I admire the way Matthew in his Christmas story gives us a glimpse of this man Joseph. Joseph in being righteous and caring for others gives us a timeless view of what love is all about. Like Hosea, he shows us love like God’s that comes without reservation, even when there is every reason to be suspicious. In his protection of Mary Joseph demonstrates how our response to God’s love is to embrace others in their vulnerability and need. The babe in the manger wasn’t his – at least by any natural means. But with a love that overcame the demands of the rules it was Joseph who steps us and claims the right to name this child, as if the child were his. Love is the principle of God’s action and our response. Who better to show us love than this simple but righteous man we know only as Joseph.
Advent IV Love
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 with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus. Matthew 1: 18
This is the last Sunday of Advent. That’s right, Christmas Day is Saturday. So much of how Advent is presented is about waiting, about anticipation, about promises of things to come, about a future not yet realized. In these last few weeks we’ve sought to challenge that notion. What we said of hope, what we shared about peace, what we explored about true Joy were all about relationship, being at one with our creator, with others and with ourselves. So the real discussion has been about how our faith changes this moment. From the perspective of George Fox and early Friends, “Christ has come to teach his people himself”.
And the candle we light this week is called the ‘love candle’. You’ll have to forgive me but I think that most of what we think about love is drivel. I understand that in a dictionary for English as a second language students, drivel is defined as nonsense. Our culture is so driven by issues of human sexuality and romance that any understanding of love gets lost. So, whether your tastes in romantic music runs to Edvard Grieg, Nat “King” Cole, the Beatles, Paul Mauriat, Neil Diamond or Brian McKnight, for our purposes today, romance and human sexuality, provides at most a meaningful metaphor for something that is seemingly beyond human understanding, a mystery we call love.
In Christian theology, Love is the principle of God’s action and human response. The Greek word agape which is translated into English as love actually was earlier translated into Latin as caritas and then folded into English as charity. It is charity marked by providing for others that was so absent from Scrooge. Other than agape’s usage in the New Testament it isn’t a common Greek word at all. Jesus brought together the two Old Testament commandments about love, that human beings should love God (Deut. 6:5) and neighbor (Lev. 19:18). In the Gospel of John (13:34) Jesus emphasized this peculiar character of Christian love as a new commandment. In 1st Corinthians 13: and Colossians 3: Paul stresses that this Christian love is the greatest of virtues and is a matter of the exercise of our will rather than our emotions and according to 1st John 5:3, it appears to consist in keeping God’s commandments. It wasn’t until late in the New Testament that the essential nature of God was understood to be love (1st John 4:8). Leading up to this startling declaration the writer tells us that love must not be a matter of words or talk; it must be genuine and show itself in action. He writes that we are to “love one another because love is from God. Everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God…For God is love…” A virtual host of theologians have weighed in on the nature of love and all seem to agree that it is an essential element in the Christian life but struggle to say much more. Maybe we can learn more from a couple of Biblical characters.
In the Old Testament the loving character of God is best exemplified by the Prophet Hosea. It was common for God to instruct a prophet to use some symbolic act to accompany some part of their message. In that regard Hosea is unique in that God used Hosea’s family life as an object lesson of the message he was to preach to Israel. It all begins with the instruction to Hosea that he is to get married, but not to any suitable woman. “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer …” The best guess is that Gomer was a temple prostitute in the religion of the Cannanites and had evidently she had little interest in monogamy. Gomer’s unfaithfulness to Hosea was a tragically clear picture of Israel’s treacherous unfaithfulness to God. Hosea’s constant love and loyalty to Gomer provided a beautiful picture of God’s unfailing love and loyalty to Israel. God used Hosea’s whole miserable, tragic experience of personal sorrow and emotional distress to portray a vivid lesson to Israel. In human terms Hosea’s love for Gomer made no sense at all. But, that is the very point of the message. God’s love for humanity is inexplicable apart from God’s grace.
Even though Hosea’s experience was over seven hundred years before Joseph’s, it had to have been instructive to him. Remember, in the Christmas story where we read: “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly”. The rule in Joseph’s time was the same as it had been in that of Hosea. “’A man should not marry a woman made pregnant by his colleague… as it is said: –“Do not take away an ancient landmark and do not go into the field of orphans”’ (Prov. 23:10). What is truly notable here is that both Hosea and Joseph violate that rule.
