Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Who was this man, Joseph?

I have been thinking about the story of Jesus’ birth and one remarkable man who is often overlooked, Jesus’ step-father, Joseph. I came across the following article and would like to share it in it’s entirety with you!

Joseph and Mary would have to be two of the most amazing people - not merely because of what happened to them, but in their responses to those events.

Luke says Mary was astonished, perplexed, afraid, incredulous. She was not, as the Church has depicted her - at least initially - passively accepting her role as bearer of the Son of God.

Someone has suggested we imagine it this way. The angel Gabriel comes to a teenage Palestinian girl and says she is to give birth to the Lord, the King. 'I think you must have the wrong Mary,' she would have replied. 'I mean, you'll need someone influential, important, of royal descent, well off (you can't have the Lord running around in rags, or receiving a sub-standard education)... If the Lord is to be born into poverty, well, you'd need an experienced mother who's got several kids already (who are healthy and well-adjusted)... I don't even know how to hold a baby, and you're telling me that my first baby will be the Lord. What if I drop him? And, by the way, what is Joseph going to say?'

Mary continues: 'Then imagine the scene with Joseph. "Why Mary you're looking big... Why, Mary, you're pregnant! Who with?" And I answer, "With the Lord." What's his line after that?'

Doesn't happen every day, eh?

But my point this morning is not about what happened to these two Paelstinian peasants, but what they did with what happened. Here are two human beings who are invited to collaborate with God in the most dramatic event in history: God being clothed in human flesh.

Now the Gospels and the Church invite us to believe that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus. He was 'born of a virgin'. I for one have never doubted that. If Jesus the Christ was God-with-us it seems to me to be a lesser thing to believe that he entered and left the world in miraculous ways...

What do we know about Joseph? He was a descendant of David, a carpenter, maybe older than Mary (and maybe a widower with children) who was alive when Jesus was twelve, but may have died before Jesus' public ministry (why, perhaps, was he not at the wedding in Cana?). That's it.

Oh no it isn't. When he learned Mary was pregnant - presumably to someone else - Matthew gives us some interesting insights into this amazing man. This must have been a staggering blow to him. His bride-to-be had betrayed him. She'd been 'sleeping around.' Most fiancées would have exploded in vindictive rage. His gut reaction might have been to humiliate Mary as well as drop her. But he didn't.
How should a God-fearer respond to a situation like this? There are six very helpful clues in the Joseph-story.

First, Joseph was a thoughtful person. (Matthew 1:19, 20). So the first thing he did was to do nothing. He 'considered' the situation. For days, weeks, months... who knows? No doubt he prayed fervently as well. The moral for us: when you have to make a difficult decision, don't be in a hurry: more mistakes are made by hasted than by delay.

Second, Joseph was a 'just' man (verse 19). That is, he lived under the law of God. His obvious question here would have been, 'What does the law of God say?' Answer: (see Deuteronomy 24:1): he had to put Mary away. According to Jewish custom, a betrothal could only be terminated by 'divorce'. Indeed, Mary should have been stoned. So the moral for us: Always ask 'What does the Word of God in Scripture say about this?' Nothing is ever right if it contradicts God's will for us.

Third, Joseph was a tender, compassionate man (verse 19). He believed that justice must be tempered by love. He had to obey the law of God, that was clear. But how to do it in Mary's interests? How could he avoid embarrassing her? Joseph did not want to put Mary to shame. We know the sequel: it was revealed to Joseph that Mary was not guilty of adultery at all, but was highly favored by God, impregnated by the Spirit of God. The lesson here for us: Always ask, not only what God's law requires, but how to apply that law in love. Not even Joseph's hurt feelings or his religion's legal requirements could overrule something more important: his compassion for someone who was 'down'. 'In spite of the terrible thing he thought Mary had done to him and to their dreams, Joseph still had deep feelings for Mary the person and could not find it in his heart to add to her burden, or to use the modern phrase, "to stomp on her while she was down'.' (John Claypool, in an unpublished sermon).

Fourth, Joseph was open to mystery, to the incredible. Now he was a male, and would have prided himself on his logical approach to things (and carpenters have to think in those terms too!). Mary impregnated by God? What? Is there a precedent for this? Ridiculous! But no, Joseph's response was not circumscribed by his logic or his experience. What Gabriel said to Mary, Joseph also obviously believed: 'With God all things are possible.' That's what faith is all about - letting God be God, not restricting God within the limits of human experience...

(There are books of 'bloopers' which collect the statements of people who have trouble here. Like what happened with the historic flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903. When word got back to their home town Dayton, North Carolina, about what happened in the Kitty Hawk the editor of the newspaper there refused to believe it and scoffed: 'I do not think human beings will ever be able to fly; and if anyone ever does, it won't be anyone from Dayton!').

Fifth, Joseph was humble enough to be willing to listen to the voice of God, even in a dream. I have found that people in so-called 'Third World' countries are more open to hearing God in dreams and seeing God in visions than better-educated Westerners are. I have asked pastors' conferences in Africa and India: 'How many of you responded to God's call to ministry in a dream?' and the majority have put up their hands. Never happened like that in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., New Zealand or Australia!

But sixth, Joseph was a man of action. With only the word of Mary and words in a dream to guide him, he took Mary to be his wife, and took her away from Nazareth (ostensibly to register in his home-town of Bethlehem, but also, I have no doubt, to get Mary away from the wagging tongues up north!). He later moved the little family to Egypt to get away from the murderous Herod, and then back to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem to avoid the political climate.

John Claypool again: 'Sam Keen defines a wise person as one who knows what time it is in life, and Joseph eminently qualifies for that title... He was profoundly aware of what was going on around him, and just as importantly, had the courage to act on the sense of promise that beckoned him to venture forth. This courage of course was the offspring of trust - in Mary, in the angel, and in his own experience of truth, and as we now know, Joseph was not disappointed. In fact, because he did trust so courageously, look who came into the world - a Son who was taught from the cradle, in Carlyle Marney's term, to "faith it through life", and who was able, again and again, to recognize when his hour had come and to venture forth in courage and purpose.'

Last week in Canberra I heard someone quote the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman's response to the question 'What is the Old Testament all about?' 'It's all about a God who gives us laws but who then gives himself permission not to enforce them sometimes,' (or words to that effect). When Jesus was confronted with a woman who had committed adultery, he first said 'I do not condemn you' before he said 'Go and sin no more.' Pharisees, ancient and modern, who only ask 'What does the law say?' and not 'How can I act like God, with compassion?' could never say that. Jesus had learned some wonderful lessons from this wonderful man Joseph.

So this Christmas, I invite you to use this wonderful man Joseph as your guide when confronted with a difficult moral situation. Let us do what Joseph did, namely: reflect deeply, for as long as it takes; ask 'How does the Word of God instruct me here?'; act always with compassion; be open to mystery; listen for the voice of God, in whatever medium God chooses to speak; and then act.
Rowland Croucher
December 2000.

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