Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Joseph

I wish I had gotten his name. It may well have been Daniel; let's call him that. He certainly knew how to make an impression. He lived in the same Kenyan village where I met Elijah and Tabitha. Tabitha was young – still in high school – and Elijah was perhaps on the young side of middle aged. Daniel was another story. He lived in a small village house with dirt floors. He had cattle dwelling within his gates, and a well from which his family could draw water with a rope and a bucket. His wife lived with him. So did their daughter. So did a pair of grandchildren. And a great-grandchild. You see, Daniel's wife was 89 years old, when we meet. And Daniel was nearly four years older. He was going on ninety-three years old.

He was a member of the Kikuyu people – probably just about everyone in Mwimutoni was, after all. By the time Daniel was born, the British colonial authorities had claimed ownership of a great deal of Kikuyu land, often reducing his people to an impoverished state. In the early 1950s, a year after the first translation of the Old Testament into their native tongue, the Mau Mau Uprising or 'Emergency' broke out. Not all Kikuyu took part, but plenty did. They thought of themselves as freedom fighters; the British had a different word: “terrorists.” To keep tabs on the Kikuyu, colonial authorities wrenched many of them from their land and forced them to settle in 'Emergency Villages,' formed specially for the occasion. Mwimutoni was one of them. They were difficult times, those. No side of the fight can claim truly clean hands. Many people were sent to prison in the days after the Emergency. Jomo Kenyatta, later to serve as an independent Kenya's first president and whose son Uhuru fills that office even now, was one of them. But Daniel was another.

In spite of his undoubtedly brutal treatment in prison, the man I met had no bitterness. He had a smile on his face. You see, during the many years of his long life, he had learned to love the teachings of a great teacher – Jesus of Nazareth – and this Jesus had set him free from the temptation to nurse bitter resentment. And so the man I met radiated real strength of character – or so it seemed to me, though I don't know his heart. And he mirrored it with strength of body. I shook his hand, and found his grip a strong one. His muscles were more vigorous than most young men you'd meet here in Pennsylvania. I learned that, even though he was in his nineties, he would sometimes take his bicycle and ride it alone all the way to Nairobi to buy food and supplies for his family, and then ride back to his village with the fruit of his commerce. Knowing how long it took simply to drive to the village from Nairobi in a van, that seems almost superhuman to me. But it's just something he did.

I didn't spend much time with Daniel. We didn't have a language in common. But as I think back on my brief and impressive encounter with him – as I imagine the arc of his life, passionate, courageous, bold, strong – I can't help but think about another man. One we're more accustomed to remember, even if only briefly, this time of the year. A Middle Eastern craftsman named Yousef – 'Joseph.' We don't know as much about him as we wish we did. By birth and by law, he was a descendant of an ancient king named David, who ruled over the chosen nation of Israel while it stayed united and whose family held power for centuries over the southern portion after the north seceded (cf. Luke 1:27).

This Joseph was a Bethlehemite, from David's own town, but lived in Nazareth as an adult – perhaps he moved to Nazareth, or else his parents did, but Nazareth was a very new settler village, not unlike Mwimutoni. Everyone there came from somewhere else. Nazareth was founded with a clear purpose – to retake “Galilee of the Gentiles” from the forlorn pagan influences that had cropped up there over the years – and Joseph may well have cherished that mission enough to relocate himself there from the midst of his family and friends in Bethlehem. Joseph was a man on a mission, you could say, even if that mission was to be lived out just by living somewhere he felt needed, pursuing his trade, and being the best Jew he could be. And that he was: the Gospels mention that it was Joseph's custom to make annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for festivals like Passover (Luke 2:41), which was above and beyond what the rabbis of the day taught was strictly necessary. Above and beyond when it came to the things of God – that's the kind of man Joseph was.

I'm sure Joseph could have had a fine and successful life in Bethlehem. He knew a lot of people there. It was home. It was a larger town, relatively speaking. It had deep history, local clout. It wasn't so many miles from the holy city of Jerusalem, where his forefather David once ruled a sacred kingdom, and where a rebuilt temple then stood and gleamed above the rooftops. No doubt people with demonstrable Davidic descent were the toast of the town. A man like Joseph could have been a deeply respected town elder there, could have made a great living. But Joseph chose village life. He chose the boondocks, the backwoods. Rather than make it big in the big city, he chose a simple life with a purpose.

And so, though perhaps born in Bethlehem, he chose Nazareth. And he set himself up as a carpenter – a fact we actually learn, technically, from a single verse in the Bible, when Jesus is referred to by his former neighbors as “the carpenter's son” (Matthew 13:55). It wasn't a high-prestige profession, but it was his. Joseph the Carpenter – maybe he occasionally was hired for bigger building projects in nearby towns, but you know what a typical carpenter in a small rural village would've made in the first-century? Probably a lot of farm equipment – plows, yokes, and the like. If Joseph strolled off the pages of the Bible and into our midst today, I have a funny feeling he'd fill out a job application over at CNH, don't you? The form may have changed, but that's the sort of work he did.

