In the Background

Chrismon Tree with Advent Wreath Candles foregroundDuring the past two Sundays, I’ve been especially grateful for the leadership of Emilie N-C and Joy M. It’s good to rotate out of the pulpit and be nurtured by the music of the season. It’s refreshing to be fed by the preaching ministry of someone other than myself.

One reason I’m grateful may not be so obvious. In the days between December 1 and today, your pastor typically addresses several projects and issues:

  • The annual pledge campaign and the operating budget are finalized.
  • The annual joint meeting with the deacons and session is organized and moderated. Outgoing officers are thanked, and incoming officers are polled for committee preferences.
  • Work begins to chart the course of officer training and installation the second weekend in January, and
  • to plan for the annual report and meeting of the congregation the third weekend in January.
  • Since the pastor’s family expects attention during the holidays, advance planning and sermon outlining begin for services today, Dec. 24, and Jan. 5.

Yes, I am grateful for shared leadership in the church. As others have worked prominently in the foreground, I have had opportunity to address other important tasks in the background.

In the rich drama of the first Christmas, the biblical record reveals different people taking turns between background and foreground. Jesus is the focus, of course, and the plot is tied together to tell the story of how he is the greatest revelation of God’s love. Mary plays a leading role. The supporting cast includes angels, shepherds, and wise men. In the background is a rather quiet figure named Joseph, who is Jesus’ father, or step-father, or adoptive father, depending on how you look at it.

As the story opens, Joseph is living through that happy time before his wedding to Mary.  According to the custom of the age, they are engaged in a formal way.  Such an engagement usually lasted one year, and, like marriage itself, could be terminated only by divorce.

One day, Joseph receives startling news.  We don’t know exactly how the news was delivered.  Perhaps it came one evening after working in the carpenter’s shop, when Joseph took a walk to the home of his father-in-law to see Mary.

Mary announces, “I have wonderful news.”  Joseph replies, “What’s that?”  “An angel of the Lord revealed to me that the Messiah is coming.” “Fantastic! When?”   “In about eight months.” “How is he going to get here?”  “I’m going to bear him as a son.”  “What?!” “Yes, the Holy Spirit has come upon me, and I’m going to bear the Messiah as a son.”  “Mary, are you trying to tell me that you’re pregnant?”  “Yes.”

What do you suppose Joseph does next?  I imagine him storming out of the house, feeling anger and sadness.

What should Joseph do?

One of the simplest solutions to this difficult situation would be for Joseph to demand that his community follow the letter of the law.  And what does that law say?  The 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy says, “If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death …. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

Joseph may have some friends who say, “Just do what the Bible says.” Is it really that simple?  Part of the Bible says that women should be quiet in church, and never teach.[1]  Part of the Bible says that blessed is the one who bashes Babylonian babies against the rocks.[2]  If one does what the Bible says based on a few verses, then it’s easy to go wrong.

Some of you are familiar with the writing of a Southern preacher by the name of Fred Craddock. If you’ve ever seen and heard him preach, then you know he’s not a physically impressive man, nor a golden-tongued orator. But the words that flow from his mouth are full of grace and truth.

Craddock says that Joseph “reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind.  Therefore, when Mary’s pregnancy came to his attention, Joseph thought,‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’”  Craddock goes on. “Where does it say that Joseph?  In your Bible?  I’ll tell you where it says that.  It says that in the very nature and character of God.”

“Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible.  Like Joseph, we are to read it through the spectacles of the grace and the goodness and the love of God.  If, in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself, you are absolutely wrong. The Bible is to be read in the light of the character of God.”[3]

I imagine emotionally exhausted Joseph falling asleep. In his sleep, he is visited by an angel, who appears to him in a dream.  The angel confirms the message that he heard from Mary, and encourages him to follow through on his plans for marriage. “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 wakes up, he obeys God’s word.  He takes Mary as his wife.  He names the baby Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves.” As my old preaching professor Tom Long says, “Joseph . . . learns that being righteous does not mean looking up a rule in a book and then doing the ‘right thing’; it means wrestling with the complexities of a problem, listening for the voice of God, and then doing God’s thing.”[4]

I love that insight, which is so thoroughly Presbyterian-Reformed in its character. When facing a significant challenge, the solution isn’t always found by approaching the Bible like a rulebook, or by addressing challenges exactly as other people did yesterday. Instead, we approach the Bible for what it reveals about God’s purposes and character, and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit to discern what God wants us to do today.

This December, there is the usual mix of finishing the work of one year while preparing for a new one, purchasing gifts and preparing for travel. In spare moments, we hear news about shootings in our cities and violence against innocent civilians in other nations. All the while in the background, Christians in congregations like ours worship, and give, and educate, and serve.

May our life together demonstrate

  • that God’s graceful spirit of giving is more powerful than the hunger for possessions or prestige,
  • and that God’s graceful spirit of forgiveness is more powerful than the desire for vengeance.

Where adults set that kind of Christian example, there our children will see the meaning of Christmas.


[1] 1 Timothy 2:9-12.

[2] Psalm 137:4.

[3] Fred B. Craddock, “God Is With Us,” in The Cherry Log Sermons,” Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001, pp. 5-6.

[4] Thomas G. Long, as recorded in Matthew, by Alyce M. McKenzie, Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998, p. 14.

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~ by JohnH1962 on December 22, 2013.

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