Sermon: A Strange Way To Save The World: Why Joseph?
Scripture: Matthew 1: 18-25
Date: November 27, 2016
Karen and I have one of these unwritten agreements to disagree. I like these TV shows that begin with a climax and then spend the rest of the show telling of the events that led to that climax. You know the ones. They start with the stars in perilous situations and then they go back in time, sometimes days, sometimes hours and show how the stars got in that situation in the first place. Karen on the other hand does not like shows that go back in time. She prefers the action to occur in real time and the climax to be at the end of the show where it belongs. Well I tell you this because I am beginning a new series of messages that will take us through Christmas Eve today and, with apologies to Karen and others like her, I’m going to begin at the end. I’m going to start out with where we are going, and then spend the next few weeks talking about how we get there.
So here’s where things were in 4 B.C. (Or thereabouts) when Jesus was born. The world was in a terrible state. Most of the “civilized” world was under the thumb of the Roman Emperor who ruled by fear, intimidation, and violence. They called it the Pax Romano, the peace of Rome, but for most of the people there was little peace. Poverty was the rule rather than the exception. Most of the people paid about 80% of what little they made in taxes. In addition to that Roman Soldiers and Officials could demand whatever they wanted from you. If one wanted your cloak, you had to give it to them. They could compel you to carry their pack for them. If they wanted food, you had to give them yours. During this election cycle we heard a lot about the vanishing middle class in America. Well in Israel there was no Middle Class. There were only the haves and have nots. Some of the Jews who collaborated with the Romans, especially the Priests and religious leaders, did pretty well. But most of the people were struggling just to survive. And the reality was that the Romans would just as soon many of them not survive. They were just a problem for the empire. In addition, the Roman oppression had led to the rise of many terrorist groups who lived in the hills around Jerusalem and the wilderness and also victimized the Jewish people in order to fund their revolution. They had made the road from Jericho to Jerusalem the most perilous journey in the land. Individuals making that journey alone were often beaten and robbed and left for dead. The world of 4 B.C. was a hostile, corrupt, oppressive, hopeless place for most. About as far as the world could be from the Kingdom that God intended. But God had not abandoned the world. One of my favorite songs of Christmas is “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to that song the nation was in the midst of the Civil War. It was a terrible war that pitted humanity against inhumanity. Brother against brother. Another time when mankind had drifted about as far away as possible from the Kingdom that God intended. Longfellow wrote: “And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth I said. For hate is strong. And mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” But, then, ring “the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead, nor does He sleep.” And, of course, 4 B.C. and 1863 aren’t the only time when this world that humanity has created has been on the verge of collapse. The history of God’s people is one of humanity on the brink of extinction and God implementing a plan to bring us back. The story of the world’s separation from God’s Kingdom began with sin in the Garden and continued throughout history. In time Noah, and Abraham and Moses and Kings and Judges and Prophets and King David became a part of God’s plan to save the world. And in most cases things did get better because these leaders were able to restore God’s order for a time. But eventually the world drifted back into chaos and darkness. Because these great leaders were able to conquer the forces of the world for a time, but in the end they couldn’t conquer the human heart and they couldn’t defeat human sin. So God’s plan included the promise of a Messiah, a once and for all Savior of the world. And in 4 B.C. The world had gotten so dark that it was time to send the savior. God’s plan to save the world came to it’s climax with the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story is the story of God’s ultimate plan to save the world. But what a strange way to save the world it was. A peasant couple. A baby savior. Not the way the Jews expected the Messiah and most did not understand it then and, even after all these years, or perhaps because so many centuries have passed, 2020 years, we struggle to really comprehend what happened in 4 B.C. We struggle to understand God’s plan and so we have turned God’s plan to save the world into a plan more to save us as individuals. And we have transformed this Messiah, this Jesus, into a personal savior rather than the savior of the world as God had planned. And so, in so many ways, our world today reflects the world of 4 B.C. We face a Christmas with millions living in poverty. Oppressed. Struggling to survive. Hungry. Homeless. Hopeless. Even our nation deeply divided. So much violence. And death. We looked for a Savior in a President only to find deeply flawed human beings. Our world is once again far removed from God’s Kingdom. So what happened to God’s ultimate plan? Did it fail? Was the Messiah, was Jesus, unable to save the world from sin, as Isaiah had foretold? Or is God’s plan, that was put into motion in the Cradle in Bethlehem still unfolding? When we celebrate Christmas we build up to the birth of Jesus as the climax of the story, but perhaps God really intended that to be just the beginning. J.B.Phillips once put it this way: “Christianity begins with a historical fact, indeed its starting point is the most important event in the whole of human history. The Christian religion asserts that nearly 2,000 years ago God…visited this small planet of ours in Person. Naturally, the only way he could do this was by becoming a human being, and this is precisely what Christians believe that he did. That God so asserted Himself into the stream of human history . . this is where Christianity starts, this is the rock on which it is founded.”
