The Rest of the Story

January 6, 2019

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph

(Borrowed heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Faithful”)

Epiphany of the Lord

The Rest of the Story

Luke 2:21-24

         There are all kinds of Christians. There are the Holy Day Christians. Those I see faithfully every Christmas and Easter. There are the fair-weather Christians. If the weather is not too bad, or for that matter not too nice, and if their favorite ball team is not playing within an hour of the time church will be out, there’s a chance they’ll join us for worship.

There are the folks who are faithful in worship but never internalize the good news and it has little impact upon them. And then there are those whose faith runs deep, who daily offer their lives to Christ, who are being shaped by the Spirit; their lives reflect their faith in all that they do. Jesus spoke of all of these categories of believers in his parable of the sower.

So, what about Joseph? At every mention of Joseph in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, we see Joseph’s faithfulness. Matthew, in his Gospel, tells us that Joseph “was a righteous man” and recounts how Joseph demonstrated his compassion and mercy toward Mary. We have heard about his faithfulness over the past few weeks during our Advent messages. But in the weeks after Jesus’ birth, Joseph once again demonstrated his faithfulness. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

In Leviticus 12, we find directions to the Israelites regarding what was to happen after a child was born. On the eighth day after birth, male children were to be circumcised. God commanded Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised as “a symbol of the covenant between us” and a pledge by the parents to raise the child as a “son of the covenant.”

In the Christian tradition, infant baptism has replaced the circumcision covenant. In infant baptism God enters into a covenant with the child, and the parents, on the child’s behalf. Likewise, there is a parallel between the Jewish act of bar mitzvah and the Christian act of confirmation.

Now from our scripture, it sounds as if the circumcision, cleansing, and dedication occurred at the same time. It didn’t. The circumcision was eight days after the birth of the male child and completed by the father and the rabbi. But when a woman gave birth to a boy, she was ceremonially unclean for forty days after his birth. So, Jesus’ dedication in the temple, the blessings given the child by the elder Simeon and Anna, and Mary’s offering for her purification occurred forty days after Jesus’ birth.

So, forty days after Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph offered a pair of turtledoves or pigeons for Jesus’ dedication, in the Temple in Jerusalem, the sacrifice offered by those who were too poor to offer a lamb. Luke mentions these things in his gospel so that we know that Joseph and Mary fulfilled the Law of Moses as all devout Jews would have done. These events show the kind of faith Joseph had, which will be demonstrated again as the story continues. Joseph truly was faithful.

As he continues the story of Jesus in his gospel, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus came to express God’s love and mercy not only for the poor, but also for the rich. Jesus came not just for the uneducated but for the educated. He came not just for the Jews but for the entire world. Jesus was not simply the Jewish messiah but the world’s savior and king. We can see this emphasis as the magi from the east come to pay homage to the infant Christ and bow down before him. This is the day we celebrate on this Sunday, Epiphany, the day the wise men came to see Jesus. Here is how Matthew introduces the story in Chapter 2.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

It is most likely that the magi came from Persia, modern day Iran. They were likely part of the priestly class within the Zoroastrian religion. They were respected court advisors, scholars, sages, devout believers in God, and scientists of a sort. They studied the stars and looked to them for signs of God’s plans and world events. Zoroastrianism originated in Persia in possibly the last seventh or early sixth century before Christ. The prophet Zoroaster was to Zoroastrianism what Moses was to Judaism. Both religions shared a belief in one good and all-powerful God. God intentionally chose to invite a group of foreigners, priests of a different religion, to share in the joy of Jesus’ birth. And God provided what would prove to be much-needed help for the Holy Family.

In response to their sighting of the star and their deduction that a king of the Jews had been born, these wise men traveled twelve hundred miles across the ancient highways from Persia to Judea in order to see the child, bring him gifts, and pay him homage.

Their arrival and announcement of a newborn king unnerved the aging and paranoid King Herod. His legal experts found in the scriptures where the prophet Micah foretold of a messianic ruler that was to come from Bethlehem. So, Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem to search for the child, saying, “When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”

Matthew 2:9-11 says this: When the (magi) heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Now Jesus could have been anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half old by the time the magi arrived in Judea, spoke to King Herod, and made the trip to Bethlehem. Imagine what was going through Joseph’s mind as he watched the wise men, one by one, open their extravagant gifts and bow before his infant son, hailing him as the one “born king of the Jews”?