And that tells me that Joseph was a strong believer in the value of hard work. Not obsessive about work as if it were an idol, but appreciative to God for the gift of work. Like that elder I met in a Kenyan village, Joseph was strong and committed. Joseph was an active participant in Nazareth's village life. He was a man who routinely put hand and tool to lumber, imposed new order on the material he harnessed from God's creation, and then lifted up the product of his sweat and exertion to his God, to bless his neighbors and his neighborhood. There's little doubt in my mind that, after a long day in his workshop, Joseph looked at the plow he'd fashioned or the yoke he'd designed, and thought to himself, “With this, my neighbor can better farm his fields. With this, we can have more grain for less strain. Armed with this, my neighbors will plant the seed to which God will give the growth, and all of us will be fed from the harvest. Let me make a beautiful and sturdy plow. Let me make a strong and comfortable yoke for the cattle. Let me make tools and implements, surfaces and wheels, to the glory of my God. And with this God-honoring carpentry, we will all be served and blessed.”

I think that's the sort of thing Joseph would say to himself. We read often, in the pages of the New Testament, about the virtues of work. Paul tells us to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). These days, in all the movies, a life of routine work – the same productive tasks, day after day – are seen as boring, soul-destroying, life-hindering. Paul says otherwise: this very kind of work, pursued diligently with purpose, is the stuff a good and healthy life is built from. And it's important, for as we read, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). 'Unable' is one thing; 'unwilling' is another. Work is a part of God's good creation.

We read, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not all exertion is ethical work, honest work. Paul doesn't advise thieves to steal bigger scores, but to give up thievery and turn to ethical work – not so they can get rich for themselves, but so that they can be more helpful to their less-fortunate neighbors. We read, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Any ethical work can be worked for the Lord – Joseph was a carpenter for God. May those of us still employed in labor for pay be good truckers for God, electricians for God, farmers for God, printers for God, caterers for God, trash collectors for God, artists and musicians for God. Do it heartily for the Lord, not merely for bosses, customers, clients. These are the things Joseph knew and was prepared to model for the family God would provide for him. And we see in Scripture that he did train Jesus in his trade, for the people of Nazareth remembered young Jesus as himself having been a carpenter (Mark 6:3). I dare say, if Joseph here and now might well work for CNH, it's not far-fetched to imagine a young Jesus as working there either.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. When we first encounter Joseph in the pages of the New Testament, we know that he's engaged to a young village lady named Mary. I wonder if he fell in love with her the first time he saw her. I wonder how long it took him to know she was the one. I wonder what it was like the day he first approached her father to ask her hand in marriage. A lot of questions we have. He trusted her. He relied on her. He admired her faithfulness, to God and to him. With intense anticipation, the both of them scrupulously took pains to maintain propriety, respect, virtue, and keep temptation at bay.

And then it all came crashing down. She went away for three months to visit an elderly relative, Elizabeth. She came back – I'm sure Joseph was very eager to see her again, hear her voice again – and that's when Joseph's world caved in. Mary came back, and she looked just a little bit different. Perhaps Joseph couldn't put his finger on it at first. But if it wasn't already obvious, it wouldn't have been long. She had to tell him: she was pregnant. Put yourself in Joseph's shoes. Can you feel the blood drain from his face? Can you see his face go white as a sheet, or feel his cheeks burn with embarrassment and anger? I wonder how long he yelled. I wonder if he cried. I wonder if he drove her to tears as she tried in vain to convince him that the obvious conclusion wasn't true. All Joseph could see, all any of us could have seen, is that she'd broken her promise – that she wasn't the woman he thought she was – that she'd betrayed him in the deepest way, and didn't even seem willing to confess and just be honest with him. He'd been jilted. Cheated on. And there she stood, lying to his face with the evidence right in front of him, right above her hips. That's how it seemed. What other conclusion could he possibly reach (Matthew 1:18)?

So yes, Joseph was angry. And that's an understatement. He was furious, incensed, sliced deep with grief. She was all but his wife, and there she stood, pregnant with a baby not even his! He was utterly humiliated. And I think anyone in his shoes would be tempted, at least tempted, to expose her true colors. To send her packing in loud wails of contrition. To avenge the deep dishonor done to him. But we read further that Joseph was “a just man,” a righteous man (Matthew 1:19). Joseph is passionate, but not the sort to let his anger run unchecked or unrestrained. Joseph is upstanding, a man of deep moral principles. But before him stands a flesh-and-blood woman, a real human with all her apparent beauty and all her apparent foibles. Under prevailing interpretations of law, Joseph has every right to pursue a legal end of their betrothal, and to do it in a way that announces to the whole village what fault he found in her – have it put on her permanent social record, have it filed away in a perpetual archive: “Miriam of Nazareth, divorced for the indecency of adultery.” Some local rabbis might even have told him that it was his obligation to do so.

