Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unpaking the nativity (An Advent series) part 1: Joseph a man of integrity and compassion (Matthew 2:18-25)

When I was growing up I knew Christmas was coming when my mum would go to the hall cupboard and search round amongst the impossibly large number of boxes that lived on the top shelf. She’d eventually find what she was looking for and bring down a blue box with a clear plastic window in the front and open it up. She’d take out what was housed inside, unpack it from all the tissue paper and place it on the mantelpiece in the lounge. It was a nativity scene and it would sit there, in pride of place, from sometime around the beginning of December till we came back from our family holiday after Christmas it was designed to be a focus for us of what Christmas was all about.

As I reflect back on it I think it’s rather strange that coming from our protestant tradition, which had rejected icons and religious statues that we were happy to have this stable and figurines to remind us of Christ’s birth. But when you think about it they were appropriate as a reminder of the fact that the infinite, eternal, God who is spirit, revealed himself to us by stepping into the physical realm of human beings.

I have to admit that the nativity scene has lost some of its power in the midst of the electronic mass media we live in today. We are used to airbrushed scenes on the cover of Christmas cards. It’s almost become the ultimate hallmark moment. Advent is the season in the Church calendar when we prepare ourselves for Christmas, we prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ, leading up to Christmas this year I want to invite you to join in our family tradition and unpack the nativity scene. Not physically rather unpack has come to be a term used in academic circles these days to mean explore and understand. Let’s Unpack the nativity by looking again at each of the figures we are used to seeing there and exploring what they have to share with us of the good news of Jesus Christ.

I want to start this morning with Joseph, he’s almost the forgotten man in the nativity. Quite rightly we get most of our understanding of Christmas from Luke’s gospel, which looks to Mary as its source. It is Mary’s story and Luke tells us that Mary is to be seen as the most blessed women. Matthew’s Gospel emphasises Joseph’s side of the story but what we tend to emphasis is the star and the magi coming from the east. Perhaps the other reason is that we enjoy the celebration and while Luke tells us that Mary stored these things up in her heart as American pastor Chris Benjamin says For Joseph it was a matter of things he struggled with in his soul.

Joseph is a man of real integrity and compassion and a man of faith who trusts God. The gospel tells us that Joseph was betrothed to be married to Mary when she was found to be pregnant. In first century Jewish culture a couple who were betrothed to each other engaged were deemed to be married but did not yet live together as man and wife. For Mary to become pregnant was a real scandal, if Joseph was the father it put them both in a position of shame within the community and if he wasn’t the father, as he knew that he wasn’t, it meant that Mary was in danger of the worst penalty of the law. AS it says in Deuterononomy 22:23-24 the penalty for this sort of infidelity was death by stoning.

Now in our romantic love saturated soap opera world maybe Joseph would have simply said that it didn’t matter and that he loved her anyway and would marry her. But Joseph was a religious man and was aware of the fact that he could not simply go against the Law of Moses. He is in a moral dilemma. After a while he decides that the best thing for him to do is send Mary away to her relatives in the hill country and while she is there he will initiate a quite divorce with some sympathetic officials and he would wear some shame for this but at least he would save Mary and her family form the worst of the shame and possible consequences. As we see later in the gospel Jesus would be drawn into the debate of the age on marriage about how strictly the Law of Moses on divorce was to be adhered to. One school saw Moses divorce clause as only being that a man could divorce his wife only for infidelity and other saw it as meaning he could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way. Jesus response was to affirm the stricter interpretation of the law and say that God had put that clause in the law because of the harness of mans hearts and in Matthew 19 we have the words that are still often used at weddings ‘therefore what God has joined let no one separate’. Joseph under either understanding of the law was in the right to divorce Mary and would be seen as being very compassionate to do it in this quite way. He wants to do the right thing by her and society and by God, but what a dilemma to find oneself in; Stuck between the law and compassion.

But then we see that the angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream, I wonder how many sleepless nights he had wrestling with this one and as he finally falls off to sleep he has a dream. The angel of the lord appears to him and tells him that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that this is God’s plan and that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife and not to have sex with her before the baby is born. In fact the angel tells him to call the child Yeshua which we now by the Greek equivalent, Jesus because he will save his people. This is grace and good news breathed into the situation for Joseph. It gives him not an easy road to walk but one where he can by faith trusts God and marries Mary. The gospel message here is that God is with us and in the midst of Josephs wrestling and struggling God draws near and provides a gracious way forwards.

