The Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 17/18, 2016
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
What does it mean to be a man? That is a question that a lot of teenaged boys are struggling to answer as they mature in our modern society. We have made progress in encouraging a positive self-image for young women … raising their vision of who they are and what they can become. Some voices are observing that we are not doing as good a job for our young men.
A recent publication has observed:
It’s a hard time to be a boy, and the facts are something that should give us all pause. Today, boys are more likely to be expelled or kicked out of school than girls. Young men are only 43 percent of enrollees in post-secondary institutions. Boys are more likely to engage in violent crime, binge drinking, and drugs … and mass shootings involving boys and men have become an epidemic. Jails are packed to the rafters with men. And men commit 79 percent of all suicides in the United States. The status quo is unacceptable. [TIME, March 2, 2015]
Sadly, many young men are bombarded with negative messages today … messages that favor dominance over tenderness … physical strength over gentleness … violence over kindness … sexuality over affection.
Being a man used to be simple. A man was the leader for his family … a beacon of strength and order in a chaotic world. Men were durable and resilient. What is more, men once made the rules, providing safety and security for those who depended upon them.
In 2016 masculine roles in America are murkier. Many men today find themselves cast adrift. The Biblical model of the man as the patriarch or leader of the family has become less relevant in a world where more and more children are raised by single mothers. What adds to the complexity is that in a growing number of two income families the woman earns the larger salary.
Today we receive a unique perspective on what it means to be a man. Our Gospel lesson for this Fourth Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of Matthew’s Christmas story. In this account, Joseph, rather than Mary, is the central figure and Joseph says something to us about what it means to be a man.
On this last Sunday before Christmas we generally have a Gospel lesson that focuses on Mary … the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to reveal God’s plan for Mary or the story of Mary’s visit with her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
Once every three years, however, the focus changes. This is the Year of Joseph. So today we shine the light on this special man, often overlooked and left off the Christmas cards, the one who protected Mary and Jesus. While Luke highlights Mary and the wonder of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Matthew concentrates our attention on how God spoke to Joseph in a wonderful way that gave him confidence to embrace and support the birth of this remarkable Child.
An unmarried woman … an unanticipated pregnancy … an implausible explanation. We have no problem imagining what the neighbors and Joseph’s family were saying and thinking about Mary. Joseph would have heard the nasty gossip and endured the judgmental looks.
Matthew tells us that Joseph’s heart was broken, but because he was a kind and righteous man, he was prepared to send Mary away. However the visitation of an angel during the night convinced Joseph that if there was any scandal here it was the scandal of God’s love … this unique plan by which … God so loved the world that he was about to give His only begotten Son for the salvation of all.
The fact that Mary was expecting a child did, indeed, raise the issue of faithfulness, not in terms of Mary’s infidelity or betrayal of Joseph, but rather in terms of God’s faithfulness to His people and his willingness to come and live in our midst, or, as the Evangelist John so eloquently puts it … the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood! [John 1: 14 - Eugene Peterson's version, The Message]
After a night of dreaming Joseph’s understanding of the situation was transformed by the visiting angel, so Joseph abandoned his daytime determination to send Mary away. Instead, Joseph now understood and embraced the role he must play.
He had to let go of that tendency to worry about what others are thinking;
He had to abandon his plans for a large wedding with family and friends;
He had to become Mary’s protector – the source of her strength and security;
In short, Joseph had to empty himself so that by God’s grace he could become something precious and essential.
Writing on this amazing text, Michael Marsh has observed:
(By God’s plan Joseph) would be the womb that sheltered Mary and Jesus from Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents. He would be the womb that safely took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He would be the womb that sustained their lives in that land. He would be the womb that brought them back to Nazareth when the time was right.
[Scandals, Wombs, and Emmanuel – Matthew 1:18-25, sermon by Michael K. Marsh,, 2010]
So this morning we receive Joseph’s testimony as to what it means to be a man.
A man is a force for good that helps to create and sustain life, a person who by his own determination provides nourishment and growth to the young and vulnerable;
A man provides security and protection, partnering with others where appropriate; to insure that there will be shelter and sustenance, faith and values, instruction and encouragement for those in his charge.
A man supports the young and those at risk, as they move into a world of opportunity and danger. In the process a man, like Joseph, will be willing to abandon old traditions and become, if necessary, a servant to his wife for the sake of those placed in their care, actually fading away, if necessary, like Joseph who disappeared before Jesus inaugurated his ministry.
Matthew’s Gospel lesson places Joseph before us today … and this is a blessing. In the weaving of his story Matthew encourages us to see and appreciate the critical role of that special man called Joseph. Matthew would have us understand that the womb of protection Joseph offered was as critical to the miracle of Christ’s birth as was the precious womb of Mary, where the divine-human life we call Jesus was formed.
Today we give thanks for Joseph, who was willing and able to man up, as many would say in today’s vernacular. Joseph listened to the angel and the world was blessed … and we are blessed … and inspired to discover our unique way to live a life that makes a difference … a life that protects and sustains and inspires.
May God bless us to that end. AMEN.