Sermon: “A Dream for the Child(ren)” (December 22, 2013)

            Do you ever wish they’d had Instagram in the 1st century?  I’d love to have seen Joseph’s face when Mary told him:  “Uh, honey?  I’m pregnant.”

            In 1st century Jewish culture, a betrothed couple like Joseph and Mary already had been through several stages in the marriage process:  talking with the woman’s parents, taking care of the dowry, determining living arrangements, selecting a china pattern…  According to the story, Mary and Joseph had done just about everything except consummate their marriage.

            So, when Mary tells Joseph she’s pregnant?  It’s bad.  Really bad.  In our culture, a pre-wedding pregnancy can, shall we say, complicate matters.  But in most cases, there are many options for dealing with those complications.  In the culture of 1st century Judaism, though, a man whose fiancé turned up pregnant had only two options:  either divorce her loudly (via public disgracing or even stoning) or divorce her quietly.  Given those two options, Joseph—“being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to pubic disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” 

Having made his decision, Joseph goes to sleep.  And dreams.  In this dream, a messenger suggests a third option.  He doesn’t tell Joseph to divorce Mary loudly.  Neither does he tell Joseph to divorce Mary quietly.   Instead, he says:  “Take Mary as your wife.”

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  “Take Mary as your wife.”  But to a faithful, observant 1st century Jewish man, those words would have been anathema.  Marry a woman who’d become pregnant outside the means proscribed by Jewish law?  Unheard of!  But, when he wakens, that’s exactly what he does.  He takes Mary as his wife then, per the angel’s instructions, names the baby Jesus, a name that literally means, “savior.”

Why did he do it?  Why choose to act so far outside the dictates of his religion and his culture?  Why risk his own social and religious standing by marrying a woman who, for all he knew, had betrayed both him and the vows that had been made?  Why did Joseph agree to raise a child he knew he hadn’t fathered?

Maybe Joseph did it because he really loved Mary and couldn’t bear the thought of her being expelled from the community or maybe even stoned.  Or maybe he did it because he was just that good a guy, a real mensch.  Or maybe he did it because that was one scary dream! 

Or maybe…trying to guess the motives of literary characters is always just that, a guess…but what if Joseph followed the messenger’s advice to “take Mary as his wife” not out of fear or for Mary’s sake or for his own sake… What if Joseph married Mary for the sake of the child?  Maybe when Joseph thought about Mary, when he thought about restrictive religious and cultural rules, when he thought about his own social standing…Maybe when Joseph considered all those things, none of it mattered much when he thought about the child. 

Maybe Joseph was one of those people who always had seen in children hope for the future.  Maybe in his heart of hearts he believed that all children had potential to be saviors.  Maybe Joseph’s first instinct when he learned about the baby was to do whatever it took to care for it, because, you never know…this child might be the one!  This child might be the one—at last—to lead people to unity and justice and freedom and understanding.  This child might be the one through whom peace on earth finally will come.  This child might truly be the savior on whom we’ve been waiting. 

This is just speculation, but what if Joseph acts so quickly in response to the dream because it gives him permission to do what his good heart wanted to do all along:  take care of the child?  Maybe all he needed was permission to act outside the bounds of religious rules and social conventions.  When he had that dream, maybe Joseph’s first thought was:  “Yes!  Now I can do what I wanted to do all along!” 

There’s no way to know why Joseph responded to his dream.  But we do know this:  because of his dream, Joseph was emboldened to do what was best for the child.  And because he did choose what was best for the child—making a home for Mary and Jesus…taking them to Egypt during Herod’s rampage…teaching Jesus a trade…raising him to be a faithful Jewish man….helping Jesus to see that sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is challenge social convention and unjust laws, as Joseph himself had done when he married Mary…  Because Joseph did what was best for the child, that child did grow up to be a savior.

Does it seem strange to you that the ruler of the universe would choose to introduce the divine self as a squirming, crying, helpless baby?  That’s a poser, isn’t it?  I mean, if you were planning to save the world, would your Plan A involve someone who couldn’t feed himself or change his own diapers?  It doesn’t seem, I don’t know, smart, does it?

Or does it?  Have you ever held a newborn baby?  Think a minute about what that felt like.  What welled up inside you when you felt that warm body…when you looked into that sweet face….when you smelled that newborn smell?  Hope?  Joy?  Determination to do whatever you could to make a good life for that little one, to love her, to act her into well-being?

Now, think about this.  What if all the adults in the world made a commitment to do whatever they could to make life good for all the children in the world?  What if all the adults in the world committed themselves to engaging in activities that only and always would act children into well-being?  What if all the adults in the world treated all children as if each one might grow up and save the world?

The world lost a great leader when Nelson Mandela died on December 5.  Born the son of a tribal chief, Mandela was educated in British-led schools and eventually became a lawyer.  As an attorney in South Africa, Mandela rebelled against the poor treatment of blacks by the white minority in his country—a bigotry that was codified when apartheid became law.  His rebellion eventually landed Mandela in prison.  It’s true that he broke the law, but his sentence—life in prison—was unjust; his treatment while in prison beyond harsh.

According to Richard Stengel, the author who assisted Mandela with his autobiography, one of the hardest parts of his 27 year imprisonment was not being around children—neither his own nor anyone else’s.  Can you imagine?  Twenty-seven years without being around your children?  Twenty-seven years without being around any children?

Mandela was released from prison in 1990.  In 1993, he and South African president F. W. de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work dismantling apartheid, preventing civil war, and paving the way for majority democratic rule in South Africa.

In his acceptance speech, Mandela spoke about how the world would know that peace had been achieved in South Africa.  He said, “At the southern tip of the continent of Africa, a rich reward is in the making, an invaluable gift is in the preparation for those who suffered in the name of all humanity when they sacrificed everything—for liberty, peace, human dignity and human fulfillment.

“This reward will not be measured in money.  Nor can it be reckoned in the collective price of the rare metals and precious stones that rest in the bowels of the African soil….

“It will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures.

“The children must, at last, play in the open veld, no longer tortured by the pangs of hunger or ravaged by disease or threatened with the scourge of ignorance, molestation and abuse, and no longer required to engage in deeds whose gravity exceeds the demands of their tender years.

“In front of this distinguished audience, we commit the new South Africa to the relentless pursuit of the purposes defined in the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children.”  (Notes to the Future, Nelson Mandela)  (I encourage you to look up the Declaration—which was drafted in 1990–and read through it.  It’s a remarkable document.)

Isn’t that something?  A man who for 70 years had been demoralized by a rule of law that denied him human dignity…a man who had endured physical and psychological abuse at the hands of white prison guards….a man who just six months later would become president of his country….a man given an overwhelming to-do list for rebuilding that country and myriad options for doing so…After all he’d been through and with so much at stake for his country, given an international stage, what did Nelson Mandela do?  He chose to focus the world’s attention on children….perhaps because he sensed that all children—if they are well cared-for—are potential saviors.

Joseph and Nelson, I think, were good men cut from the same cloth.  Each knew the importance of creating a safe world for children.  Each knew that, sometimes, creating that safe world requires challenging unjust laws and bucking social convention.  And each had the courage and the will to do what it took to create that safer world.

What about you?  What will you do this Christmas season to create a safer world for children?  What will you do to act the children in your life into well-being?  What religious rules or social conventions will you challenge for the sake of children?  I invite you to think about it.  Because, you never know.  The child you help just might be a savior.

 

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2013

 

Matthew 1:18-25

 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

 

 

 

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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