But when the magi left, they, like Joseph, had a dream in which God spoke to them. In the dream they were warned not to return to their home country through Jerusalem but to return by another route. In Jerusalem, remember, Herod was waiting for news of the child’s birth and hatching a plan to kill him. In earlier years, Herod had already had three of his sons killed for fear they were plotting to take over his throne. This baby was not about to get his throne either. So, the magi heeded the warning and returned to Persia. Once Herod realized the wise men were not going to report back to him, he ordered that every boy child in Bethlehem under two years of age be killed.

Once again in a dream, God warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod would soon be coming to look for Jesus. Joseph gathered his little family, and they made the several-hundred-mile journey to Egypt. Thanks to the gifts from the Magi, Joseph and his family were able to make the trip and survive once they were in Egypt. It is thought that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for one to three and a half years before returning to the Holy Land shortly after Herod’s death.

After Herod’s death, once again in a dream, an angel told Joseph to take his family back to the land of Israel. The angel said, “Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” I’m sure Joseph planned to returned to his ancestral home in Bethlehem in Judea, but was warned once again in a dream not to go there, so Joseph settled in a city called Nazareth in the northern part of the land of Israel.

After this, the gospels tell us nothing else about Jesus’ childhood, with the exception of when Jesus was twelve years old. The story begins, “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.” Once again, we see Joseph and Mary’s faithfulness. They took Jesus to Jerusalem for the feast. What we know from the story is that as the caravan was returning home to Galilee, there was a mix up and Jesus was not among them. Joseph and Mary hurried back to Jerusalem searching for their son and found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers and asking them questions. Joseph’s love for Jesus could be seen in his worry and in his frantic search for the child. This incident at the temple was Joseph’s final appearance in the story of Jesus.

Joseph must have died sometime when Jesus was a young man. The Gospels tell us nothing about this event, but I am sure that Jesus was with Joseph at his death. I’m sure Jesus felt the same pain as we do when a loved one passes away. After all, Joseph raised Jesus as if he were his own son.

There was an apocryphal book written in the second century called The History of Joseph the Carpenter. An apocryphal book is a book that may be true or not, but people in the second century were yearning to know more than what was written in the gospel. Adam Hamilton in his book “Faithful” writes this.

“In the account, as Joseph was dying, Jesus sat at his bedside, holding Joseph’s hand. Mary sat on the other side of the bed, holding his other hand…. Joseph fixed his eyes on Jesus’ face. Though Joseph couldn’t speak, he wept. Then Jesus prayed to God for Joseph, that God would send the great angels Michael and Gabriel to welcome his father to heaven. The two came, just as Jesus had requested, and took the soul of Joseph. Jesus, lying across Joseph’s breast, ‘bewailed his death for a long time.’ The scene may well reflect the kind of sorrow Jesus felt as he bid his father goodbye.”

Folks, Christmas was God’s way of coming to find us and to be found by us. We sometimes run from God. We pretend God can’t see us. We pretend God isn’t there. But all the while, somewhere deep down inside, I think we want to be found, and we want to find God.

At Christmas God came to us in a way that we can understand, with human flesh and bone, so helpless that first Christmas, and so beautiful, that shepherds and magi took delight in seeing him. And God chose faithful Joseph to be Jesus’ earthly father. A father that would love him, look after him, look for him, and whose love would never let him go.

That is the kind of father we all want. And we have that Father in God, who will always look for us, and find us, and whose love will never let us go. Imagine Joseph saying, “Son, that’s why you are here, why God blessed me with you, so that you can show the world this truth, and so that all people might find and be found by God.”

This is the gift of Christmas; being found and finding, being held and holding, being safe in God’s arms and being saved by God’s arms. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus first experienced this gift in the loving arms of Joseph.

Prayer: Lord, at times we feel lost. At times we feel afraid. Come find us. Hold us close. Thank you for coming so that, as you find us, we might find you. Dry our tears. Comfort us. Save us. Thank you for Joseph, whose life and faith are a picture of faithfulness and whose love guarded and shaped you. Jesus, that you might shape us. Thank you, Lord, for Joseph. Amen.

