There Will Be a Sign: More LOVE

Posted By Beckie Sweet on Dec 19, 2021 | 0 comments

December 19, 2021 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet

In the late 19th century, one of the most sought-after portrait painters was a French artist by the name of James Tissot.  He made his reputation painting portraits of society women and the wealthy in and around Paris.  But at one point in his life, while doing research for a painting, Tissot stepped into a church.  While there, he had a profound religious experience.  He left a changed person, and devoted the rest of his life to spiritual and religious themes – including hundreds of paintings depicting scenes from the Bible, most famously the life of Christ.

         His paintings are beautiful and moving because they are so deeply human – none more so than a work that has direct bearing on Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. 

         In this painting, Joseph is shown at his carpenter’s table, with tools scattered around him.  His shop is small and cramped, planks and pieces of wood everywhere, shavings piled up on the floor.  The windows look out onto the bustling streets of Nazareth, where townspeople are going about their business.  But in the middle of all that stands Joseph, bent over his table, his bearded chin in his hand, deep in thought.

         The painting’s title says it all: “The Anxiety of Joseph.”  While we do not know if the artist was endeavoring to portray the heart of Joseph the morning before, or the morning after the angel of God visited Joseph in his sleeping dream, it would appear that Joseph was coming to terms with unanticipated life circumstances.  He is perplexed about how to deal with a turn of events which will cause a loss of reputation for himself, for Mary, and for their families.  The reality check of the situation flies in the face of our idyllic nativity scenes, Christmas cards, and staged Christmas pageants.  We tend to think of Joseph as Matthew describes him: strong, stoic, patient, and righteous.  But our artist understood that the man betrothed to Mary was a man of worries, and apprehension, and even fear.  This morning, I’d like to suggest that Joseph is also a man who speaks to our own time.  He is a man for our age – the Age of Anxiety.

         Joseph must have known economic uncertainty – wondering how he would support and sustain his family, running his own small business in the midst of a tarnished reputation.  He had to pay taxes.  And, shortly after his son was born, Joseph and his family became refugees, immigrants in a foreign land – the land that had held his people as slaves.  Joseph also lived with the threat of terror – a ruthless king bent on murdering children.

         And if that is not enough, imagine the more personal anxiety of becoming the human father of God’s Son.  Imagine the expectations for perfect wisdom in all parenting decisions!

         This was NOT what Joseph bargained for when he became betrothed to Mary.  Everything was suddenly very different.  Like Joseph, many of us have also had to face a confusing turn of circumstances which plunged us into uncertainty, doubt, anxiety, and fear!  How many of us have felt like the man in Tissot’s painting, frozen in place while the world moves on around us, and we stand there and worry and wonder: What do I do?  How will I get through this?

         But into all that, into Joseph’s complicated life, comes a voice in a dream.  “Do not be afraid. …  God is with us.”  In the middle of the “anxiety of Joseph” comes blessed reassurance, and a reminder that God’s will sees beyond our fears and limitations.  As the nightmare of life begins to escalate, we cannot forget the dream, and listen for the angels!  When our world has turned upside down, we cannot forget to trust that God will make it right.  Again and again, the words come to us from the gospels, in times of confusion and doubt, and anxiety.

“Do not be afraid.”

         That is the message to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds, to the apostles – and to us!  And as we are at the end of Advent, which soon will welcome Christmas Eve, that is the great message the gospels offer to us and through us.  The brightness of God’s presence continues to grow, even as we complete the lighting of our Advent Wreath.  The song of the angels becomes ever more clear as that “Song in the Air” reminds us that indeed, “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

“Do not be afraid.  God is with us.”

         If you have any doubt about that, just think of Joseph, the great silent partner of the Holy Family, the man who doesn’t utter a single word in the gospels – but whose ability to trust, and to dream, and to listen, speaks volumes.

         In the end, the words of the angel echo down to us as the great defining message of Advent hope, peace, joy, and love – banishing all fear, easing all anxiety.

“Do not be afraid.  God is with us.”

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *