The last two weeks I have been telling the story of my granddad, Jim Dalzell, crashing off the shore of an island in the South Pacific, getting captured by the Japanese, and this week, you’re not going to hear what happens next. You have to wait until next week. One thing I should have said last Sunday, however, that would have been very important, is that last Sunday was the 12th anniversary of when Jim Dalzell passed away at the age of 91. Coincidentally, he also happened to die the very day after the great Japanese earthquake in 2011 that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster there. So that gives away something about the ending.
Another story came to mind for today, though, but if you still want to tie Jim Dalzell into it, you can, because it took place at the church at which he was a prominent lay leader, Orange Park United Methodist Church, somewhere around Christmastime of 1988. A Christmas pageant, which had a Mary and a Joseph. Joseph was played by an 11 year old me, who at the time wasn’t quite five feet tall. Mary was played by a fellow sixth grader, the daughter of my vice-principal, and she was around six feet tall, so if you could picture the two walking together on a trek to Bethlehem... No, Mary wouldn’t need a donkey. Maybe Joseph would, just to be the same height.
In the same way, in the Christmas story, Mary is quite a bit taller than Joseph. She really overshadows Joseph in many ways. There’s no doubt that Mary does deserve a lot of focus as someone who is an extremely important role model. Besides, it’s rare that important Bible stories center around a woman, so it’s good that Mary has a prominent place. But what about Joseph? He should be pretty special as well. And today is his feast day in our liturgical calendars. I made a decision this year that if an important feast day fell on a Sunday, and we have a few of those during the year, days that commemorate important figures in the New Testament or important events in the life of Christ, that I will preach about that and combine aspects of the normal Sunday theme and the Feast theme.
Joseph is overshadowed by Mary. Part of it is that he doesn’t have as much space devoted to him as does Mary. Joseph has no speaking part in all of Scripture. We need to remember that Joseph was also chosen by God. Why did God choose Joseph? Of course, we don’t know why God chooses any of us. Just be thankful, right? But it’s interesting to see what Joseph brings to the table that makes him useful to God, and what he doesn’t bring to the table that I guess he doesn’t have to bring in order to be chosen to take care of God’s Son.
Let’s look first at what Joseph does not bring to the table. Joseph is not a wealthy man. He’s a working man, but he’s not a wealthy man. Luke says that Joseph and Mary are so poor that they couldn’t even afford a lamb as a purification offering for Mary after giving birth, and instead caught a couple of pigeons for their offering. I’m sure Joseph was like us. He probably was anxious about being in that financial situation. But God was not anxious about that at all. God would entrust God’s own Son to a man who did not make much money, at least, not during this season of his life. God was not nervous because God was able to provide everything this young family needed. Joseph does not need to be able to promise a means of permanent financial security by means of his own skills to be a good dad to God’s child.
Another thing Joseph does not bring to the table is physical security. He is not able to completely protect his family from danger in his own strength and resources. Every parent wants to be able to promise that. Yet Joseph is not able to promise, “We’re going to be here forever. We’re safe. I can handle every threat.” Joseph may even be a man who can handle himself in a fight, but he can’t take on Herod and his henchmen. They have to get up in the middle of the night and seek refuge across the border. Joseph’s only source of knowing how to protect his family was the occasional dream he would have. Dreams. How do you stake your life on dreams? But God took care of them. God came through every time.
But that leads us to the most interesting thing that Joseph does not bring to the table. Unlike Mary, Joseph is unable to say, “I’m always going to be there for you.” Sometime between when Jesus is 12 and when Jesus is 30, Joseph dies. Now I know what a big deal that is because I’m a father. Joseph was not around for those most important events of Jesus’ life. If he only knew, on his deathbed, what still awaited this young man, there’s no doubt in my mind he would wish he could be there for Jesus. But all that was not in the picture. Joseph was not around. He had no control or say in the events that unfolded. Jesus buries him and has all the more reason to depend on his heavenly Father to supply whatever was good about his relationship to Joseph.
How many of us worry about that kind of stuff? Yet God is not depending on our ability to take care of ourselves for God to use us how God sees fit. That’s not our end of the bargain. We don’t need to be able to promise that. God takes care of it. All God asks for from us is a heart that is yielded and obedient, a character that is consistently responsive to God’s ways and God’s word. That’s all God asks for. “Okay, God. I will do that. I will trust you and only worry about doing what you have told me to do.”
So let’s take a look at what Joseph does bring to the table. He brought response-ability.
