St. Philip Lutheran Church
18 December 2022 + Advent 4a
Rev. Josh Evans
The new chapel was magnificent and nearly perfect in every way … except for one tiny problem: There was no way to access the choir loft.
In 1850, when the Catholic bishop of the territory of New Mexico issued a plea for a new school for girls to be built, the Sisters of Loretto responded to the call. By 1853, their school opened, and twenty years later, they began construction of the chapel.
Near the chapel’s completion, the architect died before access to the choir loft could be built, and the relatively small space of the chapel ruled out a traditional staircase because it would take up too much room.
So, the sisters did what any good sisters would do: They prayed. For nine days to be specific. On the ninth day of their prayer, a carpenter appeared, equipped with only a hammer and a carpenter’s square in his possession.
Before long, as the legend goes, the staircase was built, and the mysterious carpenter vanished as quickly as he had appeared, all without receiving any thanks or payment for his labor. In an attempt to track down the carpenter’s name, the sisters sought out local lumber stores to find any recent orders or accounts matching the supplies used for the staircase, but they found no trace of any such thing. Even more curious still, they discovered, is that the wood used in construction was also not native to the American Southwest.
You can still visit the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe today and its “miraculous” staircase, complete with two complete 360 degree turns and no center pole for structural support, defying all architectural reason.
And yet, for the sisters who faithfully prayed their novena, the staircase and its carpenter were nothing less than a godsend, believed to be built by either St. Joseph himself or else someone sent by St. Joseph.
It’s fitting that the sisters never knew much about their mystery carpenter, who may or may not have actually been St. Joseph, because we really don’t know much at all about St. Joseph, who stands at the center of our gospel on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent.
In Catholic liturgy, Joseph’s name is mentioned only in passing in eucharistic prayers: “with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God [and] with blessed Joseph, her Spouse.” But, apart from Mary, Joseph hardly gets any of our liturgical spotlight.
Even in our Lutheran tradition, it is icons of Mary that often adorn our sanctuary. It is Mary’s song of praise that we sing at evening prayer. And it is Mary’s feast day that we observe every August 15th.
Joseph, it seems, lives in Mary’s shadow. Do you know Joseph’s feast day? I didn’t, so I looked it up: March 19th. Better start planning soon!
If mentions of Mary are scarce in the gospels, mentions of Joseph are even scarcer still. Mark makes no reference at all to Joseph, and John, for as detailed as John can be, only mentions him in one verse. The bulk of what we read about Joseph comes from Matthew and Luke’s gospels, and only in Matthew is Joseph really a featured player (if even that).
Like another Joseph of many years before, this Joseph is also a bit of a dreamer, Matthew tells us.
In the midst of a personal crisis, an angel first appears to Joseph in a dream to reassure him. Mary’s pregnancy is a part of God’s plan of salvation, and her child is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies: “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. God is with you.”
Though there would be much to fear, with Herod’s murderous threats soon to follow the child’s birth. But here again, another dream: “Flee to Egypt, Joseph, with your wife and the baby, and stay there until it’s safe to come back.”
And when it was finally safe, Joseph dreams a third time: “You can bring your family back home now.”
Joseph’s dreams all stand at early, pivotal moments in the gospel story and show us a Joseph who actively participates in the reign of God … even if he doesn’t fully understand what is going on or comprehend the magnitude of what is happening.
To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph shows us what it means to be “a co-worker with God.”
Joseph was never the primary character of the story in which he unexpectedly found himself, and his time in the spotlight was incredibly brief … which reminds me of another character we’ve encountered this Advent season, whose spotlight lasted perhaps just a bit longer, but not by much.
Two weeks ago, John the Baptist preached on Jordan’s banks and proclaimed his message of repentance with a fiery boldness.
Last week, he sat in a prison cell, sending a desperate message along to Jesus through his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” You can hear the undertones of confusion, disappointment, even regret in his voice, desperate for some validation that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong.
John never got to see the thing he so longed and hoped for fully come to pass in his lifetime … and there is a sadness in that, to be sure.
And yet, that bitter realization, from the solitude of his prison cell, doesn’t necessarily negate his faith in the promise of God’s Messiah. I suspect that, even from prison, John had the inkling that God was still up to something – something bigger than the narrow experiences of the difficult circumstances of his own life.
After all, you don’t really ask probing questions about something like that unless you have a vested interest in it. It would have been so much easier to just give it all up … but he didn’t.
John knew something bigger was coming: “I baptize you with water for repentance!” he proclaimed. “But the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I.”
John prepared the way for the more powerful one coming after him, and when his own fiery proclamation faded, John – in his own words – decreased so that the more powerful one might increase.
John’s and Joseph’s stories are not so different in that way. Neither was ever the main character in the unfolding drama … but they weren’t exactly dispensable either.
Like John, Joseph knew that he was a part of something bigger, even if he didn’t fully understand it or have all the answers. And neither was Joseph’s faith an unflinching trust. Joseph knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew the implications were risky. In protecting and saving Mary’s life and the life of their child, Joseph knowingly risked his own safety in the process.
Joseph took risks for the sake of the gospel. Joseph took risks for the sake of the unfolding drama of God’s salvation. Joseph took risks for the sake of the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven and God’s reign of justice, mercy, and peace.
Joseph became an indispensable agent of God’s story, as his wife’s song proclaims: “God lifts up the lowly.”
No character is too small or insignificant in God’s story of salvation, for God notices the lowly, lifts up the lowly, and empowers the lowly to do great and meaningful things for the building up of God’s reign here and now.
In John’s story, in Joseph’s story, and indeed in our own stories …
God lifts us up, whoever we are, however insignificant we feel, whether we think we can make a difference or not, and promises all the same:
God is with us.