The Journey to Bethlehem

December 30, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph

(Borrowed heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Faithful”)

First Sunday after Christmas

The Journey to Bethlehem

Luke 2:1-5

         It is not uncommon for a pastor to officiate at weddings where the wife is pregnant, or the couple already have children together before getting married. But in biblical times, if a woman was found to be pregnant by her fiancé, which was frowned upon but not entirely uncommon, the marriage ceremony was unlikely to be postponed.

We learn in Matthew that after Mary told Joseph of her pregnancy, he was visited by an angel as he slept, commanding him to wed Mary. Matthew then tells us: “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.” In modern times, there used to be more shame associated with a wedding where the bride was expecting a child. The custom was that the bride’s wedding dress would not be white; wearing a different color was a kind of public sign that the couple had not waited until their wedding night to be intimate.

But many times, meeting with couples who are expediting their wedding, I remind them that Mary and Joseph’s wedding was expedited because she, too, was expecting when she married. Mary and Joseph were married in Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, since scripture tells us that they were there when Emperor Augustus demanded a census be taken. I’m sure Joseph had to accept the snickers and whispers behind his back as family and friends alike assumed he’d taken advantage of Mary prior to the wedding.

After the wedding, the couple seemed to stay in Nazareth rather than returning to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. Maybe Joseph wanted Mary surrounded by friends and family through her pregnancy. After all, it is within Joseph’s character from what we have learned so far, that he would be thinking of Mary’s well-being. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

Luke tells us in scripture, “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.” At regular intervals the Roman government conducted a census in various parts of the empire. In ancient Rome it happened every five years. By the time of Augustus, the census was only once every fourteen years. One individual was appointed to oversee the entire census, and local people were assigned to go to each village and make the counts. The Romans wanted to register each person in the empire and ascertain how much property each possessed, in order to determine the taxes to be collected across the empire.

Adam Hamilton writes in his book on Joseph, titled Faithful, this: “Once the Romans obtained an accurate census of a town or village, they would determine how much tax that village would have to pay. Some people in the town would bid on the opportunity to become the tax collector, whose job was to collect from neighbors the amount required by the Romans plus the tax collector’s share.” Hamilton ends, “Whatever the tax collectors took in beyond the required amount of tax was theirs to keep as salary.” Now you see why the tax collectors in Jesus’ day were so hated.

The penalties for failure to appear for the census were serious. Senators who violated this requirement were removed from the senate. Men of the equestrian class lost their horses. But for the ordinary subjects of Rome such as Joseph, who were not citizens, the penalty was much more severe: imprisonment, confiscation of property, scourging, or slavery. This is why there was urgency for Joseph to return to his hometown. He had no choice but to go back to Bethlehem and comply, even though Mary was pregnant. It was also probably God’s will that Jesus be born in Bethlehem according to the scriptures.

Writing seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Micah foretold that a future king of Israel would come from Bethlehem, where King David had been born, and would reign forever: As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.

         Adam Hamilton writes, “It’s interesting how God works in our lives. If we pay attention we’ll often feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit guiding us, just as I suspect Joseph felt. As we pay attention, listen, and act accordingly, we find ourselves in the midst of something God is doing to accomplish his purposes in our lives. We speak of this as God’s providence.”

He continues, “Joseph and Mary were undoubtedly upset by the census and the need to travel for nine days to Bethlehem just before Mary would give birth. But God took the emperor’s decree for a census, nudged Joseph to take Mary with him to Bethlehem, and caused Jesus’ humble birth to take place in Bethlehem, the very place the magi would go to find him.”

So, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary set out from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is thought that they possibly followed an ancient roadway known as the Way of the Patriarchs. And even though the Jews and the Samaritans did not have a good relationship, this route cut right through the heart of Samaria. It was the shortest route but involved traversing the hills and finally the mountains that divide the Holy Land. It could also be hostile territory.

