December 20, 2010
(Matthew 1:18-25; Romans 1:1-7)
In our second Scripture reading from Romans, we read an interesting word that Christians have used down through the centuries. This word has often been used to describe Christians who are supposed to have attained a certain level of “super” spirituality. The word used, of course, is saint.
In a variety of Christian traditions this word has been used in different ways. For example, within the Roman Catholic Church achieving sainthood is a long process that often requires many years and usually only occurs after someone has died. In more evangelical or revivalist traditions, the word saint is often used to talk about a gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ. The phrase “all the saints” got together for revival and phrases such as “How are the saints doing today?” is still asked from many pulpits and refers to all believers who are present.
The word saint, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, means “a most holy thing.” And what is holy? Something that God has marked as being special. If we understand a saint as someone special then every child of God is a saint!
With that word saint ringing in our hearts and minds, I want us to think about someone often overlooked during the Christmas season. This is a man who, despite your faith background, may readily be called a saint by most any definition of the word. We have already heard about him in our Gospel reading this morning: His name is Joseph.
Joseph’s story is a difficult one for us to process. It is very hard for us to enter into his world because we find it so different from our own experiences. Is it possible for us, living in our modern world, to imagine a young couple who were legally and socially referred to as husband and wife waiting until their wedding night to have sex? In their world, this was a common practice. This young couple would have been engaged for a year before proceeding with the actual wedding but for all intents and purposes would have been considered married. (Carter 66)
Oh, we often hear the Christian cultural myth that engagements occur where the couple will not have sex until the wedding night but statistics show there is little to no difference between Christians and the cultural practices around them. Because people have been more open about these practices, I have often heard others refer to those “good old days” when people still had morality and would never act in such a manner. Considering some of the conversations I have had with people from a variety of age groups those so-called “good old days” only existed as a nice memory. One individual was very honest with me when he said, “We did the same things you young folks are doing but we just didn’t talk about it as much!”
In fact, this type of relationship is so much a part of our world that pastors are often trained to handle the premarital counseling of couples who have lived together for a number of years. I know of pastors who have given premarital counseling to couples that had been living together longer than the minister had been married!
With all the nuances of our own world running through our minds how do we understand Joseph? How can we even comprehend what was going on in his world? Let’s take a moment and try. When we read the text we find that Joseph was a righteous man who did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. In the English Standard Version of this passage, it reads that Joseph did not want to shame her. It seems that if Mary was unfaithful and others found out about it a small scandal might have erupted.
Maybe things in the ancient world were not too different than they are today. If you read the Bible with fresh eyes or look into many historical stories from that period in time, you will find that culture (much like our own) enjoyed the seedier stories of life. Those little tidbits of infidelity and promiscuity that are the lifeblood of our entertainment industry held a very similar interest in the ancient world; though the penalties for such behavior in that period in history were very different from ours!
In that time in history, sexual infidelity during this period of engagement/betrothal might have led to the death of the woman if carried to the most extreme consequences. In fact, the Mosaic Law dictated that this should happen. However, by Joseph’s day this capital punishment did not occur as often and it would have more likely had just serious social and financial consequences for Mary, her child and her extended family.
If we are honest with ourselves, in today’s world a story like Joseph’s would make for a nice segment on one of the many daytime talk shows.
“So, Joseph, you’re telling me that you two have been engaged for a year and you’ve never had sex? What’s the matter with you?” the host asks. “Is something wrong with you?”
Joseph replies, “But that’s not the point! Mary’s pregnant and that child should have been mine! How can I have any family now? Who is going to carry on my name?” Can you hear the shouts and jeers of the audience at the foolishness and naivety of Joseph? Do you see the crowd rising up to make rude suggestions and laugh at this foolish man? What an idiot this Joseph character must be?
In Joseph’s world things would have been very different from our talk show society. As a man, he held all the power in this “situation” with Mary. He would not have lost much honor in that society but Mary and her family would have been the one’s facing the social stigma attached to it. It was up to Joseph in how this situation would play itself out and it was within his power to take care of it in a way that made him look the best in the eyes of that society.
Interestingly, Stanley Hauerwas, in his book on Matthew, indicates that Joseph’s righteousness tells the reader that he is a person that was able to act with mercy. Hauerwas states, “Joseph refused to act according to the law [and] chose to act in a manner that Jesus himself would later exemplify by his attitude toward known sinners.” (Hauerwas, Matthew 1) It seems that the Gospel of Matthew is telling us in a not so subtle way why God had chosen him to raise Jesus: Joseph was a man who understood mercy and kindness and had learned to make those virtues an essential part of his life. Mercy and kindness were more important than the law!
