeemed us and swaddled our brokenness into Christ’s birth, into new life, into salvation.

Maybe more kids should want to be Joseph in the annual Christmas pageant. Maybe in the midst of heartache and hurt it would be good for us to remember that God worked through real people with real challenges. God didn’t choose a perfect princess to bear a savior, but rather a peasant. God didn’t choose a political or popular leader to name Jesus and raise him as his own, but rather an average Joe with doubts and questions. God brought hope in the midst of fear.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” This Advent, the fear of betrayal, battles, bills, and brokenness is met by the hope of birth, the hope of new life, the hope of a coming savior. Just like Joseph, our hopes and fears are wrapped in swaddling clothes. Our hopes and fears are born in a small, no-name town. Our hopes and fears are surrounded by sounds of loud livestock and melodic angels. Our hopes and fears are held in the care of an insignificant and average family. In the midst of brokenness and ruined reputations, God births life.

Maybe it is important in this time of fear in our own lives that we decide to live like Joseph, to live honorably in the midst of chaos. What would that look like? Maybe we’ll be at odds with the current society and we might look strange or silly or naïve. But maybe, in order to not be filled with fear this Advent season, we need to be ok with a reputation altered by God rather than one we seek for ourselves. Are we willing and able to not fear the nasty online comments or confused glances or angry jabs or mean letters when we stand up for God’s inbreaking of justice, peace, hope, and love?

Just as Joseph woke up to his new identity as the earthly father of Emmanuel, we are like this young, scared, wrecked Jewish couple. That even in the midst of turmoil they trusted in God and trusted in each other and knew that whoever they were becoming in that moment was right in line with where God wanted them to be. What if, like Joseph, we aren’t afraid to listen, to dream, to live into the stories and the messages of hope and good news? What if we were to wake up, like Joseph, knowing that we are creating new and bountiful and beautiful lives? What if, like Joseph, we push through our fears of ruined reputations, our distractions with our lineages and status, and we adjust to a new plan, the plan of God to us in a far different and divine way this season.

For us, today, we might be fearful of what will come in 2021 and whether or not we will be remembered or be significant or be known. But according to the messenger of God who appeared to Joseph, God knows. God knows that we aren’t perfect and that our lives aren’t going as we had planned. God knows that whatever we have or haven’t accomplished during the pandemic, whatever we have or haven’t accomplished in our careers, whatever we have or have not accomplished in our personal lives, the God who says to us, “do not be afraid,” will take any of the fears and mistakes and missteps we have and continue to use us to birth freedom, redemption, salvation, and love into the world. Are we willing to risk a ruined reputation? Are we willing to be a Joseph this Christmas?

Amen.