If Joseph had a donkey for Mary to ride, the trip would have still been exhausting and painful for her. I doubt that she was smiling and happy as many of the famous paintings portray her. This journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem surely was uncomfortable, unpleasant, and frightening. In Mary’s time, women died in childbirth with a frequency that led to an average life expectancy of only thirty-five. The trip Joseph and Mary were making was filled with frightening possibilities.

They set out for Bethlehem reminded once more that they were living under Roman occupation. Mary probably left in tears, saying goodbye to her family and hometown at the moment she needed them the most. This was a journey that neither Mary nor Joseph wanted to take. It was forced upon them.

This situation has often happened to us as well in our lives. At times, all of us find ourselves on journeys we don’t want to take. Sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, the journeys happen because of someone else’s decisions or actions. The journeys may be painful, and we may find ourselves brokenhearted or deeply discouraged along the way. We might even think that God is punishing us or has abandoned us. But God promises to sustain us, even though we may walk through the darkest valleys. God tells us to turn our burdens over to him, and he can make something beautiful of them.

Have you ever been forced on a journey you didn’t want to take? It may have been your parents’ divorce, or your own. Maybe it was an illness or a move or the loss of a job. Maybe it was the death of someone you loved dearly. I’m not suggesting that God caused these things to happen or that they were God’s will. They are simply part of life. But God goes with you on these journeys, and God’s providence has a way of bringing good and beautiful things from the pain, heartache, and disappointments we face in life. That’s what Mary and Joseph discovered.

When you think of your journeys that you were forced to take, think about Jesus. Nearly half of Luke’s Gospel is devoted to Jesus’ journey to the cross. We know it was a journey that he did not want to take. But Jesus on his final journey knew somehow that God would redeem his suffering and use it to transform the world.

Well finally, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. Luke 2:5-7 says this: While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. Notice it says guestroom. That is the accurate translation, not “inn.” Here is what we know about Joseph and the area of Bethlehem in the first century.

Joseph was from Bethlehem, so he would not have to stay in an inn. He could stay with his relatives. Also, Bethlehem was a small village in the first century, and so it’s unlikely there was an inn. Jerusalem was nearby and would have provided public lodging. Also, people did not have barns as we know them. They did, however, frequently build their homes atop naturally occurring caves. When doing so, they often brought their animals into the caves at night or, if not into the caves, into the main common space in the home.

Mary and Joseph were probably put in the cave with the animals, so that Mary would have some privacy in childbirth. You see, the main house was probably filled with Joseph’s siblings and cousins who were using the guestroom. If Mary gave birth in the guestroom of the main house, it would have made the room ritually “unclean” for a period of time, preventing the rest of the family from staying there. The cave would have given the midwife room for the delivery.

When I visited Bethlehem a few years back, we had the opportunity to go down into that cave to the place where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity, the oldest continuously used church building in the world, sits on top of that cave.

Now please notice the humility of this scene. The Savior of the world, the King of kings, the Son of God, was born in a stable where the animals were kept. His crib was a manger, a feeding trough for the animals, where the Bread of Life spent his first night on earth. By the way, Bethlehem means House of Bread. This story is beautiful. When God came to earth, he chose to identify with the lowest and humblest of people. It points to the character of Jesus’ entire life, a life of humility and servanthood.

The theme of humility continues when the angels invited the shepherds to meet the newborn king. And not just any shepherds; God invited the night-shift shepherds, the lowest of the low. Shepherds in that day were on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. They were not often trusted. They were typically uneducated and poor and were held in low esteem by many.

Listen to what the angel announced to the shepherds from Luke 2: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

Folks, this is good news. Wonderful, joyous news. For all people. Our savior, our deliverer, our King and Lord was born as a child, wrapped snugly and sleeping in a feeding trough for animals. From the start, God was teaching us through his Son and through the guests who came to celebrate the birth. What they saw in the child, if they really understood, and what we still find, if we really understand, is the glory of God revealed, and peace to all who see and understand and trust him.

This is Christmas, when God has come near, in humility, as a child born in the humblest of ways, surrounded by Joseph, Mary, and the night-shift shepherds. Joseph must have immediately loved the baby, just like we did when our children were born. I’m sure Joseph experienced those same emotions that night in Bethlehem when the midwife handed him the baby Jesus, wrapped snugly.

