Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under Joseph's Love

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 7, 2014

Scripture reading: Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph loved God and Mary enough to do the wrong thing. This was what God wanted and what Mary needed. This is what true righteousness does, and the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph was righteous.
Pictures at Desert Aire, WA; November 2014
It can be hard to be righteous when you are young and trying to figure out what it really means to be a man, or a woman, or (most of all) a grownup. Joseph (counter to what the old carols say) would have been young. If Joseph’s life followed the normal pattern, he would find a good girl like Mary, and he had done that. Then he would negotiate and make arrangements with her family to get betrothed or engaged to her, and he had done that. Then he would work, and save, and plan, during the year that followed, in order to get ready for their marriage and prepare for their future life together. Joseph was on his way there.
Being normal meant that Joseph’s full plan would be accomplished by the time he was about eighteen, or nineteen, or twenty. So Joseph would be young.
Joseph had received a little bit of early education in the synagogue school so that he could read the scriptures and do some arithmetic. Then he had gone to work, maybe around the age of ten or so, to get training and experience as a carpenter; maybe from his own father, or from an uncle or cousin.
Joseph contributed to his family’s income and his room and board. He took his training seriously. He worked hard and learned all that he could, because he was probably a righteous boy and he wanted to be respected. He wanted to be trusted with responsibility. Then people would want him to work for them, and that felt good. The evidence of this would have pleased the good parents of a good girl like Mary. It would have helped Joseph cinch the deal.
Joseph saved up for the bride price that he would pay for Mary. He saved what he could for his future business, and for the start of what would be their home together.
Joseph was almost there. He was joyful at the thought of Mary. He wasn’t allowed much contact with her, and they would never be allowed to be alone together. That would have been completely wrong. But Joseph would have seen her and watched her.
Mary, he could tell, cared about much that he cared about. He could tell that she thought before she spoke and acted. Mary tried to say and do the right thing, the decent thing, the honorable thing; the graceful and the lovely thing. Yes, Mary was righteous too.
Then Mary left for a long visit to cousins in the south. She was gone for months. When Mary returned, there was a slight swelling of her belly. Could it be fat?
No, it was something else. It was something wrong. It was not the right thing, the decent thing. It was not the honorable thing; the graceful, lovely thing. It was the wrong thing.
How could Mary betray and shame him like that? How could Mary betray and shame her family, and her self?
Now there was a right thing for Joseph to do; or a menu of possible right things.
There was the law of God in the Old Testament. It was for the purpose of guarding the holiness and righteousness of God’s people. The Old Testament law was designed to protect the holiness of the human body, the holiness of sex, the holiness of children, and the holiness of marriage and family. The law was for more than teaching, it was for enforcement. It required the holiness of every foundation of human life, and so sex outside of marriage was punishable by public execution by stoning. (Deuteronomy 22:24ff)
The rabbis worried that when people were truly intent on being holy, they might become recklessly holy. They might break the law in their effort to keep it. So they might make holiness unholy, and inhuman, and ugly. So the rabbis created a comprehensive set of precautions and preconditions around this sort of execution so as to make it difficult and uncommon. But it could still happen. Someone was bound to bring it up.
Because of the rabbis’ complicated reasoning, there was another private way of execution: a sort of black market form of execution. At Joseph’s discretion he or a member of his family could quietly kill Mary for the sake of their own injured honor. If Joseph dawdled, then Mary’s own family might do the deed. These things happened and they still do happen in that part of the world.
There was another way than death. At Joseph’s discretion, there could be a public divorce, or a private divorce. In both cases, there would be shame upon Mary and her family, and Mary would have to go away.
The newer translations often give Joseph’s preferred option as divorce. The original Greek literally says (as the King James Version says it) that he “was minded to put her away privily (or privately).” To put someone away can mean any number of things, whether in ancient Greek or in modern English. It could mean “kill” and there is nothing else, in the literal words as they stand, to give us a final answer as to what Joseph was considering as the right thing to do.
The one thing that Joseph was not allowed to do was to marry Mary, unless he was the true guilty party. Then Joseph would have dishonored both families, and Mary, and himself.
It was an issue as big as the village of Nazareth and as big as both of their extended families; and family was almost everything. Joseph was innocent so, if he cared about doing the right thing for everyone involved, as he was required to do; if he was truly righteous in the sense that he had been taught by everyone during all his young life; then he must not marry Mary. No one would tell him anything different.
But God told Joseph something completely different.
We know so little about Joseph. We don’t know how long Joseph lived after Jesus turned twelve. We don’t know whether Joseph lived to understand his own relationship to the child who was swelling Mary’s belly, except that he understood himself to be part of a deeply scandalous and misunderstood miracle.
Let’s reflect on Joseph, and on the effect his choice had upon the rest of his life. What was it that resulted from Joseph doing what everyone else believed to be wrong? Joseph was called to follow Jesus, which included taking up his own cross.