But Joseph resists the temptation. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” As hurt as he is, he refuses to let it stain Mary's reputation or put her in danger. He resolves to end the engagement as secretly and privately as possible, with no record other than her pregnancy to explain things. He refuses to breathe into the whirlwind of gossip, refuses to make things worse for Mary. Though seemingly betrayed and put to shame, Joseph takes time to think, to think about how best to turn the other cheek. Joseph isn't just passionate; he's compassionate – he seizes on his own worst betrayal as an opportunity to do good to the woman he can only reasonably see as his most callous traitor.

He clearly wrestles with the decision – in which direction, it isn't altogether clear – but during a dream, his mind in slumber receives a heavenly visitor, reminding him of his royal heritage, exhorting him to believe Mary's outlandish tale, and promising that God is at work in what a moment before seemed like brazen sin (Matthew 1:20-23). And then he awoke. And everything was different. Mary only seemed unfaithful, but really she was pure. The pregnancy only seemed a sign of sin, but really was a sign of salvation. And now Joseph knew it. But no one else would. To the rest of the village, either they'd conclude Joseph had impregnated his fiancée, and thus that he was a sinner never to truly be trusted, or else that he had no honor and would tolerate shame from a promiscuous wife and a mamzer child. It would be risky to marry Mary. But he did (Matthew 1:24). He vouched for her and committed to raise this holy son, this Jesus, as his own.

About five or six months later, as he ignored the mockery and the jokes, the sneers and the stares, he heard the news. An imperial decree, requiring the registration of every head-of-household empire-wide in his own town, so ensure outdated records couldn't keep the coins out of Caesar's coffers. Unwilling to leave his bride Mary to the devices of the Nazareth townsfolk, especially with her so visibly pregnant, Joseph took her along on the journey to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-5). It was no short trip – across the Jezreel Valley, down to Jericho, up through the desert on an uphill trip to David's city – requiring at least five days. Perhaps for a stretch, they walked that Jericho Road where a parable understandably imagined a man beaten by thieves. Joseph took upon himself the responsibility to protect Mary and the unborn Holy One in her womb. But they were a family, and Joseph had courage to protect his family.

That's who Joseph was. Mission-driven. Hard-working. Compassionate. Courageous. Strong. Joseph was the kind of man, as it turns out, whom the Eternal Word of God, by which stars were sparked into being, by which atoms cohere and DNA replicates, by which mountains rise and valleys sink and lions learn to roar... well, see, Joseph was the kind of man whom that very Word of God would choose to submit in obedience as a son in his household. The Word by which all things were created, submitted to Joseph as a son. Joseph was such a man.

Every year, we recite these stories – stories about the birth of Jesus, the emergence of the Messiah onto the human scene. But where would the story be without Joseph? God provided Joseph as a protector, a mentor, a leader for Mary and her Holy Child. God entrusted Joseph with perhaps greater responsibility than any man since Adam in Eden had ever borne on his shoulders. And so it's no wonder Joseph has been recognized as Nutritor Domini – Guardian, or Educator, of the Lord. We read in the Gospels that, during his childhood and in his humanity, Christ “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). How did Jesus grow in stature? With food bought as Joseph earned it through hard work. And how did Jesus grow in wisdom? With Joseph, a godly village carpenter, for a teacher.

Where would the story go without Joseph? He's the legal link between Jesus and his Davidic heritage. Descent from David through Mary could never have given Jesus a claim to the throne, under prevailing first-century thought. And the Messiah was a promised king from the House of David. Without Joseph, we could never talk of the Holy Child born of Mary as being “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). And finally, although he was simply following an angel's instructions, it would have to be Joseph who actually named this child. Hence the angel's words: you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). 'Jesus' – 'Yahweh is salvation' – and to announce salvation in the child's name was Joseph's task.

Joseph had a lot of responsibility. So do we. Joseph was charged with protecting and providing for the Lord in his youth. We're charged with protecting and providing for young disciples, young imitators of Christ the Lord. Joseph was charged with a ministry of compassion in faithfully cherishing and uniting with Mary, even when it drew him into the midst of scandal. We're charged with being faithful to the church even in days thick with scandal, as we see all around us this year. Joseph was charged with pronouncing the name of Jesus and all he means. And so are we charged with announcing the name of Jesus and the great salvation he brings, he is. To carry out his sacred mission of bringing real Light into Galilean darkness, Joseph needed plenty of virtues – his passion, his compassion, his boldness, his courage, his strength, his work. Can we afford to leave even one of these by the wayside? This season, go and learn from Joseph's example. If it was good enough for God in the flesh to grow up watching, I dare say it's good enough for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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