Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Expectant Believers: A Better Gift List


Scripture Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4; Matthew 1:18-25

There was a woman who finally gave up on her husband as a gift giver. Without fail, if he didn’t give her a household appliance, he would give her a power tool, or at least something that had an engine in it.

I’m not much better than that, as a gift giver. My problem, as a gift giver, is that I am always tempted to give the people I love gifts that I think they really should like, if only they knew better. I am tempted to give them gifts that are really for myself and not for them.

Joseph had a choice to make, as a gift giver. His gift was himself. That was given. The problem was for him to decide what kind of man, what kind of person, he would be for Mary, and for God. Would he really be a gift for Mary and for God, or would he prefer to be just a gift to himself?

Mary was pregnant, and Joseph had nothing to do with it. It must be said that Joseph didn’t really know Mary at all, even though they lived in the same small town. Except for within the home and the extended family, boys and girls/men and women had very little contact with each other. It was not allowed.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. Now, by “man”, Matthew means that Joseph was probably at least sixteen years old. Men usually married between the ages of sixteen and twenty; just as girls like Mary were sometimes betrothed as early as the age of twelve, and usually before they were sixteen. So both Joseph and Mary were young. And here they were, trying to decide what kind of gift they were supposed to be to each other.

The other thing about Joseph being a righteous man (or a righteous boy) is that being righteous meant doing the right thing. It meant, above all, obeying the commandments of God; following God’s rules. But doing right also meant doing what was right in the right way. Righteousness wasn’t defined only by the rules you followed, but by the kind of heart you showed was inside you, as you lived God’s way.

Since Mary was pregnant, and since pregnancy came about in a certain way, and since Joseph had nothing to do with this, the righteous thing, the right thing, for Joseph to do was for him to divorce Mary.

In their culture, engagement or betrothal could only be ended by death or divorce. That was the right thing to do; because such a pregnancy could only reasonably happen because of unfaithfulness, and there was nothing worse than unfaithfulness. And the result could be that Mary would be brought for judgment before the town elders and condemned to death by stoning.

But there was something much more involved in doing what was right. There was a line from the prophet Isaiah, saying that the Messiah, when he arrived, would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. Joseph knew that something in the heart was important if one were to be truly righteous; truly right in the way you lived in this world and related to the people around you. There was gentleness and kindness. And so Joseph thought the right thing to do was to divorce Mary quietly, and perhaps send her off to live with relatives, so that she would not be put in danger for what she must have done.

What kind of decision could Joseph make so that he could do what was right, and be the kind of man, the kind of person, that Mary needed him to be, and that God expected him to be?

But there was something even more serious that this. Mary claimed that this child within her was more miraculous than any other baby in the world. This baby was a miracle of the Holy Spirit. This baby was the work of God. This baby was the very real presence of God in this world of ours.

Even if Joseph believed this: who else would believe it? People would believe the worst and act accordingly.

In the Old Testament, the Lord told the prophet Isaiah this about what kind of Savior his people were to expect: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…” (Isaiah 42:3) This is what the Messiah would be like. This would be the essential nature, the core personality, of the king of the kingdom of God.

And this must have been the kind of Messiah that Joseph really hoped for. This must have been the kind of kingdom of God that Joseph really waited for. Because, this is what Joseph made himself to be for Mary. This was his gift to her and to God.

She was in danger of being stoned to death for something she had not done. If she was not killed, she would live a life of shame. She would never marry, because no good man would marry her. She and her child would always be followed by whispers, and gossip, and accusations, and insults, and mistreatment.

Mary and her child were in danger of being bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. In the village culture of Galilee they would be outsiders and outcasts all their lives.
Through an angel, God told Joseph not to be afraid to join them in their fate. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” (Matthew 1:20)

If Joseph listened to God, he would be joining Mary and the child in their shame. He would be claiming responsibility for this child: claiming this child as his own: and so Joseph would be advertising his personal irresponsibility for the rest of his life. That is what everyone would think, and they would treat him accordingly.

Whether or not Joseph was really afraid to take Mary home as his wife, and to take her shame upon himself, Joseph made the choice as if he were not afraid.
The result is that Joseph became a part of Mary’s world, and a part of the world of her child Jesus. He identified himself with her shame, and bore it himself, as long as he lived.

Don’t you think that this must be the greatest reason for treating Joseph as Jesus’ father? He really lay down his life for Mary and Jesus.

Our reading in Matthew tells us two things about Jesus. One is that Jesus fulfills a prophecy about God working through a child with the name Immanuel (which means God with us). (Matthew 1:23) The other thing is that Jesus’ name had a special meaning for him (even though it was a common name in his time and place). Jesus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves”. Matthew puts it this way, “for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

Joseph served his wife, served others, served his son, and served God by giving himself to them with all his heart. His deepest gift of himself to them was his willingness to simply be there with them, and just to be himself.

This is what God has done for us in Jesus. Whether he is in the manger, or in the carpenter shop, or on the cross, Jesus is “God with us”. He gives himself for us and this is our salvation. He gives us all that he is, just as he is, in himself.

And even though Mary had not sinned as everyone else thought, Joseph identified with her. Joseph acted as her forgiver, even when she had done nothing to forgive. In the manger, and in the carpenter shop, and on the cross; God in Christ identifies with our sins, and bears them for us. This is our salvation.

Christmas is about the gospel; about the God who is always with us and bears our sins in Jesus. Joseph is an invitation for us to bear the role of Jesus in this world.

In Joseph and in Jesus we are called to see the people and the situations that are the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks in this world. In Jesus and in Joseph, we are called to be there, to simply be present, and to do our humble quiet work for them, even when the world misunderstands us. The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Jesus where he feeds us with himself. His giving himself to us enables us to have the grace to give ourselves to others and to the world for his sake, and so that his will may be done.

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