Prayer: God, how grateful we are that you never leave us or forsake us. Thank you for walking with us on our journeys in life, particularly the ones we don’t want to take. Thank you for working through them and bringing good from them. Thank you for the Christmas story, for coming to us in the most humble of ways, and for inviting the night-shift shepherds to be the first to marvel at Christ’s birth. Help us to trust in the “wonderful, joyous new for all people.” Christ, we trust in you as our Deliverer, our King, and our Lord. Amen.

Raising a Child Not Your Own

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

Matthew 1:18-21

         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.

PRAYER

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.

 

Whose Child Is This?

December 16, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph

Third Sunday of Advent

Whose Child Is This?

Matthew 1:18-19

In our scripture today, Matthew’s account of Joseph’s story, begins with a scandal. Getting right to the point, Matthew tells us that, while Joseph and Mary were engaged, Mary became pregnant and Joseph was not the father. Mary’s pregnancy must have been upsetting to Joseph. This was an act of infidelity. But we soon get a hint of Joseph’s character when we read his response to this news.

As Christians, we know that Mary was not unfaithful, but Joseph did not know that until God sent a messenger to appear to Joseph in a dream, confirming that the child in Mary’s womb was from the Holy Spirit.

Before we dig deeper into Joseph and Mary’s relationship, we must first consider Matthew’s gospel that precedes this story, a part that is often overlooked. Let’s consider the genealogy of Jesus. However, first, will you pray with me?

PRAYER

If you turn in your Bibles to the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the first sixteen verses give us Jesus’ family tree. We typically skip over these because their importance is not immediately apparent. Somebody begat somebody, who begat somebody. Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy for a reason.

Adam Hamilton writes this in his book, Faithful: “For Matthew, recounting Jesus’ lineage – his ancestors – tells us something about how God works and foreshadows Jesus’ life and ministry. One reason his ancestry is included is to establish that Jesus was in fact a descendant of David and hence eligible to be the Messiah.”

Hamilton continues: “In 2 Samuel 7:16 God had sworn to David, ‘Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever.’ Jews understood this to mean that when God sent the Messiah, the king God would raise up to liberate the Jewish people and to rule over them, this messianic king would be a descendant of David.”

Yet Matthew begins his genealogy of Jesus not with David but with Abraham. Matthew does this because the Jewish people all consider themselves descendants of Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 was this: I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you. For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. And we see the blessing of all the nations in Jesus’ final words, Go and make disciples of all nations.

But Matthew gives us a condensed version of Jesus’ genealogy, leaving out multiple generations. How do we know? Because we can find passages with genealogies of these ancestors of Jesus in the Old Testament. In Matthew’s genealogy he makes a point of adding four names to the family tree of Joseph and Jesus who are women. It was usually not customary to include women in a Jewish genealogy. But Matthew wants to make an important point about how God has worked in the past, and how that foreshadows how God will work in the life of Jesus. Matthew doesn’t list familiar women that we might know, such as Sarah, Rachel and Leah, or Rebecca. Instead, Matthew lists Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. They are included because of their unusual stories.

Hamilton writes, “Tamar, whose story we find in Genesis, was forced to play the part of a prostitute in order to have children after her husband died. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who helped the Israelites as they were beginning to take the Promised Land. Ruth was a Moabite woman, a foreigner who lost her husband but ultimately won the heart of Boaz, an older man who was willing to accept this widowed foreigner as his wife. And Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of King David’s most loyal officers. While her husband, Uriah, was away at war fighting on the king’s behalf, David summoned Bathsheba to the palace, where he initiated what at best was an adulterous relationship with her and at worst may have been rape.” Hamilton ends, “David then proceeded to have Bathsheba’s husband killed.”

The story of Jesus’ birth, like the stories of these four women in his lineage, would be considered by many to have been marks of illegitimacy. Each of these four women knew pain, brokenness, and hardship. In one way or another, each had been scorned as unclean or as a sinner and shamed by people in their communities. But ultimately God used them, blessed them, and blessed their offspring, and they became a part of God’s redemptive work in the world.

