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Joseph’s Journey

Matthew 1:18-19

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

On the third row, Mike looked from one hand to the other.  In his right hand was a ballot.  In his left was the resume for the prospective new pastor.  It was pristine.  His experience was impressive.  His education flawless.  But the part that Mike just couldn’t get past was at the bottom of the biographical page.  It was like it was circled in a red flashing neon: “Divorced.”  For him, it was a game-changer.  To even consider a divorced candidate for senior pastor had been enough to send away some of the members of the congregation in disgust.  Others kept their membership, but only for this day, to vote no.  Many others were supportive.  But were there enough?  Mike looked at the folded paper in his right hand.  It was clearly marked, “no.” But now he hesitated. Why? The Bible was very clear.  Jesus’ teachings gave no room for interpretation.  His hands sweat as the ballot box was passed down the row.  It was now or never.

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Pastor Young looked again at her email.  She had just done a little happy dance in her office to read the name of a childcare worker who had been highly recommended by numerous sources.  But as she picked up the phone, she saw the blinking message.  It ruined her dancing mood.  It was from a woman on the spiritual formation committee who had heard who the childcare worker was, and was disappointed that she would consider hiring a woman who had had three children but had never been married.  “Think of our reputation.  How will new people view us? I know that you don’t have any children, but if you did, I guarantee you wouldn’t want them in her care.  After all, the Bible is very clear on this.”  Now, Pastor Young’s finger hovered over the delete button.  Why fight the battle? Christmas was coming, and they needed to hire someone soon.  It was now or never.

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Glenda was unusually quiet during Sunday school; she was usually winsome and spent half of the class telling about her daughters and granddaughters.  But today, she seemed deep in thought, enough that her teacher pulled her aside to ask if she were okay.  She paused, and then launched into a story.  “I tell you all often about my daughters and their kids, but I have never shared with you that I have a son.  My son is gay and living in a sinful relationship in California. I have not seen or talked to him since the day that he announced his choice to leave our home.  Last night, my daughter posted on Facebook that he is in the hospital after a serious accident, and I guess I have been thinking about him.  I mean, the Bible is very clear, and I have no intention of speaking to him until he changes his heart and his lifestyle.  But part of me wonders if I don’t now, if I will ever get a chance to.  It might be now…or never.”

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Joseph sat in the deepening dark, the candle flame quickly becoming the only light left in the room.  He felt as though his world was going dark, as well.  He had been engaged to Mary long enough to dream about their life together, plan how they would raise their children together, and now it had all fallen apart.  He had received the news that she was pregnant, and he knew it was not his.

Joseph knew what he would be expected to do.  The Bible is very clear. The social and legal expectations for assumed adultery are that he has every right to publicly embarrass her, if not have her killed as an adulteress.  In a culture of shame and honor, he knew how important it was that he did this.  Honor and shame are a zero sum game.  Mary must be lowered in order for Joseph and his family to be raised.  Otherwise, the alternative would take place: he would be embarrassed, shamed, and lowered in the public eye, as well as his whole family.  The law is very clear here: sin is sin and he knew what he had to do in order to avoid it – personally and publicly – at all costs.

And yet, as he prepared for bed that night, he couldn’t imagine doing it.  It would mean suffering and maybe even death for Mary, the woman he had come to love. He had to do something soon, for word would get out.  It was now or never.  Maybe he would just sleep on it for a night, and see if a solution presents itself.

 

Each of these vignettes in different ways deals with the intersection between our expectations and the reality around us.  We want, and hope, and even expect that the people in our lives are going to be and act and behave in a certain way. We have clear expectations in our minds for our spouses, children, family members, co-workers, pastors, or people we associate with.  But then reality strikes and those people aren’t who we want them to be.

Philosopher Caroline Simon suggests that our expectations of others can actually cause significant damage to our relationships.  She writes about the danger of what she calls “fiction-making.” Fiction-making is the process in which we write someone else’s story…for our own sake.  We want our children to be star athletes, so we push them to achieve our fiction.  We want our spouse to be some idealized version of reality, and so we are embarrassed when they are not.  We want our friends to behave in a certain way, or live a certain life; we have written their story for them.  Simon says that “fiction-making sees another as an It.” They are simply objects in our lives that we yearn to form or fix into the image that we desire for them.

