Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Joseph: A Christmas Courage

Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013
Scripture ReadingsIsaiah 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 a motor in it.
November 2013: Around Washtucna & the Palouse
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. That means that I give them books. I am tempted to give gifts to them that are really for me, and not for them.
Joseph had a choice to make, as a gift giver. His gift was himself. That was a “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 be the gift Mary needed and God wanted, or would he insist on being the kind of gift that came easiest to him.
Mary was pregnant, and Joseph had nothing to do with it, and Joseph didn’t know what to think. It must be said that Joseph may have hardly known 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.
There is an ancient tradition that Joseph was an old man. That is why traditional Christian art and the Christmas carols show us an old Joseph. I believe that the traditional thought was that, if Joseph was an old man, and a widower with children from his first wife, he wouldn’t be so tempted to be a complete husband to Mary in every possible way.
The Bible doesn’t tell us his age. The Bible doesn’t tell us that there was anything out of the ordinary about their marriage, after Jesus was born.
In that time and place, men were usually betrothed or engaged between the ages of sixteen and twenty. Girls like Mary were sometimes betrothed as early as the age of twelve; usually before they were sixteen.
A simple reading of Matthew would give us no reason to suppose anything but what was normal for marriage in their time and place. We would simply assume that both Joseph and Mary were young. We have no reason not to assume that they what we would consider kids. 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 (even in the Bible) being righteous has nothing to do with being superior. It has nothing to do with thinking we are any better than anyone else. Being righteous means doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason.
It means, above all, obeying the commandments of God. It means following God’s rules, not by calculation but as a matter of the heart. Being righteous means living in a way that shows that you have the right motives and that your heart is in the right place.
Since Mary was pregnant, and since pregnancy always came about in a certain way, and since Joseph had nothing to do with this, Joseph may have thought that the right thing to do was for him to very, very, very quietly divorce Mary. But that would be a tricky thing to pull of without endangering Mary, because there was one other option.
In their culture, engagement or betrothal could only be ended by divorce or by death. Those were the only two right things to do. Such a pregnancy could only reasonably happen because Joseph lost control or because Mary as unfaithful. Both were bad, but there was nothing worse than unfaithfulness. In the case of Joseph’s innocence, Mary could be brought for judgment before the town elders and condemned to death by stoning.
There was something else involved in doing what was right and Joseph may have thought of it. 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 deep 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. The words of Isaiah tell us that there is a special kind of righteousness that is made of gentleness and kindness. True righteousness needs to be strong, but strength can be gentle and kind.
Gentleness and kindness are rare qualities, even in the best of times. And so Joseph may have thought that the right thing to do was to divorce Mary quietly, kindly and gently: and then, perhaps, send her off to live with distant relatives who would not be so concerned with their own honor (in this situation) that they would be a danger to Mary, for honor’s sake. In this way (perhaps) she would not suffer so much for what she must have done.
Would this choice make Joseph make the kind of person, that Mary needed him to be, and that God expected him to be?
There was something even more serious than 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: 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.
There is a good reason why we can believe that this was the kind of Messiah that Joseph hoped for. There is a reason why this may have been the kind of kingdom of God that Joseph waited for. The reason is that 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 might 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.
God sent a message to Joseph and told him 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. He would be 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.
To be the man that Mary needed and God wanted, Joseph would have to face his fear of dishonor and rejection by his community and his family. Joseph was young, and everything in his world taught him to be 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. This is what true courage does. Courage chooses to take a frightening action as though you are not afraid.
It was through courage that Joseph became a part of Mary’s world, and a part Jesus’ world, and a part of our world. Without courage the good news of Christmas would have been a different story. Joseph identified himself with Mary’s shame, and bore it himself, for as long as he lived.
Joseph gave Jesus one of the greatest gifts that any father can give his child. Think of what the boy Jesus saw in Joseph. Joseph really lay down his life for Mary and Jesus.
Our reading in Matthew tells us two other things about Jesus. One is that Jesus fulfills a prophecy about God working through a child whose name or title is “Immanuel” (which means God with us). (Matthew 1:23) Jesus is “Immanuel”: God simply being with us: God simply being himself.
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 his son, served others, and served God by being with them, with all his heart. His deepest gift to them was his willingness to simply be there with them: just to be himself and not go away. But first Joseph needed to receive God’s gift of courage.
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 the way everyone thought, Joseph quietly identified with her. Joseph did the work that a radical, and outrageous, and almost unforgiveable forgiveness would require, even though he knew that she had done nothing wrong.
In the manger, and in the carpenter shop, and on the cross, God, in Christ, identifies with our sins, and bears them for us. In a later story about the night before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed to his Father that he would not be required to drink from the cup of the cross. He prayed to escape from the horrible thing that the cross was. Then he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:29-44)
Jesus agonized over the cross until he literally sweated blood. God came down to our world, in Jesus, to make the gift of courage a part of our salvation. The righteousness of Joseph, that does the right thing, in the right way, from the heart, requires this courage. This is our salvation.
Christmas is about the gospel. It is the good news about the God who is always with us; who bears our sins in Jesus and does not go away. 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 of 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. This will require a courage that only the presence of God can give.

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 and the courage to give ourselves to others (and to the world for his sake) so that his will may be done.

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