I think God was preparing us for the birth of Jesus. At first glance, the birth of Jesus appears to be a child conceived out of wedlock – and even worse, perhaps the result of an adulterous affair. We know, of course, that this is not what happened. But the text makes clear that this troubling scenario is precisely what Joseph thought must have happened when Mary explained that she was pregnant.

Here is what is important about this genealogy. Most of us have been through painful experiences of our own. Some of you, like me, have lost a spouse. Some were raped. Some have known poverty that drove you to do things you never thought you would do. Some were conceived out of wedlock, and some conceived your own children out of wedlock.

Matthew begins his Gospel by drawing attention to the fact that God has used just such people in the past, in all their painful and difficult circumstances, to accomplish his purposes. And this is what God does in our lives. If we look back on our lives, I think we will find that many of the best things about us may well have come from those painful experiences, redeemed by a God, who wants to bring glory to his name.

If we bring together Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth stories, Luke tells us that after Mary learned from the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant, she went to visit her older cousin Elizabeth in Bethlehem, who was pregnant with Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Now Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, so it seems quite possible that, after telling Elizabeth of her pregnancy, the two of them traveled to Bethlehem to explain this to Joseph. Mary, likely accompanied by Elizabeth, told Joseph that a messenger from God had appeared to her announcing she was to have a child. The messenger had told Mary she would become pregnant through the work of the Holy Spirit.

That may have been exactly what Mary said, but I suspect it was not exactly what Joseph heard. He seems simply to have heard that his fiancée was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. Our scripture says that Joseph “was a righteous man,” by which Matthew may have intended us to know that Joseph would not condone adultery. So our scripture says that “Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.” Clearly Joseph did not believe Mary’s story that she had conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit.

In Joseph’s day, Jewish marriages were usually arranged by the parents, sometimes with the help of a matchmaker and often when the bride and groom were still young children. As the girl entered puberty, the parents’ agreement turned into a formal engagement, and the marriage ceremony usually followed between one and two years after that. To cement the formal engagement, the father of the groom paid a certain sum to the father of the bride. It was a large sum comparable to the price of a one-bedroom house. The bride’s price was compensation for the father’s “loss” of his daughter’s work for the family.

At this time in the engagement process, the parties prepared a legal document in which the groom made certain binding promises to care for his bride. He would pledge to provide a house, a living, and his love. He had to make these promises publicly before at least two witnesses. Upon signing this legal document, the bride and groom legally became husband and wife. They could not sleep together until after the actual wedding ceremony; but, if either of them slept with someone else during this period of time, they would be considered adulterers. Maybe now, you can understand the predicament Joseph was in when Mary told him about her pregnancy.

The news that Joseph received from Mary was devastating. The legal agreement had been signed and the dowry paid. Joseph and Mary were not yet living together as husband and wife, but Joseph undoubtedly felt utterly betrayed and humiliated. Once Mary became visibly pregnant, people were going to talk.

So, Joseph faced a dilemma. On the one hand, he could do what was customary in such circumstances and call off the marriage. To do this publicly would be to call Mary out as an adulteress. She would be publicly scorned and humiliated, just like the women in the genealogy were. An even harsher penalty, by the Law of Moses, would be for the city’s elders to bring her to the door of her father’s house and stone her until dead, because she betrayed the man to whom she was engaged, her entire family, and God. The Law says to “Remove such evil from your community!”

But Joseph did not want that to happen, and so, he showed mercy to Mary. He decided to divorce her quietly. As it became evident that Mary was pregnant, people would assume that Joseph was the father and that he had a change of heart after being intimate with her. He, not Mary, would be seen as the dishonorable party in the relationship. He would take all the blame. As our scripture says, “Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.”

Infidelity can bring emotional shock and pain, just like Joseph must have felt when he thought Mary had betrayed him. Later, Jesus would state that infidelity breaks the marriage covenant and is grounds for divorce. One is not required to stay in a marriage where there is infidelity. But Joseph shows us that one might divorce and still be compassionate toward one’s former spouse rather than seeking to humiliate or be vengeful. Showing such compassion requires grace. We certainly see grace when parents make a commitment not to speak poorly about their former spouse to their children or others.

In marriages that can survive infidelity, or those that do not, the people who practice forgiveness and grace are eventually able to move beyond their pain and avoid living a life of bitterness and resentment.

