December 23, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Raising a Child Not Your Own
Centuries ago there was a follower of Jesus who lived in Asia Minor, what today is Turkey. He had a heart for those in need; he was selfless and kind. According to one legend, as he approached Christmas, he wanted to find a way to celebrate rightly the birth of the One who gave himself for the world. After some reflection, he settled on an idea: Find needy children in his community and do something to help them. In this he would follow the tradition of the magi, who had brought gifts to help Joseph’s poor family that first Christmas.
You may not know the story, but you know the name: Nicholas, who eventually became a bishop in the church and after his death was canonized as St. Nicholas. I think it is important to remember the example of St. Nicholas, the inspiration behind our gift exchanges. Perhaps as we celebrate Christmas, we need to reclaim his emphasis on giving to children who are not our own, children who are most in need.
Joseph chose to care for, protect, and raise a child who was not his own. If you remember from last week, Mary informed Joseph that, though they were engaged, she was pregnant and the child was not his. She told him that an angel had told her she was going to conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, without ever having been with a man. But Joseph, doubting Mary, planned quietly to call off the marriage, so that others would think Joseph was the father and the cause of the divorce instead of Mary. That way, he would be dishonored, and Mary largely would retain her honor.
But that night, after hearing Mary’s news, Joseph experienced what was undoubtedly a fitful sleep. And as he slept, Joseph had a dream. In it, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, announcing that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because the child conceived in her womb was of the Holy Spirit, just as Mary had said.
Please understand, our English word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos,” which simply means “messenger.” God sent a messenger to give Joseph a message. Throughout the Bible, angels are seen in human form. They don’t have wings and usually appear simply as a stranger. In Matthew’s Gospel, the angel speaks to Joseph through his dreams. It happens four times.
In the first dream, the angel of the Lord reveals that Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit and describes the child’s destiny. In the second dream, an angel tells Joseph to take his family to Egypt to save the child. In the third dream, when Joseph and the Holy Family are in Egypt, he receives word from the angel of the Lord that it is safe to take his family to Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, which is now northern Israel. And in the fourth dream Joseph is warned not to return to Judea, which is now southern Israel.
Angels are messengers that often help the people to whom they appear. They simply look like people. The writer of Hebrews wrote to first-century Christians, “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.” I think many of us would have a story or two about unusual events that have happened in our lives, because an ordinary stranger helped us or prompted us to change direction or thinking, or we were saved from catastrophe by a divine intervention. These might be the angels in our lives. And I bet, you have probably been an angel to someone else. Let’s pray.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew often draws parallels in his stories with stories in the Old Testament. He wants us to see that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, heard from God in dreams, just as Joseph, the Old Testament patriarch, heard from God in dreams. To make the parallel even stronger, just as the father of Joseph the patriarch was named Jacob, so Matthew notes that the father of Joseph the carpenter was named Jacob. And so, we read that the angel told Joseph this:
Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
Isn’t it interesting, that after calling Joseph by name, the first words the angel speaks to Joseph are “Don’t be afraid.” How often do we say to our spouses, “Now, don’t be mad, but…” It’s a cue, isn’t it, that the next thing out of our mouths is going to give our spouse a good reason to be mad. So you can probably imagine Joseph’s apprehension when the angel began with “Don’t be afraid.” When God calls you to do something and the opening words are “Don’t be afraid,” you likely should be afraid! Whatever follows is sure to be outside your comfort zone. It may be filled with challenge and risk. In fact, sometimes God will call us to do the thing we absolutely do not want to do.
Years ago, when the pastor of my church in Ravenna called on me to be a worship leader, I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! I’m not getting up in front of all those people.” Rev. Tom was the angel in my life that called me to move out of my comfort zone and challenged me to take a risk.
So why did the angel tell Joseph not to be afraid? It wasn’t that Joseph might fear the angel itself. The message really was this: “Don’t be afraid of this mission to take Mary as your wife and to raise this child as your own.” The challenge of doing so must have made this humble carpenter anxious or fearful. He was being given a mission to wed Mary and to trust that the child was of God and not of another man. But more than that, Joseph was being presented with a mission of raising this child who “will save his people from their sins.” Don’t be afraid, Joseph, God’s saving plans for the world are being entrusted to your care!
Adam Hamilton writes this, “‘Don’t be afraid’ is one of the most often recorded statements by God in the Bible. That God so frequently has to tell us not to be afraid is, once again, a reminder that God’s calling is not for the faint of heart.” What God asked of Joseph was no ordinary or small thing: he was to raise, protect, and nurture God’s son, so that the Messiah could grow up and save his people. This was no small mission.
