Our story today catches some people who are relatively new to the faith, or perhaps a better word would be not intimately familiar with the story, a bit off-guard. In all ways, the Feast of the Incarnation is the greatest love story ever told. But, in the midst of this season that lasts a whopping twelve days, we find that what happens probably does not coincide with what we think should happen. Christmas is all about Silent Night and presents, is it not? At times, I have had people in orbit of past parishes complain that we need to reorder our church calendar. We celebrated the patronal feast of St. Stephen’s on December 26 at a parish I served in Ohio. It seemed a bad time to some in orbit that we in the parish would celebrate the life of the first martyr just a day and a half after celebrating the birth of Jesus. Would it not be better to celebrate Stephen’s day in Lent? At my last parish, the Feast of the Holy Innocents really riled some of those who were not members of the parish. Why do you focus on the death of innocent babes and toddlers when you are supposed to be celebrating the birth of Jesus? As human beings, we have clear ideas as how stories should go, right? We expect to cry at tragedies, we expect to laugh at comedies, we expect misdirection and confusion in mysteries, and we expect explosions in action stories. It’s the curveballs, the unexpected that really get us going, aren’t they?
One of my favorite movies is called The Princess Bride. There is a wonderful scene in the movie where Peter Falk is reading to his grandson played by Fred Savage. Prince Humperdinck introduces his new queen, Princess Buttercup, with a statement like “and my father’s final words were, love her as we loved her, and there will be peace in the land.” The grandson interrupts with a “Hold it, grandpa. You are messing up the story. She can’t marry Humperdinck; she has to marry Wesley.” He has a similar explosion, as do we, when Wesley dies at the hand of Prince Humperdinck in the Pit of Despair. Stories do not go that way. They are supposed to go the way we want, the way we expect. And yet, our story today does not go the way that any of us would want or expect.
After the wise men come and deliver their gifts to the One born King of the Jews, they head back to their native lands by a route that takes them around Jerusalem. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt because Herod is going to try and kill Jesus. The Greek text is actually identical to the plotting that will take place during Holy Week, but that is a different sermon. Joseph, ever obedient and ever faithful, does as he is instructed.
Herod dies. By the way, that in itself is the subject of a great deal of writing. Jospehus remarks that Herod’s death was clearly a punishment inflicted by Yahweh. Herod dies of a very painful belly flux that gnaws at him as if he were being eaten from the inside out. Herod divided his kingdom among his sons. Archelaus was as ruthless as his father, and he inherited the area of Jerusalem and its surrounding lands. His rule will be so vicious that Augustus will depose him in a couple years and exile him to Gaul, I think, for fear of fomenting a rebellion. From that time forth, prefects will govern Jerusalem. You know one at least. His name was Pilate.
Meanwhile, when Herod the Great dies, the angel reappears to Joseph and tells him that the threat has passed and to return to Israel. Once again, Joseph does as he is instructed. When he gets back to Judea, however, he learns that Archelaus is ruling and chooses to settle in Nazareth.
There are a lot of lessons upon which we could think in today’s reading from Matthew. For example, Matthew is telling the story in such a way as to show how Jesus fulfills the role to which God had called Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called My Son.” Matthew is also highlighting the lesson taught by John in the first chapter of the Gospel that bears his name. In the beginning, the political powers seek to thwart God by killing Jesus. At the end, it is the religious leaders who are fighting God’s redemptive plan. “His own did not know Him.” This bit about being a Nazorean is pregnant with meaning. Jesus is the branch, the neser, that fulfills God’s promises in Isaiah. But, and you see the wordplay even in English, Nazareth was an out of the way place. It served no vital purpose economically, politically, or religiously. It would be like bragging you are from West Virginia or maybe Knoxville? Who really cares? So what? Can anything good come from Nazareth? In that sense, it was a perfect place for Joseph to choose to raise God’s Son. He would be close enough, but not too close, to Jerusalem, to the trade route, and to His future ministry.
What I wanted to look at this morning was in light of the only non-Vestry, non-Search related gathering I have attended so far, or rather one of the two I attended. Karen and I brought the younger kids down to visit and to get to work on figuring out how we were going to cram 7-9 of us into a house built for four, depending on the time of year. Plus, Karen and her mom had interior things to discuss like paint colors, furniture, and stuff like that. Like a good, dutiful husband, I got out of the way and came into the office and worked a couple days, meeting a couple dozen parishioners in the process. Barbara Light invited me to a gathering the second evening over in the parish hall that was helping parents parent their adult children, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when everyone seemed to be bidding on rocks. You all are laughing because you know, unlike me, that that was also the night the Geological Society had their auction at Advent. I’m sitting there wondering what in the world is going on. Barbara did not seem to be joking when she invited me. I sure as heck did not want to accidentally gesture and buy a rock when my kids seems to be so adept at finding rocks for free and sneaking them into the house. Eventually, one of the members leaned over to me to ask me which one I was waiting to bid on. Through our conversation, I learned who they were and what they were doing. Then she asked if I was looking for the Bible class or whatever that was going on that night. Keep in mind I was in my collar. Eventually, I was sorted out and steered to the appropriate room, sans any rock purchases.