Rules are rules. We want it to be that way. We need it to be that way. Rules make life predictable and we need things to be at least somewhat predictable. Rules are how we know what’s what — something we need especially with respect to something that’s really important. In some ways, you can tell what’s really important in our culture by where we tend most to stick to the rules — things you do because that’s how it’s done.
Rules help us make sense of the senseless. For instance, weddings are important in our culture. Women who, in their day-to-day lives, have not only assumed responsibility for themselves and their decisions as adults, but are responsible for many others as heads of organizations, companies, or families often choose on their wedding day to be “given away” by their fathers — not because they belong to their fathers to be given to another man, but just because “that’s how it’s done.” By the same token, men when they want to propose marriage and who are already living and sharing household expenses with the woman they love go to incredible lengths to squirrel away enough money to buy a diamond ring (and sometimes for a woman who doesn’t wear jewelry) because, well, “that’s how it’s done.”
The dilemma Joseph faced and Hosea faced before him stems from a biological rule: children have fathers. It was a given with Hosea bride Gomer, but Joseph knew that if hadn’t had sex with Mary, someone else had. Here’s the rule about what happens if you think the woman to whom you’re engaged is bearing someone else’s child: assuming you know the identity of the father, and that the woman is seized in an area in which someone could have heard her screams if she cried out, both the woman and the man whose child it is get death by stoning. Though Joseph is a righteous man, committed to following the rules, he refuses to expose Mary to such public disgrace. He arranges to quietly have the betrothal nullified. It’s the best option he can choose to avoid making a public disclaimer that the child wasn’t his. If you want to be romantic about it you might want to think that he may have assumed that Mary loved the father of her child and this would release her to marry him in the hope that he would accept his responsibility and love the child.
When I re-read this passage again in Matthew’s telling the Christmas story, the first thing that caught my attention were the last few words. “And he named him Jesus”. Again, it is another parallel with Hosea. Unlike Hosea who is told to name a son born to Gomer ‘not my child’ Joseph is told to name Mary’s child ‘Jesus’. Jesus is a transliteration into the Greek of the Hebrew name Joshua which in Jesus’ day was a pretty common name. What do you recall of Jesus’ name sake, Joshua, the son of Nun?
Joshua accompanied Moses to Mount Sinai and into the tabernacle of the Covenant. He was one of two of the dozen spies sent to scope out the land of Cannan who returned with a positive report for which his life was threatened. He was nominated by Moses to lead the people beyond the Jordan river into the land of promise and later was instructed by God to do so. He commanded Israel’s army after the Exodus. After Moses death he was filled with the spirit of wisdom and led the children of Israel. Most likely, his name meant “ Yahweh is salvation”. Joseph, this man who refused to put Mary at risk, names her child Joshua, one who would lead God’s people out of the wilderness.
Matthew tells us of Jesus as the person who showed us what true honor is by acting shamelessly, befriending tax collectors and sinners and dying a death on a Roman cross that would — by the rules, anyway — be called shameful. Jesus, who had no human father and had no children of his own, incarnates for us the one who is Father to the fatherless. In other words, Jesus’ whole life — and his being raised to life by the God of Israel after his death — is, like his conception and birth, a paradox, a justly broken rule.
I admire the way Matthew in his Christmas story gives us a glimpse of this man Joseph. Joseph in being righteous and caring for others gives us a timeless view of what love is all about. Like Hosea, he shows us love like God’s that comes without reservation, even when there is every reason to be suspicious. In his protection of Mary Joseph demonstrates how our response to God’s love is to embrace others in their vulnerability and need. The babe in the manger wasn’t his – at least by any natural means. But with a love that overcame the demands of the rules it was Joseph who steps us and claims the right to name this child, as if the child were his. Love is the principle of God’s action and our response. Who better to show us love than this simple but righteous man we know only as Joseph. How was it that the writer of 1st John put it? Oh, Yes, “that love must not be a matter of words or talk; it must be genuine and show itself in action.”