In thinking about Joseph in this way, I began to apply it to the life of Christians within traditional church settings. So often when we Christians are faced with what appears to be sin, our first response is to react as Joseph did but often for very different reasons. Some of us might want to put away quietly what we believe to be sinful behavior within the church because it might cause a scandal or “hurt the witness of Christ” (whatever that is supposed to mean!)
Sometimes these actions we believe to be sin are hidden from the larger surrounding community because someone is afraid it might hurt a person with powerful connections. If only our motives could be as pure as Joseph’s but, sadly, they’re often very self-serving.
Sadly, this desire to put these so-called sins away quietly often happens because people rush to the judgment that what occurred was actually a sin! You see, Joseph had already made that very same judgment when he decided to show Mary mercy. He believed that Mary had committed an act of unfaithfulness but still desired to act with kindness toward her. Simply put, Joseph thought Mary had sinned! It took an angel of the Lord to reveal to Joseph that what had occurred was, in fact, no sin at all!
When I think of Joseph’s story, it reminds me of a man who had been a bachelor for much of his life. In fact, he and his brother had lived together for many years and most of his friends never thought he would marry. After all, he was a well renowned professor in England and had written quite a few books that had become very popular.
This gentleman had come to his faith later in life and joined the Anglican Church. There were times he disagreed with his church but, for the most part, he was a very devout member and took his faith very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he had been invited to do a number of radio broadcasts on what he believed to be the basics of Christianity.
This man, this professor, this writer and great Christian thinker made what many thought was a mistake: He fell in love with a woman during a time when divorce and remarriage did not happen to “proper people.” This divorced woman’s remarriage would be even more difficult because she happened to have grown up in a Jewish home. To add to that scandal she was also a former communist! (Dorsett 50, 118) Can you imagine that occurring in the 1950s? Even though it was in Britain, that would still be a scandal of epic proportions.
What would people think if this great Christian thinker was to marry a divorcee who (for many) was still a Jewish communist? Would that be a sin? This was the current teaching of his church. In fact, if he married her he would be considered by many to be committing adultery as well. (Dorsett 119) The man’s name, by the way, is CS Lewis. He has authored a great many Christian books of the past century. You may know him from his writings for children called The Chronicles of Narnia. Another movie based upon his books has just been released and is playing in the theaters right now. If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, I highly recommend them to you.
Is it possible for us to see Lewis in a similar place as Joseph? Was there something before both of them that appeared to be sin yet it was not? Lewis married this Jewish divorcee while she was battling cancer and she was able to live for a few years after their marriage. Some believe he may have married her because she was dying of cancer but when it went into remission even their worst detractors could not fail to acknowledge their love for one another. Eventually, she succumbed to her illness and the grief that Lewis felt was almost unbearable. Through that struggle and pain that he faced, he wrote one of the most powerful books about grief and suffering.
As Christians we often find ourselves facing a strange dilemma? Is it really our place to judge something or someone as sinful? Let us return to the story of Joseph and Mary. Is it possible that we might need to sit down, like Joseph, and dream new dreams? As followers of Jesus, are we willing to be like Joseph and hear from an angel of the Lord? Or are we afraid that in hearing from God we will begin to question our definitions of sin and, maybe, possibly, realize that what we once thought was a sin is, in fact, no sin at all?
Maybe, just maybe, as followers of Christ we ought to walk such a path of grace that we become instruments of God’s mercy and kindness. Maybe, just maybe, instead of looking for the sin in a particular person’s life or situation we might open our eyes and see God at work in the midst of it all!
Are we willing to have our thoughts and presuppositions challenged? Are we willing to have our world turned upside down? I hope so because maybe, just maybe, at the end of it all what we thought was sin is actually God being born into the world? In the midst of what appears to be sinful humanity and what appears to be sinful action, God came into the world. This is why we should ask ourselves during this Advent season for God to give us new dreams and, instead of seeing sin, we should look in the strangest, darkest of places to see where God is being born into the world. After all, didn’t God appear in the strangest place of all the first time? A virgin’s womb!
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005. Print.
Dorsett, Lyle W. A Love Observed. Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1998. Print.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006. Kindle Edition.
Lectionary for iPad. Version 1.2.10. 2010. Digital.
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Olive Tree iPad Application. Digital.
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