It was there, of course, that I got to hear some of the stories of the parents of adult children in this parish. There was a lot of concern and a lot of love expressed in the room that evening. I imagine it would have been a bit more emotional, but everyone had to pretend they had their act together for the soon-to-be new rector. The struggle is not unique in our country any more. Parents have raised their kids, sent them off to college, in some cases seem them get jobs, or spouses, and kids, only to see them move back because of job loss, or relationship failure, or even “to find themselves.” There is a fine line between enabling and loving. And the parents that evening were determined not to be enablers, but they were also determined to love their adult children. Nobody asked my opinion that night. They had an expert from Vandy or somewhere like that working through his book with them. But I confess that I thought there was a lot of Scripture that spoke to the difference between loving and enabling children. Jacob and Eli immediately popped in my head as enablers; Hannah and Joseph as parents who loved their children.
For all his importance, little is known about Joseph. We know he was a righteous man, Scripture tells us that. We know he loved Mary his betrothed. Rather than putting her away and shaming her when she shared what the angel had told her, as was his right, Joseph resolved to do it quietly. Then, when confronted by the angel and assured that Mary had not cheated on him, Joseph quickly and quietly assumes the role of the father to the Son within her. Luke’s Gospel focuses on Mary. Thanks to Luke, we have the Magnificat. But what do we have from Joseph? Matthew is the only one who gives us any sense of Joseph. Joseph heeds the warning of the angel and leaves immediately for Egypt. We might think him a bit crazy for not asking any questions, but Joseph has met an angel once and chosen the path of obedience. He has witnessed the coming of and the stories of the shepherds. He has received the congratulations of the magi. It is not as if he, being a righteous man, has no sense that God is really doing something significant through this baby entrusted to his care.
So he takes his wife and child and heads to Egypt. Some commenters will downplay this act. After all, Joseph likely heads to Alexandria, where there are probably a cousin or three among the million residents. He can take his tools with him and do woodworking there as well as anywhere. Plus, thanks to the magi, he may not have to work because he has gold. But Joseph is being asked to give up all that he knows and to flee his homeland. Worse, there must be some religious crisis in play. Joseph was a righteous man and ought to be recognized by his king as such. This king, though, does not rule God’s people to His glory. This king wants to kill what God has brought forth from Mary’s womb!
Then, after maybe a year or, at most, a couple years, the angel comes again and instructs Joseph to return to Israel. Joseph does not complain at all. He simply obeys. What if you were in his position? You have just laid down roots. The business is finally up and running. Life seems to be going rather normally. Now, God, you want me to leave again? I promise you all here this morning that I would be griping big time. I can easily imagine the angel pulling his flaming sword and threatening to cut out my tongue if I didn’t get moving already. But not Joseph. He does as he is instructed with no complaints.
In his own way, Joseph is magnificent. He chooses to put away his betrothed quietly rather than with loud protestations and condemnations. He marries her despite the obvious proof that she had been unfaithful to him, from the human perspective. I can imagine that the town gossip was not kind. Poor Joseph, cuckolded before he was even married. She thinks she is giving birth to God’s Son. Ha! He relocates the family to a foreign land and then brings them back when the threat to the child’s life is passed. And, that threat are the very people who should be happy that God’s promises are finally reaching the point of fulfillment. The nezer that God made to Abraham is being fulfilled in the birth of this Son, but those in power want Him killed. It is a tragic story, were not the Lord of history in charge. Thankfully, Joseph recognizes God is in control.
What truly amazes me about Joseph’s faith and love is the fact that the child he so fiercely protects is not his own. It did not surprise me when I sat in on that class in November and heard stories of parents trying to care for their loved ones. Some have really struggled and sacrificed to give their children a great start in life. Some children appreciated the sacrifices; others have treated those sacrifices as things owed to them. It would surprise none of those attending that night were I to say that Karen and I are very protective of our kids. Within the bounds of morality and the law, there is little that we would not do for our children. And woe to the one who thinks to use our children to harm us! All of you nodding your heads understand that kind of love of flesh and blood. We are supposed to be protective of our children, just as they are supposed to be respectful and loving towards us. Joseph, though, acts this way for the benefit of the Child who is not his. Joseph becomes a true model for us of the way in which our Father in heaven loves us when we are adopted into His family by the work and person of His Son.
