Joseph, the dreamers

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day (online) at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid


“This took place,” we are told, to fulfill the words spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

We talked about this passage at last week’s Bible Study. The thing that took place in order to fulfill the prophecy was not, let’s be clear, Herod’s attempt at genocide, at regicide, at theocide. That idea was not from God, but came out of the twisted and tarnished head that would not trade its crown even for the promised Christ, the Messiah. No, the thing that took place was the holy family’s exile to Egypt, and their return, if not to Bethlehem, then to some new settlement, some precarious safety.

Here’s a curious thing: According to Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born, although Joseph’s ancestral home was in Bethlehem. According to Matthew, they settled in Nazareth only because it did not seem safe to Joseph to return to Judea, to the region of Bethlehem, given the politics of the day and the cruelty of the politicians. Perhaps the story is told in different ways because for some of their neighbours they would always be foreigners, born out of Bethlehem, while for others they were simply neighbours. The ways in which we sort and categorize people, humans made in the image of God all, continue to poke at the peace on earth promised by the angels.

It is as though, having become one of us, incarnate in solidarity with our frail humanity, Christ chose to associate himself with the most vulnerable of all: the refugees, the homeless, those whom their neighbours see as perpetual foreigners, or simply as neighbours. 

Our Gospel reading today glosses over what happens when love fails, when humanity fails. We get to look away. But our hearts know what is at risk. If we will not see those who come to us seeking asylum, seeking shelter, seeking kindness as kin to the holy family, kin to the Christ, then are we not as guilty as Herod and Archelaus of refusing to welcome God’s anointed among us?

Joseph knew what was at risk, and he did what was necessary to protect his family from harm, not by entering into the violent fantasies of Herod, but by following the quiet and insistent whispers of God as they invaded his dreams. 

We don’t talk a lot about Joseph. We don’t know a whole lot about him. He is referred to, obliquely and in passing, as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), which could (according to Geza Vermes)[i] be metaphor for a scholar or a learned man, well-versed in the scriptures and sayings of God. That would account for Jesus’ own precocious ability to argue with the scribes in the Temple as a twelve-year-old (Luke 2:41-50). We do know from Matthew that Joseph, like his namesake, he was a dreamer, and that he knew God and interpreted God’s will for him in part through prophetic dreams.

Interestingly, the older Joseph, the one with the dreams and the coat and the brothers, the ancient Joseph was the reason that the people of God ended up in Egypt in the first place, the reason why God’s child, Israel, was called out of Egypt, why the prophecy was there for Jesus and his family to fulfill.

You remember that Joseph’s brothers, jealous of his dreams and of his father’s favour, threw him in a pit and then sold him to slavers. After some adventures, Joseph established himself in the court of the Pharaoh, and when a famine fell across the region, and his brothers came to find bread, it was Joseph who eventually embraced them in Egypt, although he never forgot his other home (Genesis 37-50).

Some time later, after the generations of Joseph and his brothers had descended into a great number of people, a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember Joseph, and he it was who enslaved and even murdered the people of Israel, the children of God (Exodus 1). So it was that God called them out of Egypt, appointing Moses to be their guide, and leading them through the sea and the desert and the mountains and the wilderness to bring them, not without conflict, not without hardship on every side, but to bring them home.

The new Joseph, today’s Joseph, our Joseph, would have known the stories of his ancestral namesake. He knew to pay attention to his dreams, that God was never far from him, and especially when his resistance was down and his heart and mind open to hear the word of God, the dreams of God. Perhaps that is why he so readily followed the path that his dream set out for him: first marrying Mary instead of putting her away as he had intended, then setting out for Egypt as a refugee in a hurry, leaving everything behind him, becoming a foreigner for the sake of the skin of his child. Then returning, but still dislocated, still watchful for the safety of his son, ready to settle somewhere new if only the child would live.

With the eyes of his heart enlightened, Joseph knew how to pay attention to the whispers of God, how to be guided by love, how to risk giving everything up, giving everything to the project of God’s incarnation as the Christ.

He knew because he paid attention to the stories of the Bible, the salvation scriptures that told again and again of God’s fierce love for God’s family, the human God had made in God’s image. He knew because he fell asleep praying and awoke with the word of God upon his lips. He knew because he had opened the eyes of his heart to see what God had in store for him.

Sometimes I wish that my dreams were as clear as Joseph’s; perhaps if I paid attention like Joseph they would be. If you need a new year’s resolution or revolution or commitment, reading the stories of our faith ancestors in scripture and praying night and day are always on trend.

If we are to see one another, those around us, friends and foreigners, strangers and neighbours alike; if we are to see with the eyes of our hearts enlightened by the prophets and by the profundity of Christ’s incarnation, the birth and life and the incredible story of Jesus; if we are to allow that story, the story of our namesake, to inform and enlighten the eyes of our hearts, the way in which we see the world around us, and those who walk within it, then we will know the riches of the glorious inheritance of the saints, which is the love of God, and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power among us, which is the power of love.

Then, with the eyes of our hearts, we will see God’s dream for us. God help us to follow it, wherever it may lead us.

Amen.


[i] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (SCM Press, 2001), 28-29, via Scribd

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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