It was the cross of dishonor and shame. It was the cross of misunderstanding. It was the cross of suffering out of love for the weak and needy. It was the cross of suffering for the sins of others. It was the cross of a love that committed itself to be present in a world of sin and sinners. It was the cross that made Joseph, on a human level, a man who was very much like the man this child Jesus would prove to be, when he grew up. Joseph would prove to be, in his own way like Jesus, and so (in his own way) Joseph was very much the father of Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary.
Mary was as innocent as Joseph, but she would be labeled as a sinner, as worse than most, because she was more caught than most. There was, after all, that baby boy who was the evidence of her sin.
Innocent Joseph took Mary’s label on himself. He identified with sinners and people judged him alongside Mary.
There were people who wouldn’t do business with him. A good carpenter would make a good living. Although Joseph was surely a good carpenter, he chose to be poor. At the very least, Joseph chose to be a laughing stock.
The people who thought of themselves as righteous would call Mary and Joseph sinners. They would judge them. Joseph was righteous but (even before he got fresh orders from God) he was inclined to be quiet about others. The righteous tend to love teachable moments when they can speak up and make a point. Joseph was righteous and he wasn’t going to say anything at all. Joseph was righteous and stood up for the one who would be blamed. Joseph stood up for her and he stood with her, and took the blame with her. That is true righteousness.
Joseph was a secret hero. Mary was in danger. Joseph came to her rescue. The word salvation means, at its heart, rescue from danger, and harm, and crisis. Salvation from sin is the same thing. Joseph was a kind of savior (and a kind savior, at that) for Mary.
It’s why he took her with him to Bethlehem. Joseph could have handled the census business in Bethlehem by himself. Men of the family were the official, legal agents for their families.
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem to keep her safe from the dangers of neighbors and cousins who resented her. There was no telling what form their meanness would take without him beside her. Joseph was Mary’s hero and savior.
There’s a verse in Isaiah where God tells us something about himself. God says, “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a savior; there is none but me.” (Isaiah 45:21)
In Matthew, the angel told Joseph who this boy would be. “You are to give him the name Jesus; because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) This boy, who grew up to die for our sins on the cross, was truly what only God can be. This boy, this man Jesus, is what God says that only he, himself, is: “a righteous God and a savior.”
Joseph had a heart after God’s own heart; a heart after Jesus’ own heart. Joseph knew he was not God, but he did try to be a savior, and that was essential to his righteousness.
Matthew tells us about another prophecy from Isaiah about Mary and Jesus. ‘“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
It is the nature of God, who loves us enough to rescue us from danger, and harm, and crisis, and everything that threatens to separate us from God and from each other – it is the nature of this God to be “God with us”.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that this is his own nature. “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Jesus is God with us.
Joseph had a heart after God’s own heart, and after Jesus’ own heart. He chose to be with Mary always. Holding Jesus, Joseph held in his arms, and he held in his heart, “God with us”. Every day Joseph was a living, breathing example to the growing Jesus, of what it means to be with anyone in need.
Jesus knew that Joseph was the person chosen by God to be with him always, for as long as he could. Jesus grew up every day in the presence of an earthly father whose earthly heart was like his own heart, as he was coming to know himself.
Joseph was just as human as we are. Before the angel came, Matthew tells us that Joseph was “considering” what to do, but that word for thinking is an emotional word. It speaks of the presence of anger in Joseph’s heart. The letter of James says, “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20 KJV) Or: “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (NIV)
Joseph was innocent, but this miraculous child also brought Joseph the burden of bearing the brunt of a sinful world and carrying that burden for those he loved. In order to join Mary and live with her, sharing the dishonor and the hardships that would come from it, Joseph had to change his anger into grace.
Personal anger makes our righteousness into self-righteousness. When the reasons for our anger get personal we run afoul of the old proverb that no one really understands. We talk about “hating sin but loving the sinner”. But we don’t really do it. We make things hard for the sinner just to make sure they appreciate our love. In Jesus we see that whatever we may call the anger of God is revealed as grace, and as being with others, and as standing by them.
This is what God did in Christ on the cross. The language of about anger turned into wounds and blood. Anger became faithfulness and grace, even to death. Jesus made excuses for those who crucified him and mocked him. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Imagine that. God makes excuses for you and me: not to enable us but to make us know ourselves and know him better.
God and his Son have a different righteousness than we do. Isaiah says this about the savior who was coming to Mary and Joseph. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruise reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice….” (Isaiah 42:2-3)
Joseph was a quiet, angry young man, who became quieter, and turned his anger into costly grace. It was costly to him but so needed by Mary, and by the whole world, and by us.
The word righteous sounds strange and ugly to the world because it sees an ugly righteousness in the people who claim to love God. But Joseph was truly righteous with God’s righteousness, and no one gave him any credit for it.
It was a secret, a Christmas secret. It was the cross he carried under his love for God, and for Mary, and for the child.
We can carry that cross in our own way; because Jesus grew up to carry his cross for us. He came to “save his people from their sins.”

That’s us. It’s also the world. The God who is “God with us” calls us to lovingly stand with the world he came to save in order to prove just who God is: the God who we meet in Jesus.

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