We can imagine that this is the difficult decision that Joseph faced.  Midway between his expectations and reality, he makes the decision to dismiss Mary quietly.  Love the sinner, but not ignore the sin.  Doing so would have been more than some expected.  It would have taken him to the very edge of grace.  And yet, God had something even more phenomenal in store…

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This is not a story that only steps to the edge of grace.  It is one that jumps headlong into it!

It is not a story that is satisfied with our old expectations.  It is one that seeks new ones from the living God!

Scholar Eugene Boring says it better than I do: “(Joseph) attends to the voice of God, and he is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of the word from the living and saving God.”  It is a story of expectations disrupted!  A clash between his expectations and the reality around him.  Right there in his dream!

Which is why Matthew begins his Gospel in this way.  Remember, the Church that Matthew writes to had been taught to obey the commandments in a very specific way.  But now they have had this experience with this Jesus guy, who has messed all of that up.  In a few short chapters, they will hear the Sermon on the Mount, which repeats the phrase, “you have heard it said, but I say to you.”  They have learned what Scripture told them, but now Jesus seemed to give them a new command.  Their expectations are running afoul of the reality around them.  Jesus has given them a radical re-definition of righteousness, and one very different than the rigid expectation-driven-fiction-making that they had learned.  In short, Jesus would preach to them that they could in fact follow the intent of the whole law, even if they were not following the letter of one specific part of it.

And so, Matthew begins his Gospel with a story of one whose expectations are destroyed by a reality of the living God.  Joseph would have to release his old expectations – of Mary, of himself, of God – and see a new reality.  The message of the angel from God is not “love the sinner and hate the sin,” but “love the sinner and…let me figure the rest out.”  “Simply and radically love the one who you call sinner, and out of that love, you will find a new story being written.”

 

Thus the angel’s message to Joseph…

Thus Matthew’s message to his Church…

And thus the Gospel’s message to us today!

For how many of us would have to admit that we have failed to follow the intent of God’s law of love, even as we have insisted upon following the letter of it?  Instead of seeing God’s children through God’s eyes, we look at the Mary’s of the world, and plan to “dismiss them quietly.” How many of us engage in fiction-making, trying to re-write for others what their story is supposed to be?  How many of us fail to “love the one we call sinner, and let God figure the rest out?”  We far too often stop at the edge of grace, instead of jumping headlong into it!  But Joseph’s good news is ours, as well!  Because it was only when he heeded the call of God delivered by the angel that he began to participate in God’s reality-changing story!

Again, philosopher Caroline Simon is instructive here.  She gives us a contrasting concept.  In contrast to this idea of fiction-making – trying to write others’ story for them – she introduces to us an alternative that she calls imagination.  Imagination, says Simon, attempts to see the other not as we want them to be, but as God wants them to be.  It is the “capacity to see what has not yet appeared in another person, but should.”  If fiction-making sees the other as an “it,” imagination sees the other as “Thou.”  Imagination is a work of trust – trusting that God is at work in that person’s life, and it is not up to us to fix them!  To form them into the image that we feel they must become.  Imagination is the process of trusting God enough with our children, our spouses, our friends, our co-workers, and our fellow church-members.  It is a hard work, for instead of the simple work of fiction-making, we must listen to the other, listen with them for God’s call on their life.  Along with them discover their destiny.

For when we trust God with the others in our lives, something special happens.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls it “Life Together” – the God-born community that comes when we love each other according to God’s destiny for them, not our expectations.  Bonhoeffer’s vision of community looks a lot like what Simon calls us to: “Human love,” he says, “constructs its own image of the other person, of what he (or she) is and what (he or she) should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon (us all).”  Bonhoeffer calls us to this spiritual love, knowing that when we love others in this way, we and they are blessed, and God is glorified.  And that is why Joseph’s story is at heart a story of love.  He dared to love Mary – to see Mary as the promise that God saw.  He jumped headlong into the way of grace!

I remember when I was a child, my parents would come in at night and tuck me in.  Every night, they would repeat a mantra: “I love you…just for being you.”  Not because you did everything right.  Not because you lived up to my expectations.  Not because you lived the story I wanted you to live.  “…just for being you.”  May that be our mantra with one another, with all those who we meet outside of these walls, and with every child whom God has made.

 

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