Have you ever felt God calling you to do something that scared you just a little bit? If not, perhaps you haven’t been paying attention. If you have heard God’s call and responded with a leap of faith that took you beyond your comfort zone, then you’ve probably discovered something important: Trusting God despite our fears, saying yes to God’s call even when we feel like saying no, ultimately brings us joy. It’s the kind of joy we celebrate during Advent.
“Every great thing you’ll ever be called by God to do will require an element of risk,” says Hamilton. “It will require you to take a leap of faith. It will require you to do something that involves uncertainty, and all you’ll have to lean on is the faith that God has called you. These ventures will require you to become vulnerable and to risk getting it wrong, falling flat on your face, making a fool of yourself or being made the fool by someone else.”
DeAnn McKillips, our Education Director, felt God calling her to do “Night to Shine,” a prom for people in our community with special needs. This great undertaking involves some uncertainty and it is definitely a leap of faith that God will provide all that we need for this special night this coming February. We may do some things wrong, but I guarantee you that God will make sure we do most things right to honor his children. This will be one of the most life-giving, and joy-filled experiences we have because DeAnn is willing to take a risk, step outside of her comfort zone, and said yes to God’s call in spite of her fears. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel of the Lord said to Joseph in that dream.
One of the most challenging and frightening parts of Joseph’s call was the enormous task that God entrusted to Joseph. The child would be very important. He would be the savior of his people, and Joseph would assume responsibility for him. The mission given to Joseph was to raise this boy as though he were Joseph’s own. It was to love him, mentor him, teach him, and guide him. It was to model for this child what it meant to be a man, a man who honored and served God. God’s plan for the redemption of the world depended on one man’s willingness to raise a child who was not his own.
“There are stepparents and adoptive parents and foster parents who understand this role as a mission,” writes Hamilton. “They know from the beginning that it will be hard work. They take on a call that can be frightening. And to them, too, God says, “Don’t be afraid.”
Many of you are stepmoms or stepdads. Some of you are adoptive mothers or adoptive fathers, like me. Some have served as foster parents. Yours is a challenging but high calling. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes you give of yourself, but the love is not reciprocated.
Perhaps nowhere is the selfless, sacrificial love of God more clearly displayed than when someone takes on the task of raising and loving a child who is not biologically theirs. They didn’t have to take the job, they had a choice, but they chose to set aside their fears and accept the calling to be a stepparent, foster parent, or adoptive parent.
In his epistle, James writes these well-known words: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” In the first century, widows, divorced women, and single mothers, along with their children and the children who had no parents, were the most vulnerable members of society. Again and again, the Scriptures call us to care for widows and orphans. Jesus wasn’t an orphan, but he did need an earthly father.
Not all of us are in a position to become foster or adoptive parents. All of us, though, are called to act in the spirit of Joseph and help care for and build up children who are not our own. Just think about it. Some teach Sunday school, passing along spiritual values to the children of others. Some coach. Some volunteer as tutors, Big Brothers, or Big Sisters. These are critical roles, because if you don’t already know this, middle school and high school kids don’t always listen to their parent’s views. Sometimes the only person who can break through to them is a Sunday school teacher or youth group mentor, a Scout leader or coach on their sports team. There are millions of children who need caring adults to mentor them, listen to them, and offer them positive role models. By our baptism, all of us are called. Each of us can make a difference.
Christmas takes on real significance when we move beyond buying gifts for people who don’t need anything to becoming modern-day Josephs and looking for ways to care for children who need our support. As Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio reminds us, “Christmas is not your birthday.” Maybe that’s a lesson we need to learn for ourselves and teach our kids.
Hamilton concludes with this: “We spend a lot of time and money buying things for people who don’t really need them. But we celebrate Christmas in the right spirit when we care for children in need, just as St. Nicholas did, just as the wise men did, and just as Joseph did when he looked past his fear, took Mary as his wife, and raised Jesus as his own son.
Prayer: Lord, how grateful we are for Joseph’s story. Please help us hear your call on our lives and become the instruments through which you bless others. Help us not to be afraid when you call us to do something that calls for a risk or challenge. Give us the courage to step outside our comfort zone and take a leap of faith. Finally, Lord, help us to feel responsible for children who are not our own and to experience the joy that comes in helping them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.