It would still have been a hard wedding day, she would have come back from staying with her Aunt Elizabeth and the evidence would be obvious and the people in the town would talk and whisper and make assumptions and even snide remarks. But Joseph is a man of integrity a man of faith whose trust in God is lived out in the way he acts and as we see from the gospel story he love Mary, he takes on the responsibility for Mary and the child. He accepts this knowing that it is God’s plan. He acts as a father for the boy. He brings him to the temple in accordance to the law and names him Jesus. He leaves all that he has and in response to another dream takes Mary and the child to Egypt as refugees from Herod’s tyrannical death squads. We know that he provided for Jesus and his family until his death. That he brought them up in the Jewish faith, every year they would come to Jerusalem for the Passover. On his twelfth birthday in Jesus speaking to his parents we can see that Jesus was aware of who his real father was. He is a man of integrity compassion and faith a good man for God to leave his only son to raise and nurture.

I want to suggest two things that this means for us today.

Firstly we need Joseph’s example today. In film and media we are presented these days with images of weak men. Maybe not weak in the arm and leg but weak when it comes to moral fortitude, they are easily led around by another part of their anatomy rather than their brain. They give in quickly to opportunity and temptation. It could be argued that this reinforces or reflects real life that we are living in a fatherless generation: Men find it easy to walk away from their responsibilities for the pursuit of personal fulfilment. AS a character in the film ‘Boyz’n’da hood’ says any swing dick can make a baby but it takes a real man to be a father. Even business and politics are short on men of strong moral fibre as Leonard sweet said of the 1990's‘ The decade that brought us the greatest burst of literature on leadership also brought us corporate scandals with Enron and and Adelphia and Tyco and Global Crossing and Arthur Anderson, and they have brought us President Bill “it-depends –on-what-the meaning of is ‘is’ Clinton.” Then Eight out of ten people in a recent poll expected that top executives would take improper actions to help themselves at the expense of their companies, and as we are living through the fall out of the credit crunch where executives looked after their own obscenely sized bonuses and people have occupied city financial centers and city centers round the world protesting against cooperate greed. You have to say with a down cast heart that the church doesn’t have the best track record recently either. So Joseph is a good role model for us of a man of integrity and faith. He shouldn’t just be seen as the guy at the back of the stable whose major role seems to occur when he’s sleeping. Rather he should be acknowledged and honoured for his righteousness and compassion, his integrity and faith they are characteristics that God chose to play an important part in the formative years of Jesus life. They are characteristics we need to allow to play an important part in our lives and in the formation of our children.

Secondly, Joseph offers hope to all who would find themselves struggling with moral dilemma trying to live with doing the right thing and the pull of compassion and love. He shows us that with the Good news of Jesus Christ that there is the dream of hope, that God is with us in the midst of our wrestling and desire to live for him and able to bring his grace into our lives and situations. It’s interesting to note that this God with us solution wasn’t a everything is now wonderful Hollywood ending , he still had to deal with hardship and shame but in the end it was a way that God was able to bring good not only for this couple, but the whole world. And that is the hope of the gospel “God is with us” and while that is not going to mean its going to be all beer and lamingtons all rides into the sunset and string quartets, it does mean that if we are willing to allow the God who is with us to speak into our situations and then come awake and follow his word that we will see God’s good worked out in it. In being willing to dream of a God with us possibility we too can see Christ being born or at least brought into our circumstances and world.

As we unpack the nativity we can see that Joseph is not just the quite extra in the background that he is an important part of the story he is an essential part of God’s plan. He is an example for us of a man of integrity and faith fit to nurture Jesus. He also experiences the hope that this child, this Immanuel, this God with us can bring to our lives as we wrestle to serve God and do what is right, he shows us that in our lives today we too can know hope and dream of new possibilities because of the child who is born in the stable. In your life today in all you face dilemmas and challenges to your integrity hear again the good news of hope and God with us.

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