First off, Joseph was responsive to God’s law. Joseph lives his life consistent with the scriptures as Joseph had them, which would have been just the Old Testament. This is often overlooked in discussions about Joseph, but a word that Matthew uses to describe Joseph is that he is righteous. He takes seriously his role as a member of God’s covenant people and seeks to live his life by the Torah, the law of God. His life is not characterized by dealings that are incongruous with the Bible. He has strong character. He seems to treat people well. He seeks to do right by his fiancée, and when she becomes pregnant, he knows the baby is not his. But what does a man of the law do when his fiancée appears to be in violation of God’s moral law?
Well, the second thing Joseph brings to the table is that Joseph is responsive to God’s character of love. Joseph has a righteousness that is slanted towards mercy rather than condemnation. Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant and knows he is not the father, and this is his reaction: “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19). There were two options for someone who was obviously cheated on. Either publicly destroy her or break off the relationship as quietly and as compassionately as he could. He just knows she’s pregnant. We don’t know what he’s heard or what he thinks. Maybe she’s really in love with someone else and he needs to let her be with the other guy. Who knows?
But before Joseph hears anything from God, he chooses the mercy button. That’s huge, and says a lot about Joseph. I love how Matthew puts it all together: Joseph was both “faithful to the law” and someone who did not want to expose someone to public disgrace, even if he might be able to use the law to justify an angry decision to expose someone to public disgrace. This is at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel in the same way that John has at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus is “full of [both] grace and truth” (John 1:14). Joseph leans in that direction as well. That fully human boy Jesus had a father figure who was able to model a faithfulness to God that isn’t about self-righteousness and pointing fingers but about extending the God’s mercy into the world. God did not choose a Pharisee to be a foster-father to Jesus. God chose someone who not only took God’s law seriously, but who took God’s love seriously. Joseph lives a life shaped by God’s love, a commitment to the well-being of others, even others who have hurt him. Before Joseph knew the whole story about Mary, when he had only enough information to be angry, he responds out of mercy.
Joseph is responsive, as best as he is able, to God’s law and God’s love. But that was not enough. Joseph would have missed God’s will for his life if he only knew the ways of God. Joseph, like the rest of us, could not live his life to the full if he didn’t actually know God’s personal presence and guidance. Joseph needed to be responsive to God’s leading.
How God spoke to Joseph was through dreams, probably because his name was Joseph. God speaks to everybody differently and with different frequency. Part of discipleship is learning how to recognize God’s voice and leading. And we learn that when we practice responding to it.
God spoke to Joseph when he was sleeping, and it didn’t seem like he had dreams that needed interpretation. God was clear – Go here. Do this. Joseph had four dreams during Jesus’ early life. Dream #1: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Joseph did it. Dream #2: “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother. Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” Joseph got up right then and fled to Egypt. When someone is willing to have their sleep interrupted, that’s a big sign of yieldedness to God. Dream #3: “Get up! Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” Joseph did that, too. Dream #4, we don’t have the exact words, but God seems to agree with Joseph that the safest place in Israel for now is Joseph’s hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee. Joseph did that, too.
Again, God is sovereign and God’s reasons for calling any of us are mysterious, but here is someone who keeps saying, over and over again, “Okay, God.” And he does it. He responds. When you respond to what God is telling you to do, then God entrusts you with even more responsibility. When you blow it off, what does that say about how serious you are about serving God? The good news is that God does give us second chances.
I was pondering this this week when I heard a message on giving and living a life of extravagant generosity at Lenten Lunch at Lehman this Thursday. And the Holy Spirit was stirring my heart, and I was thinking, “Am I going to respond to this stirring, or am I going to simply hear another message that I find interesting?” I honestly wasn’t sure, because I have been known to blow God off now and then. But right away, someone came to me with a need, so I knew I needed to respond. I was entrusted with this opportunity, and I needed to trust God.
Day-to-day faithfulness matters. A disciplined life of walking with God matters. Reading or hearing God’s Word regularly and regularly saying, “Okay, I will submit to that.” Encountering situations where mercy and grace are required and saying, “I’m going to cooperate with God in showing love to that person and not condemnation.” Doing that day in and day out, and then comes a moment when you feel God may actually be telling you something specific, some direction to take. You have been cultivating “response-ability.” You are going to respond accordingly.
You can start cultivating that now. You have everything you need. It’s just a simple, “Yes, God.” A “Yes, God” that responds to the ultimate “Yes” God has given to us in Christ, to wipe away the law as a basis for deciding we are righteous, to treat us according to grace and mercy, and to continue to walk with us. We respond with our own, “Yes, God.”
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do, and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably. I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely his anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him, for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24
And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, who bore Jesus, who is called the Messiah.
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 pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. 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.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
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