Share Joy: Joseph’s Story - Message from December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Message: Share Joy: Joseph’s Story
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Have you heard about the Happiness Project? It started with writer Gretchen Rubin while she was riding the bus in New York City. As she looked out the window, she saw a woman struggling with a stroller, a toddler, a cellphone and an umbrella, trying to navigate the streets and steps of Manhattan with bags, schedules, the responsibility for another’s life and all of the accompanying stuff that comes with that. A young mother herself, Rubin saw her own reflection in this woman.
That’s me! she thought. She realized that though she didn’t know the other woman’s story, she did know her own—she was the mother of two healthy young girls, happily married to the love of her life, and living in a comfortable apartment in one of the greatest cities in the world, a city she loved. In that moment, she realized that by all accounts she should be a very happy person but instead a more apt phrase to describe her general emotional state might have been, “vague discontent” or “midlife malaise.”
It wasn’t that Rubin didn’t realize her blessings. When she would at times wake up in the middle of the night, she would walk from room to room gazing at her husband, daughters, and their home life and recognize how fortunate she was. But she knew she took it for granted. The words of the writer Collette who wrote, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I just wish I’d realized sooner” haunted her.
And so in that moment, gazing out the window of the crosstown bus, she determined to make happiness her project. What are the things and attitudes that lead to happiness? Each month of the next year, she explored something that was known to be connected to happiness—friends, play and recreation, gratitude among them. Rubin then chronicled her quest in the New York Times best seller of the same name, The Happiness Project. It’s an enjoyable read full of practical wisdom.
In the chapter where Rubin explores the messages we tell ourselves that influence our outlook and attitudes, she gleans an important piece of wisdom from her sister. “What’s a message that guides your outlook?” Rubin asks her sister. “People succeed in groups.” her sister responds. Her sister works as a writer in Los Angeles for television and movies, a highly-competitive world known more for its back-biting than for its hand-ups and mutual support, so Rubin was surprised. She asked her sister if others’ success didn’t make her feel even a little bit jealous. “Well, maybe a bit…but it’s great for [them] and their success is also likely to help me be successful.” Rubin concludes, “Of course pure magnanimity would be more admirable, but telling yourself that ‘People succeed in groups’ helps when you might be feeling small minded” and prone to jealousy of others’ good fortune. A generous outlook toward others, she concludes, is a key to happiness.
In our scripture today from Matthew, we encounter Joseph. He has just learned that Mary, his betrothed, is already pregnant. This is a problem. In that society and time, Mary’s pregnancy before marriage was considered a disgrace to both her and Joseph. In spite of whatever love or care for Mary that Joseph possessed, the scripture tells us that “he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” He thought that this “quiet divorce” would not expose her to public disgrace. I’m not sure what Joseph thought would be Mary’s situation once the baby was born. Single mothers at that time were very vulnerable and typically did not fare well. Perhaps a quiet divorce might have spared her some initial negative response, but in the long run, it would do her no favors. So, I have to wonder about the small-mindedness of Joseph’s own response. Joseph, in that moment was deciding it was better for him to go it alone, and for Mary also to go her own way.
But then the angel of the Lord comes to Jospeh in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because, as the scripture says, “What is conceived is of the Holy Spirit…All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”).” In this holy message, Joseph is turned from the small-minded impulse to go his own way, to move forward as a group with Mary and the baby. Another word for “group” is “family.”
I wonder if this shift, this decision to be with Mary and the child, gave Joseph happiness. Rubin suggests that it’s much more the attitude of the heart and the ability to feel joy for another that makes the adage “people succeed in groups” true than any objective analysis of achievement or success. In shifting his perspective from himself to Mary and the child, Joseph opens his heart to a new kind of happiness, maybe even a new kind of joy. Joseph begins to realize that his well-being will be found in the well-being of others.
The third Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of joy, and though joy and happiness are connected, they are not exactly the same thing. Of this, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said in The Book of Joy, “It’s wonderful to discover that what we want is not actually happiness. It is not actually what I would speak of. I would speak of joy. Joy subsumes happiness.” Then he goes on to describe joy as a way of being, a spiritual attitude that is connected to both pain and happiness, confers well-being, and is also communal in its outlook.
In his book on happiness and joy, Buddhist scholar and former scientist Matthew Ricard brings out three exalted states of joy: 1. rejoicing in someone else’s happiness, which Buddhists call mudita, 2. delight or enchantment, which is described as a shining kind of contentment, and 3. spiritual radiance, described as a serene joy born from deep well-being and benevolence. To embrace the first state of joy, mudita, one must move outside of one’s self. In taking his focus off of himself and putting it on Mary and the child, Joseph opened himself to mudita, a rejoicing in someone else’s happiness.
The deeper message of the angel in reminding Joseph of the words of the Hebrew prophet, then helped him to understand that the beneficiaries of the gift of this child were not just Mary and himself and the family group that formed, but all of us! “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). In the very name, Immanuel, God with us, we understand that we were made for us-ness. Much more than succeeding in groups, we are saved in groups. God demonstrates that by coming to us as one of us, our Immanuel.
What is most important for us to hear today is this: that though it may be true that we succeed in groups, God never asks us to be successful. God asks us to be faithful. And in heeding the words of the angel of the Lord which told him not to be afraid but to take Mary home as his wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” in heeding these words, Joseph was faithful. He went against what might have been the conventional wisdom and expectations and followed the voice of God.
The angel of the Lord went on to say to Joseph, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When we talk about Jesus as savior and celebrate his coming, we always need to ask the previous question, which is, “from what are we being saved?” To say simply we are being saved from “sin” is not enough to bring us to hallelujahs. But when we understand that sin is separation, separation from the oneness with each other and with God, and we connect that separation to the suffering we feel when we are isolated and disconnected, then we recognize that indeed we are saved by a God who would come to us as one of us.
To live in the presence of a God who not only wills good for us, but is with us as one of us, this is the Good News that allows us to rejoice. And in that rejoicing, we can feel happy for the good that happens to others. And in that happiness, we can find contentment, well-being as we our gaze turns from inward to outward. The Good News this morning is that not only did God come to us as one of us at Christmas, God continues in our lives through the loving connections God engenders between each one of us. May that feeling of connection, of contentment, of peace, of rejoicing and even of happiness compel us to reflect that with-ness to all who long to be saved from separation, from suffering, from isolation. In that constant reaching out, we are met. In that joining and rejoicing with others, we are found. In receiving the gift of God-with-us, we are saved. The enduring result, my dear friends, is joy. May it be so. Amen.
 The Happiness Project, p.242-3.
 The Book of Joy, p.32