Joseph’s Choice

gvh image “Jesus in St Joseph’s Workshop,” Gerard Van Hontharst …. sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent …. Gospel of Matthew 1:18-25 ….

In the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the narrative leads us from a genealogy tracing of Jesus’ heritage toward the man who would become his adoptive father. Joseph has been living through what is ordinarily a happy time before his wedding, formally engaged to Mary. He receives troubling news. We don’t know when he was told, or who told him. Perhaps it was Mary herself who shared the basic facts.

Through the years, I’ve tried to imagine Joseph’s response to the news of what he certainly thought was an illegitimate pregnancy. I don’t know enough about Joseph’s personality or experience to say with assurance whether he privately stewed about the situation or stormed away in a rage. I can’t help but imagine that he felt angry about a situation that he did not anticipate, and deeply saddened by what seemed to him a betrayal of his love and good faith.

Joseph’s story fits the mood of winter’s onset, I feel. It’s during this month that a feeling of depression becomes very strong in some people. The days are short, the nights are cold, and the ice is slick. In January we have high hopes, but now as the year ends, some of us find that our plans have gone unrealized. Some unexpected turn in the road of life led away from our dream. Joseph would have understood these feelings. Perhaps it’s easy for you to understand his.

What is Joseph to 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. According to the 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy, there was a very specific solution to the problem of a woman found to be pregnant by someone other than the man to whom she was engaged. “If … this charge is true … 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, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

But, sometimes, the solution to complex dilemmas can’t be solved by an appeal to a few verses of scripture, and Joseph decides that the best way to handle the problem is to divorce Mary quietly. My favorite Tennessee preacher Fred Craddock once wrote 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, he says, ‘I will not harm her … expose her, … or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’ 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 … 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.”[1]

In Joseph’s dark night of despair, the angel’s words are like rays of sunlight. “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.” As my former preaching professor Tom Long once said, “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.”[2] Joseph’s faithful response set in motion a childhood in which the boy Jesus came to know that a father would care for him, raise him, show him how to work, and take him to worship so that he might know and serve God. Joseph would teach him how to look underneath the letter of the Law to discover its spirit.

As I was thinking about the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law, I remembered this past Sunday’s story on “60 Minutes” about the nation of Columbia’s efforts to resolve a long-term conflict with Marxist guerillas.[3] After years of gun violence and bombings, murders and assassinations, the nation’s leaders turned for help to an advertising executive named Jose Miguel Sokoloff. Sokoloff made it his mission to understand the guerillas. His understanding led to sympathy. His sympathy led to some truly creative tactics used in a series of demobilization campaigns.

In “Operation Mother’s Voice,” Sokoloff found mothers of rebels, and asked them for childhood photos of their sons and daughters. A team of commandos flew into the jungle, and in various strategic locations, posted the old photos – photos that only the rebels would recognize, with motion-activated festive lights, each photo with a message from a relative. One said, “Before being a guerilla, you are my son.”

In “Operation Bethlehem,” a team in a helicopter dropped small lights illuminating pathways out of the jungle. Glow-in-the-dark stickers were placed on food packs and tree trunks, telling the rebels to follow the light home. At the conclusion of the campaign, giant flood lights were set to project an enormous beam of light into the sky. Many rebels followed the light, walked out of the jungle, and laid down their weapons.[4]

According to Columbian government counts, hundreds of mothers and fathers welcomed their children home because of these campaigns. Untold numbers of painful deaths and funerals have been replaced with joyful reunions due the efforts of those who realized that compassion combined with a little creative marketing can be more powerful than a law enforced by machine guns.

This peacemaking work seems to me in the spirit of Joseph, who wrestled with the letter of the Law long enough to discern the Spirit of God within it. And wherever there are men and women who pursue love and grace more than justice and vengeance, there will be sons and daughters who know the meaning of Christmas.

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

[2] Thomas G. Long,  Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville: Geneva Press, 1997, p. 14.

[3] The information about the episode is summarized by Brit McCandless, “Advertising to Sell Peace not Products,” 60 Minutes Overtime, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-colombia-advertising-to-sell-peace-not-products/ accessed 14 December 2016.

 [4] http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/colombian-ad-campaign-operation-bethlehem/

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~ by JohnH1962 on December 18, 2016.