"When Joseph Awoke"
Scripture - Matthew 1:18-25
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, December 22, 2013

Susan was in her late twenties and still trying to determine what to do with her life, so she sought out vocational testing. A portion of the testing involved a Rorschach test. If you have ever taken such a test, you know that a psychologist hands you a card with an inkblot. You gaze at the inkblot and tell the psychologist what you see.

Susan dutifully responded to 25 inkblots and after Susan handed back the last card, the psychologist paused and stared at her. Then said, "You are the first person I've ever tested who took the cards and held them exactly as I handed them to you. Not once did you turn the card sideways or upside down. Not once did you experiment with different angles or possibilities." The psychologist let that thought sink in, then continued, "Do you think this is the way you approach life? Taking each day, each situation exactly as it is handed to you? Perhaps you should exercise your imagination and experiment with new angles for interpreting your world."1

It is no great surprise that the gospel reading for the final Sunday in Advent highlights the birth of Jesus. However, today's passage is not a tale of two jubilant parents thrilled about having their first child. Rather, it tells how Joseph took the card he was handed, ruminated over its meaning, nearly tore it to shreds and walked away, but at the last moment, he turned it upside down where he could see his situation in an entirely new light.

The story is a bit risqué for Holy Scripture. Mary, a young woman engaged to be married, breaks the news to her fiancé that she is going to have a baby. The news is crushing. Joseph knows he is not the father. His life will not unfold as he had dreamt. There will be no grand celebration of their wedding. No baby shower after the appropriate number of months.

Joseph has a tortuous dilemma dropped on him. According to Mosaic Law, Mary has committed adultery and can be stoned. Joseph must have been furious when he heard the news and this harsh option must have crossed his mind. However, there was no way he would resort to brutality. More likely, he would break off the engagement and leave Mary to fend for herself, which in the long run was nearly as severe. Exposed to public shame, Mary would become persona non grata. In first century Palestine, to be a poor, young, single mom with no support might very well prove to be a death sentence for herself and her child.

However, our passage gives us the tip that Joseph is a decent man who strives to do what is right. According to first century Judaism, doing what is right includes not associating with women of questionable virtue.

To his credit, Joseph decided not to make a big display of it. He did not want Mary to become the target of gossip and to be ostracized. Perhaps Joseph came from better stock than that - A good Midwestern boy with Midwestern values. Or, maybe it was more than that. Maybe Joseph loved Mary too much to see her hurt. But, still, it would ruin his reputation if he married her.

Most of us can relate to Joseph's dilemma. We have had something come along that derailed our plans for the way our lives would unfold. Maybe it was a divorce or a pregnancy or an inability to have children. It could have been an out-of-control child or a deadly disease or a tragic accident. Life is thrown into total disarray and for a period, we have no clue as to the best way to respond. Some talk it over with friends in hopes of gleaning wise counsel. Others hold it all inside until they feel as if they might explode. Many drop to their knees and beg God to make it all better. And most of us have experienced that deafening silence that has prompted us to question God.

No doubt Joseph was thrown into a tailspin. No doubt he had some heart-to-heart talks with God that included bitter words regarding Mary. There is no telling how many days he wrestled with this life-altering decision, but eventually, Joseph reached his gut-wrenching solution. He would dismiss her quietly. He would not expose her to public shame and he would not go to her family and demand compensation for his humiliation. He would put Mary and her baby behind him and proceed to carve out a new life. Maybe he would move to a new village where no one knew his past and start from scratch.

Having made up his mind, he would finally get a good night's sleep; or so he thought. That night he had a disturbing dream in which a messenger of God appeared to him and said, "Bad decision, Joseph." And the messenger said what God's messengers usually say: "Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to do what is right. Do not be afraid to take a risk for God. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife and raise this child. He will change the course of history."

When Joseph awoke, he made a 180° pivot from the decision he had made before slipping into bed. Reason and logic screamed at him to remove himself from his entanglement. But another voice counseled him to risk his reputation for something sacred - to take Mary as his wife and to become a father to this child. Joseph listened to what he believed to be the voice of God and it made all the difference in the world.

The story raises a number of questions for us to ponder. For one, how well do you discern the voice of God? Do you detect God speaking a personal word to you through scripture, sermon, song or prayer? Could your dream be a word from God to your unconscious mind? Does your confidence in your ability to make decisions based on reason prevent you from hearing the whispers of God?

The story of Joseph's dilemma also prompts us to ponder our notions of parenthood. Those of us who have an adopted child, and those who are adopted, know that biology is a long way from being the whole answer to parenthood. A child is a gift and there are tremendous obligations to fulfill if one is to earn the title "parent."

This story also calls on us to be mindful of the significance of the decisions we make. We are free to make decisions that distance us from God and the path God wants us to take, or we can make decisions that draw us ever closer to God and the path that leads to a life that is a rich, meaningful and joyful adventure.

When Stephen Hayner, President of Columbia Theological Seminary, traveled to Uganda, he met a beautiful, young Ugandan teacher named Christine Nakalema. Christine had grown up in a rural village and when she was five years old and her sister Harriet was seven and her little brother was four, both of their parents died of AIDS within three months of each other. For nearly two years the three somehow survived on their own. With no parents, they were forced to scavenge food from the Ugandan countryside. With no adult to care for them, they often huddled in the corner of their mud hut because the roof would no longer hold out the rain. One day they were discovered by a local priest who was helping an international relief organization take a census of the orphaned children in that district.

At the same time, 6,000 miles away in Australia, a young, newly graduated teacher, named Julie Ann DeBattista, saw a television ad by World Vision and decided she would use a portion of her modest salary to sponsor a child. It was a small step of faith for her to give away a portion of her money every paycheck. She was matched with a child in Uganda named Christine Nakalema.

With money from people like Julie Ann, the relief organization built the children a new home, ensured that there was enough food and clothes, and paid their school fees. When Christine's brother became very ill, he received medical attention, though later he tragically died.

The two sisters became part of a local church where some older children and an aging priest helped them. Christine and her sister began to take conscious steps toward a life of faith.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Julie Ann continued to pray for Christine and to sponsor Christine throughout her high school years. Then, when she was asked if she would continue to sponsor her, Julie Ann helped Christine go to a teachers' college.

Eventually, Christine began her teaching career in the very school in which she grew up. She was educating a whole new generation of children, giving them the tools they will need for a better life.

She said to Stephen, "If it were not for God's love, our church and World Vision, I would be dead. If I had survived childhood, I would have been forced into prostitution as a teenager, only to die of AIDS before I turned 20." Instead, she is now transforming young lives in her village.

Christine traveled to Australia to meet Julie Ann for the first time. Christine said that Julie Ann was the only mother she could remember - even though this was the only time they had ever been in each other's presence.

Julie Ann could never have imagined the tremendous difference her small faithful decision would make in the life of Christine and all those Christine touches.

The story is riddled with those tiny steps of faith toward God rather than away from God2 - the kind of decisions that can draw anyone closer to the grace-filled adventure God wants each of us to live.

Just days before we celebrate the birth of the holy child, I urge you to be awake for the coming of Christ into your life. God may be urging you to take a bold, new faithful step. Are you listening?


  1. Susan Andrews, "Looking for Buried Treasure," Lectionary Homiletics, June-July 2005, p.71.
  2. Stephen Hayner, "Turning Points," Day1.org, June 06, 2010.