Adam Hamilton writes this, “That was what Joseph practiced even as he must have been dealing with the pain from what he believed was Mary’s betrayal. When I think of three words that describe the humble carpenter in this brief passage of Scripture, they are “merciful,” “gracious,” and “forgiving.” Hamilton continues, “And that leads me to wonder: How many more times, as Jesus was growing up, did he see these same attributes in Joseph? How often did he watch Joseph show mercy to those who wronged him? How often was Joseph gracious to those who hurt him? How often was he the image of forgiveness?”

Folks, is it any surprise that Jesus grew to be a man who showed mercy to sinners, who taught his disciples to forgive, who called them to love their enemies, and who hung on a cross and cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Prayer: Lord, how grateful we are to you for your mercy and grace. You see the ways that we fall short, the times when we have strayed from your path, the moments when we brought pain to other people and to you. Please forgive us. Wash us clean and make us new. And help us to be, like Joseph, people who show mercy to those who have wronged us. Help us to forgive and to release our urge to seek retribution. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

A Carpenter Named Joseph

December 2, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph

First Sunday of Advent

A Carpenter Named Joseph

Matthew 13:54-56

         It seems that whenever we explore the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus during this Advent season, we focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, as found in the Gospel of Luke story. But this Advent season, we will focus on Joseph, his life, and his role in the birth and life of Jesus. And that means our biblical focus will be on Matthew’s account of Christmas, which is told from Joseph’s vantage point.

Besides the Bible scriptures, my other source for this series of sermons is from the book by Rev. Adam Hamilton called, “Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph.” Rev. Hamilton is pastor of the 20,000 member The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, just south of Kansas City.

Rev. Hamilton writes: “No man played a more important role in Jesus’ life than Joseph. Though not Jesus’ biological father, Joseph adopted Jesus as his son. Joseph protected him, provided for him, taught and mentored him.” Unfortunately, there is relatively little in the Gospels about Joseph. So, Hamilton says, “we have to read between the lines to fill in the picture of Joseph’s life, and to some extent we must use our imagination to connect the bits of information we do find in the Gospels.” But there is still enough to give a good accounting of Joseph’s influence over his adopted son.

Joseph’s story speaks to everyone, but it should speak in particularly important ways to fathers, husbands, stepfathers, grandfathers, and men who have the opportunity to mentor others. More about Joseph in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?

PRAYER

We have to look into the lives of Joseph and Mary as to what would be typical of a Jewish family in the time and place that they were raised. If Mary and Joseph’s engagement were a typical engagement, then Mary was around thirteen or fourteen when she got married and Joseph was probably only a little older. In ancient Israel a girl became a woman with her first menstrual cycle and was married shortly after that. Boys were required to have apprenticed under their fathers and be able to support themselves and a family before they married. Joseph was perhaps fifteen or sixteen when as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph “took Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:24).

Therefore, Mary was still a virgin when she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and became pregnant with the child Jesus. Later, Mary and Joseph would have other children of their own as mentioned in the scriptures, James, Joseph, Simon, Judas and two sisters.

According to our scripture today, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and some were offended by his teaching. They asked, “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us? Where did this man get all this?”

Please notice, Mary is named in this passage, as are the brothers. The sisters are not named, but it is mentioned that they were living in Nazareth. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is not named, likely indicating that by the time Jesus was pursuing his ministry, Joseph had died. Nevertheless, Joseph’s occupation was remembered and mentioned: he was the carpenter.

Hamilton writes: “The people expressed surprise at Jesus, and not in a good way. You can almost hear the snide tone when they asked: ‘Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?’ The mention of his father’s profession seems clearly aimed at discrediting Jesus, saying in effect, ‘How can a lowly carpenter’s son have such wisdom and power?’”

In Mark’s Gospel, people described Jesus not as a carpenter’s son but as a carpenter himself. That tells us that Jesus was trained by Joseph to follow in his trade. It seems that Jesus worked as a carpenter first in his father’s shop and then on his own, from the time he was a small boy until his baptism at age thirty.