So I invite you to join us in the next few weeks as we think about this Strange Way That God Chose To Save The World.
So we begin this morning with Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. Now Joseph is kind of a strange place to start on this strange journey. Because Joseph has such a small role to play in the Christmas story as told in scripture. Only Matthew gives him any real role in Jesus’ birth. And even then we are given the most sketchy details about him. In all of scripture, Joseph never says a word. We don’t know how old he was or much about him really.
In preparing for these messages I came across an early church legend that Joseph was 93 years old when Jesus was born and only married Mary in order to take care of her. And, according to the legend, he died at the age of 109 when Jesus was 16 years old. Much of the artists rendering of the nativity story from the early church, depicts Joseph as being older than Mary, though not that old. And then there are other legends that seem to indicate that Joseph was just a boy about the same age as Mary. So
there is no agreement about who Joseph was. The only common threads was that he was engaged to Mary and the fact that he was from Bethlehem, the city of David. Pretty much all we really know is that God, for whatever reason, included Joseph as a part of this strange plan to save the world.
A group of first graders got together and decided to write their own version of the Nativity. It was more modern than the traditional drama. Oh, there were the familiar members of the cast: Joseph, the shepherds, the three wise men, the star and an angel propped up in the background. But Mary was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly from behind some bales of hay could be heard some soft moans and groans. Evidently Mary was in labor. Soon a doctor arrived dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Joseph, with a look of relief on his face takes the doctor straight to Mary, then starts pacing back and forth. After a few moments the “doctor” emerges with a big smile on his face. “Congratulations, Joseph,” he says, “It’s a God!”
Well according to scripture it didn’t quite happen that way.
You know, as I have reflected on the question that this song places in Joseph’s mind and heart, the question of “Why Me?”, I couldn’t help but think of my own father. But not because of who he was, but rather who I am because of him. I am a reflection of my father. I look like him. I even inherited his bad back and heart. I have the same temperament. The same values. The same perspective on life. So much of who I am, I learned from my father. And I suspect that might be the answer to Joseph’s question, “Why Me?” Because I believe that who Joseph was played a huge role in shaping who the baby Jesus became, just like I am a reflection of who my father was. Adam Hamilton writes: “When Jesus looked for a metaphor to describe his relationship – and ours to God, His primary form of addressing God was Abba – which is the Aramaic word for “Papa”. Much of who Jesus was, came from Joseph.
So first, let me suggest that Jesus learned humility from Joseph. And humility is such a huge part of this strange plan. No Kings. No priests. No trappings of privilege are parts of this story. No Jerusalem but instead the tiny village of Bethlehem. No room in a guest house that was probably reserved for more prominent visitors because of the census. Only a stable. Born in a manger. Lowly shepherd’s as witnesses. But it all began with Joseph. According to the law, when Joseph learned that his fiancé was pregnant, he should have denounced her publicly and insisted that she be punished as an adulterer which meant death by stoning. That was the only way he could save face. Shift the focus to Mary and her transgressions. Failure to do so would make him complicit in Mary’s sin. But Joseph was too humble for that kind of attention for himself or Mary. He cared for Mary more than he cared for himself. Look at what Matthew says: Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. Mary, God does not condemn you and neither do I. There was no judgement in Joseph, only a spirit of humility. Can’t you just imagine what the gossips of Nazareth had to say about that. We don’t know for sure, but what we do know is that Mary felt so condemned that she fled to visit her cousin Elizabeth and then chose to undertake the arduous journey to Bethlehem when she was ready to deliver her child with Joseph, rather than stay behind by herself in Nazareth. She apparently had no family or friends who would care for her when it came time for her child to be born. She sought help and got only judgement. Without Joseph’s humility, this strange plan of God could have never progressed. And we see that Jesus learned his lessons well. I wonder if Jesus had Joseph in mind when a woman who had been caught in adultery was brought to Him by those demanding that she be dealt with according to the law. Remember scripture tells us that Jesus wrote something in the dirt. We don’t know what He wrote. Perhaps it was Joseph’s name. Joseph who in humility refused to call out Mary for her transgressions. Perhaps it was, “God does not condemn you and neither do I.” And it was humility which led Jesus to caution His Disciples to not spread the word about His miracles beyond their inner circle. “Be careful” He told them, “not to do your acts of righteousness to be seen by others so that you get credit in their eyes. Instead do your acts of righteousness in secret – your Father will see and will reward you.” He learned that from how Joseph treated Mary. Jesus was a reflection of the humility of Joseph. No judgement. No condemnation. Only humility.
