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The Man at the Back of the Manger

Advent 4, Common Lectionary Year A

Matthew 1:18-25

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

This sermon was accompanied/illustrated by projection on the screen of some dozen artworks, from the 14th to 21st century, each portraying the character of Joseph. Full details can be obtained from Rev. Elisabeth.

Audio File

Look at him. Brown clad.  The stoop shouldered man leading a mother-burdened donkey through dusty night-darkened streets. Knocking impotently on all those doors looking for a bed, for shelter, for warmth and water, for linens, for help. He’s the one who scrabbled in the feed trough for fresh sweet hay to soak up the mess of childbirth, who corralled the calf and her mother at the back of the barn, so Mary could rest her newborn boy in a feed trough.

Look at him. Standing in the shadows at the back of the barn. Starlight and angel glow barely touch him, He’s an artist’s ploy, the rule of three, there simply to balance the tableau with a bit of vertical substance, while all the light is cast upon seated Madonna and mangered child.

Look at him. Old, with permanently stunned expression, looking like he’s not quite woken from that weird dream of a Spirit-conception for his contractually obligated spouse. His greying balding head and lily-covered staff silently signalling to all the world that his only involvement in this incarnation is an after- the- fact assent. No wonder he stands at the back of the barn in the shadows.

Most new Dads have itching, trembling hands and arms, eager yet timid to reach out and cradle their newborn as soon as he or she is all cleaned up and swaddled. Most newborn Dads ache with paternal jealousy for the intimacy of two heartbeats inches apart that a pregnant mother has known for months. But look at him, at best a hand resting on the mother’s shoulder, a chasm separating him from the fruit of her womb.

If I were to set the crèche scene, Joseph wouldn’t be statuesque and vague and brown at the back of the barn, He’d be holding that child in a shaft of starlight, manger left idly by while he stares intently into ink-blue eyes, and counts tiny fingers, and smells the wonder of newborn, downy skin throbbing in his arms. If I were to set this scene, his eyes would be wet, his bearded chin would wobble, as his stoicism and doubt, his pragmatic dependability all melt in a holy encounter with womb-wet flesh.

But then, again, this Gospeller Matthew didn’t put Joseph in a barn, with cows and sheep and shepherds and angels, all pageant friendly… that’s  all Luke.

Matthew’s Joseph stands sentry in the shadows, for entirely more sinister reasons. Matthew’s nativity pageant is more like a film noir, complete with R rating for its violence, emotional, sexual and political intrigue.

Look at him. He stands, not placidly behind the crèche and the mother, but one imagines, he stands, staff ready, close to the door, like a Doberman, ears pricked for the first sign of trouble, for this is a troubled birth that will unleash terror before it will bring peace on earth. This birth that nearly never happened.

This Joseph, this fragile shoot from the stump of Jesse, miraculous survivor of an embattled royal line, is told that the woman he is contracted to marry is carrying a child not conceived by him.

Would you dare look at a man facing that news? Would you not fear to see what anger, betrayal, sadness, incomprehension, the horror that plays across his face, etched in the set of his jaw, the clench of those lips that hold back the rage that threatens to spew forth?

Was it mere ‘righteousness’, Matthew, that restrained this man’s devastation? Is that the best you can come up with? For by rights, his anger and betrayal were not only permissible but expected. Righteous would have allowed her to be publically denounced, Righteous would have let the stones fly, crushing her and her unborn to an early death. Righteous would have slammed the door on any future marriage. So, look at him…. was it love, pity, credulity, resignation? An old man, so legend has it, widowed with children already. That might explain it, but it doesn’t make him righteous.

Look at him, is that dignity, a whisper of wisdom, a sifting through the sand of God’s Torah for some nugget of compassion that plays across his dreamscape in the middle of the night?

A dream that goes something like this: God’s creative Spirit, hovering, brooding, breathing life into the chaos of darkness ….. The aged Abraham and his wife’s miraculous conception…. How many spirit-conceived children had Israel’s God brought into the world? Rebekah’s, Rachel’s, Hannah’s. Each a child for his time, each with a part to play in the Dream of God; his namesake Joseph of multi-coloured, not brown coat, Moses….hidden in bulrushes until his moment to save… Gradually as he dreams, a refrain begins to play, like a song, in his soul, “If then, why not now? If God saved then, why not now? If then Hannah, why not Mary? If Jacob the trickster, why not this Joseph the carpenter?” A soul-song, that could have sounded like this……

(Song written by Pat Mayberry for this service.  Joseph’s Song) Joseph’s Song

1. I am a poor man, a carpenter, still the stars light my way
As I travel this road where the Spirit will lead
I am a changed man, and wakening to a new life within
Where my sorrows and laughter are freed

May these hands build a vision,
may this heart share the dream
May my eyes know the wonder to come,
Jesus my son

2. There was an angel, a messenger, one who guided my dreams
With the promise of hope, of the Holy revealed
This was a promise of a gentling, of a baby, a child
In His loving, each heart would be healed

3. And there was Mary, a maiden, and beloved of God
Now she carries this child of the Spirit, of Love
I know this boy child she’s cradling, will be loved as my own
In His living, God’s grace will be known

©Pat Mayberry, 2013

Look at him. What provokes a man to compassion, to courage, to acceptance of the unacceptable, if not a larger vision, a God-dream? What provokes a Lincoln, a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Tutu, to imagine the impossible? To allow the birth within of a courage strong enough to take on the rumours, the ridicule, the slanders and libels that so often accompany the righteous, the truly righteous act?

Look at him, next time you see him, next time you put his brown-clad figure in the crèche. Look at his calloused hands, hands that indeed held that God-sent child, nuzzled his downy head with bearded chin, steadied his tottering first steps on the pathway to peace.

Look at his posture, protective, alert, wary of the platitudes of the powerful. Look at Joseph when you see him in courageous acts of compassion. Watch for him, banner in hand, protesting the erosion of human dignity, watch for him, working the night shift to feed his family. For Josephs still walk this earth, committed to espousing, housing, and nurturing all new incarnations of God’s Dream. And for that, Thanks, be to God.


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