If Joseph was a carpenter, let’s consider what that tells us about him. The Greek word translated as carpenter is tekton. Most often the word meant someone who worked with wood, although it could mean other things. Because wood was in short supply in Galilee, the area where Jesus grew up and conducted most of his ministry, most houses there were built of stone or mud brick. Though a tekton could be a house builder, there was a different word in Greek specifically for stonemasons. Someone who worked with wood would have made the doors and shutters for a house. But it is likely that much of the work of a tekton involved building furniture, chests, and tables along with farm implements, tools, and yokes for oxen.

So, what does it tell us about God that he chose Joseph to serve as Jesus’ earthly father and raise Jesus as his own son? Why didn’t God choose a priest, an educated scribe or lawyer, a physician or successful businessman, or even an architect? Why did he entrust the job to a humble carpenter? Maybe, it was because God was looking at the heart of his servant Joseph. Just like the prophet Samuel chose David out of all of Jesse’s son’s who were much older, stronger, taller, and handsome, God chose Joseph who was an unlikely hero for the important mission of raising the Messiah.

Folks, only sixteen verses in the Bible mention Joseph by name, but I believe his influence was much stronger and wider than you might guess from those few passages. You see, fathers play an enormous role in shaping our lives. Adam Hamilton says this, “For some of us, that role is powerful, positive, and beautiful; for others, it may have been difficult and painful. However our fathers shaped us, we are their children in ways we may not fully realize.”

Let’s face it, we learn from observing our dads. We learn some great things that we want to do with our lives and families and we learn some things that we swear we will never say or do. Many times, our relationship with our dad has something to do with how we picture God. If we have a healthy, loving relationship with our earthly father, then it’s easier to have a good relationship with God. And if we have a relationship with our dad that is dysfunctional, then it can be harder to trust that God is a good and loving father.

In a recent poll, 26% of millennials, those born between 1982 and 2004, say they have poor or below-average relationships with their fathers. There may be a connection between this statistic and the number of millennials, particularly young men, who are struggling with the idea of faith in God.

Jesus clearly had a great relationship with his heavenly father, and perhaps that points toward the kind of relationship he had with his earthly father, Joseph. When Jesus told his followers to address God as Abba, a word that meant something liked “Dad,” we must wonder if he was also telling us that he saw in Joseph the heart and character of God.

When we look at Jesus, we can almost imagine what Joseph was like. It seems that Joseph was intentional about teaching and modeling for Jesus who God is and what God’s will was for his life.

Hamilton write this: “When Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son – likening God to the patient and merciful father who took back his son even after the boy had demanded his inheritance in advance and then squandered everything on wild living – had Jesus seen this kind of love and forgiveness by Joseph in response to one or more of his brothers?”

“When Jesus spoke about the importance of telling the truth, might he have been describing what he had learned by watching Joseph?”

“When Jesus taught his disciples that true greatness is found in humble service, might he have been describing what he had seen in his carpenter father every single day?”

“When Jesus said we’re not to look at a woman with lust in our hearts, was he repeating what he had learned from Joseph as a teen? Doesn’t that sound like something a dad might tell his son when the son is thirteen or fourteen?”

And Hamilton ends, “When Jesus said we should do to others what we want them to do to us, is it possible he had grown up seeing this value embodied by his earthly dad, both in Joseph’s business and in his personal life?”

When we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, just think how much Jesus’ life was shaped by his human adoptive father. It seems that Joseph intentionally taught and modeled love, faith, and fatherhood, and that what Jesus learned from him shaped his life and ministry.

And so today, I have to ask the following questions. How are you shaping the children entrusted to your care, whether they are your children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews? What are you teaching about life to the children who look up to you? What image of God are you painting for them? When you die, what will your children and grandchildren, or other children, say they learned from you? What lessons will they continue to carry with them?

Now, none of us has been asked to raise a Messiah. But every mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, grandma and grandpa, aunt and uncle has been asked to raise children of God, to show them a picture of God’s love and mercy, and to teach them intentionally what it means to be God’s children. And when we do that, we follow the example of a righteous man, Joseph of Nazareth.

 

Prayer: God, how grateful we are to you for Joseph. Thank you for the model he presents to us, a model of how we’re meant to pass on our faith to our children. Help us to be models of your love. Amen.