And then, I think Jesus became the reflection of the unquestioning obedience of Joseph. Matthew tells us that after Joseph determined to deal with Mary in his humble way, an Angel came to him in a dream, just the way that Mary had described to him when she told him that she was pregnant. He hadn’t believed her. But then the Angel came to HIM. Matthew describes it this way, “Don’t abandon Mary because she has told you the truth. Her baby is from God. Name Him Jesus because He is going to save all his people from their sins. He is going to save the world.” Now if I had that kind of a dream I might attribute it to the spicy food I had before going to bed or something else that was on my mind. But Joseph had no doubt that this was a message from God. So compare Joseph’s response to other’s who had received similar words, but who instead of obeying without question, had instead argued with God. Moses said, “I can’t do what you ask. Send another.” Jonah said, I’d rather go nowhere than go to Nineveh”, when God called. I spent five years trying to hide from God. Our first instinct is to argue with God’s call on our lives. But not Joseph. Joseph did not question whether this was the will of God or not. He took God at His word without thought of the sacrifices that he would have to make to be a part of this strange plan. And so as He grew, Jesus came to reflect this unquestioning obedience to God’s will. In the wilderness encounter with Satan following His Baptism. Are you hungry Jesus? What kind of a God would let you starve to death? – “Man does not live by bread alone, but rather by the word of God.” When offered the rule of the world “Do not test God. Simply obey.” In the Garden, on the night He was arrested – “Not my will but yours be done.” Standing beaten and bloody on trial before Pilate “Any power you have over me is given to you by God.” Joseph the law says denounce Mary and turn her over to the law. But obedient to God’s will, Joseph stood with Mary as she carried and gave birth to this baby Savior, and he gave Him the name Jesus. And when that Baby grew, as this strange plan unfolded, Jesus came to reflect the unquestioned obedience to God that He had learned from Joseph.
And then finally, Jesus learned about Grace from Joseph. In 4 B.C., faith was all about the law and not grace, atonement not forgiveness. But God’s strange way to save the world began with the grace that Joseph extended toward Mary. Matthew tells us that Joseph woke up from his dream of the angel a changed man. Instead of “divorcing her quietly” as the atonement for her sin, now he “took Mary home as his wife.” Instead of treating Mary according to the law, Joseph offered her forgiveness and grace and love. To save the world, when the Messiah came, God replaced atonement with grace. Hatred with love. The plan was that the Messiah would become the atonement for all of our sins, so that we could all live in God’s grace and Joseph’s part in that plan was as the example, perhaps the first example, of a grace-filled life. Jesus learned about Grace from Joseph and so grew to be the reflection of that Grace in the world?
So why Joseph? A nobody really. A simple man of trade. But without him there would have been no Bethlehem. And perhaps no Mary. You know we tend to think that Joseph is a part of the plan because of his connection with Mary. But perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps Mary was chosen because of Joseph. Because of the character traits that God saw in Joseph that he wanted Jesus to inherit. Humility. Obedience. And grace.
And so what about us. You see, we tend to celebrate Christmas as something that happened in the distant past. Our celebrations have become traditions that we do every year. But do we ever stop to ask the question that Joseph must have asked? Why me, God? How do I fit into this strange plan that God has to save the world? Not just the world of 4 B.C. but the world of 2016 also. Now more than ever, we need a Savior. We need God. In a sense it’s a strange plan because it depends on us. We enter into the plan at the point of Joseph. Nobodies really. Simple people like Joseph who have inherited through Jesus what his earthly father gave to Him. Lives of humility, obedience and grace. Because Christmas, the birth of Jesus the Messiah, is not just an event in history. It is just the beginning of God’s unfolding plan to save the world. And it depends today on you and I. Each one of us has a part in the plan. In a sense each one of us is called to be a Joseph. What a strange way to save the world.