Joseph, a radical example for Jesus

January 2, 2011

Emmaus House Episcopal Chapel, Atlanta, GA

2nd Sunday after Christmas – All Years (RCL) – Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

This was the first Christmas in my life that I was not with my family on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. For some of you that may seem unfathomable and for others you still can’t imagine what it would be like to spend Christmas without your family or that special circle of friends.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t celebrate the holiday with my family. We are a pretty practical bunch, so since everyone was traveling to Houston for a wedding before Christmas we had our holiday meal and gift exchange a week ahead of schedule. It was a wonderful time filled with laughter.

I knew that upon my return to Atlanta I would be embarking on a Christmas of another kind… an Emmaus House Christmas! During the week I was introduced to this community’s traditions… elves of all ages wrapping and sorting gifts, decorating a tree with fruit instead of traditional ornaments, and volunteers gathering on a cold Christmas Eve morning to bring joy to many who might otherwise not have much under the Christmas tree. And although being part of this wonderful event was gratifying, it still wasn’t my Christmas tradition.

When I got home on Christmas Eve day the house was as I had left it, void of the Christmas Spirit except for a Christmas cactus sent with love a few days earlier, including a note promising Christmas’s together in the years ahead. I decided that instead of feeling sorry for myself, after all, I have a lot to be thankful for, the best way to use the last day of Advent was to bring some of my Christmas into my home… so I pulled out the few decorations I have:

  • I hung a quilted-pillow wreath made by the Ladies of St. Andrew’s, my home parish in Houston
  • A table-top decoration of children’s ABC blocks and miniature Christmas toys, shaped like a Christmas tree, found a place in my living room. My mom had given one of these to me and each of my siblings, and she has one of her own on the kitchen table at home.
  • On the bookcase I placed a glass teddy-bear hanging-ornament, reminding me of childhood years when stuffed animals monopolized my Christmas list – believe it or not, I still have a bear I got for Christmas when I was four years old
  • And finally, the tacky plastic Snowman face that belonged to my Grandma Caldwell. With a small light behind it, its happy smile lit up her modest living room as we opened gifts on Christmas Eve. Now bent and battered, it doesn’t look like much if you look real close, but with a little light inside, it still shines brightly!

These are my signs of Christmas – my connection to family traditions of my life.

When considering the gospel reading for today, I thought of Joseph and Mary, two young people caring for a young child. The circumstance of Mary’s pregnancy was culturally unacceptable – no one would have understood the divine intention of Jesus’ birth. So instead of having the whole family around them as they raised this child they were very much on their own. Yet like my Christmas knick-knacks, the gospel of Matthew provides reminders of God’s presence with them by linking these early events as fulfillment of the words of the prophets. This was an important aspect of their faith tradition and would serve as a recurring theme in the Gospel of Matthew.

Now for many of us in today’s culture, this part of the lesson creates a stumbling block. We live in a world where FACTS are at the center of our understanding and belief. We have “Fact-checkers” in the media who tell us if what some politician says is fully true, partially true, or a complete fabrication. So, when we read passages like today’s Gospel, and we see references to the words of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, we try to find the actual verse in the books of the Old Testament. We want to prove it!

When we see in our Study-bible footnotes that there isn’t a clear scriptural reference for the assertion that “He will be called a Nazorean” it trips us up. Our need to nail down the facts can cause us to not pay attention to the fuller meaning and purpose of the passage. But let’s not throw the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater!

For one thing, early Christians would have heard the gospel in an entirely different way. They didn’t get weekly snippets or have their own Bible to reference when they got home. Instead they heard the gospel in its entirety when they gathered together. By hearing the story of Jesus this way, the repetitive phrase “this fulfilled what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophets” would have echoed as a refrain. A recurring theme throughout this gospel – fourteen times in all.

Since many of the early Christians came from the Jewish faith, especially many of those that would have heard this particular gospel, the connection to the prophets was a continuation, a fulfillment, of their faith tradition. And for the Gentiles among them, it was teaching them of the full depth of this new faith, this new tradition. It was their introduction to the “fruit-decorated Christmas tree.”

But the real issue for these early followers was that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they had expected. Their hope was for a military leader to deliver them from their oppressors. And it certainly started well, with the wise men from the east taking notice of the newborn child and bringing lavish gifts. But any sign of privilege stopped there.

This child was a threat to Herod, so the ruthless king gave orders to kill all boys up to two years old that lived around the town of Bethlehem. Joseph, being warned in a dream took his family to Egypt. After Herod had died Joseph had another dream learning it was safe to return, but to avoid one of Herod’s more oppressive sons, Joseph settled his family in Galilee, in the humble town of Nazareth. Nobody famous or grand comes from Nazareth. So this was explained in the context of fulfilling earlier prophecies.

It’s also hard to miss that the actions and locations in these passages echo the path of Israel. Listeners would have recalled Moses leading the people out of Egypt. But Jesus is a new Moses. The prophet Isaiah foretold him, calling him Emmanuel – that is: God among us. It was no longer God interacting at a distance, but God present among us. Not with military might, but as a boy who lived an anonymous childhood in an unremarkable village.

Since little is said in the gospels of Jesus as a child, how do we get a glimpse at his up-bringing? I suggest we look to his parents… namely Joseph.

Here is a man who doesn’t take the easy path, but instead responds to God’s will in his life. He takes Mary as his wife, in spite of the disgrace that society would have cast upon her pregnancy. After the birth, he moves his family in the darkness of night, in order to protect Jesus from the wrath of King Herod.

Later still, hearing God’s command, he returns, but not to the town of his family in Judea, but instead, to Galilee, to further ensure Jesus’ safety. This is a man who sought God’s will in his life, who answered God’s call to be the caretaker of Mary and Jesus. A righteous man – doing the best he could with what he had.This was the example Jesus would have seen as he grew up, and like Joseph, Jesus showed his own obedience living into God’s will for his life.

Christmas is a time to celebrate the Kingdom of Heaven being brought into our earthly realm – a world re-created – encompassing both the human and the divine.(1) The Christmas season is a time to consider this incarnation – the embodiment of the divine in Jesus.

It allows us to claim our own piece of his promise in the lives we live from day to day. As children of God, each of us, no matter how humble our beginning can carry that light and let it shine in us. Like the light inside my tacky plastic Snowman decoration. The splits and cracks that can be seen if you look closely are not only erased when the light is inside it, but actually let more light shine through.

The upcoming season of Epiphany is a time of illumination. As we embark on this may we remember the words of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians when he said “I pray that God … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” (Eph. 1:17-18, NRSV).

We are all called to something greater than we alone can accomplish. With Jesus we can overcome smallness and embark on this greatness. Like Joseph, your greatness may be nurturing a child to be the best adult they can be, or it may be something else entirely… but it’s something.

Go find it!

(1) Stanley P. Saunders, Theological Bible Commentary, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David L. Petersen, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 293.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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