Joseph’s love of this Babe derives from His love of the Father of that Child, His Father in heaven. Joseph recognizes that God is again speaking and acting in the world to fulfill His promises to Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Rachel, to Moses, to David, and to all who have come before him. This may not be the way Joseph would do things, but he recognizes that God will not fail. Rather than argue, rather than wrestle with his Lord, Joseph chooses the wiser path of obedience.
Joseph’s obedience is important, in part, because his obedience serves as a reminder to us all that we do not own our children. We parents are stewards of those children given to us. God grants us the privilege of raising them to come to know Him. Our primary task is to teach them to love and fear the Lord, their real Father in heaven. All else is secondary. In the Developed World, I think we take childbirth to large extent as a right. As careers have interfered with the life of potential parents, some have put off having children until their bodies are unable to conceive or bear a child without the help of some expensive healthcare options. And then, as we spend the money, we complain about the cost or, worse, the failure in spite of the cost. In my dealings with college kids, in particular, and with young adults trying to climb the corporate ladder first, pregnancy is often perceived as a problem. I’m sorry folks, if no one told you before today, but pregnancy is a sign that sex worked! I know; it’s shocking. We speak in terms of birth control failing rather than of life succeeding. Ross and Rachel in an episode of Friends made the 2% failure rate of one birth control method really famous. But pregnancy means that the sperm made it to the egg. Yes, sex is meant to bind a husband and wife together as one. Yes, sex is meant to feel good. No, sex does not always have to lead to pregnancy. But we need to remember that pregnancy is a direct result of the physiology working. How many of us, though, freak out when we find out “we’re pregnant?” How many of us worried “how am I going to support this one?” rather than giving thanks to God that He entrusted us to be stewards of another life?
Sadly, this idea of being stewards of our children really comes into focus when we lose one. Speak to a parent who has lost a child or a mother who has miscarried, and you will begin to understand how precious a gift children truly are. This idea of being owed the right to become pregnant causes us to forget the real Author of life and the responsibilities that come with that new life.
Joseph embodies that understanding in how he obeys God with respect to the baby Jesus. We do, too, when we baptize our children as infants. In that rite there is a tremendous obligation taken on by the parents and godparents. Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life? I will with God’s help. Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ? I will with God’s help. Are we crazy? Do we really have any idea what it is we are pledging to do when we do it with our first child? Our second? Our seventh? Yet when we take that oath upon ourselves, we are really committing to model the behavior of our Lord’s earthly father, Joseph. We are pledging that we will do everything within our power to love, to protect, to nurture, to teach, to discipline, and to set on the path of God that child He has given us to raise. And, unfortunately, that is the limit of what we can do. We can be perfect Joseph’s or Mary’s for our charges, but sometimes that is not enough. What’s worse to some of us, we are called to this ministry of parenting children anonymously. Most of us crave the pat on the back when we do something well. Good parents labor faithfully out of the limelight, just like Joseph.
We are, brothers and sisters, raising our children in a fallen world. We see the consequence of sin each and every day. There are accidents, there are diseases, there are wars, and there is a pesky thing we call free will. In God’s infinite wisdom, He decided we should have it and be free to love Him or to reject Him. As a parent of seven, I can tell you He and I sometimes go round and round on this one! You and I can do everything our Lord asks of us as parents, but at some point that stewardship ends. At some point in their maturation process, the children become responsible for their own decisions. They become like the second generation of Israel in the book of Numbers; they get to choose whom they will serve and how they will live. We can teach them everything we know, do everything right, teach them to know and love God, be the very opposite of those parents who show up on television talk shows, but at some point they become responsible for their own actions. They must choose how they will act. They must choose whom they will obey, God or their heart’s desires.
It is agonizing to watch a child choose a wrong path. We can see the disaster looming clear as day, and yet children will not always listen to our warnings. Sometimes, our children have to learn the lessons we would freely give at great cost to themselves. They must test the words of the world against the words of the previous generation to see which, if either, are speaking the Truth. But, and this is where we need to pay particular attention as parents, their bad choices do not make us bad parents. Do not mistake me, we should always be evaluating ourselves and how we parent in light of Scripture and in discernment with people who love us and our children. Amanda will tell you I am a much different parent than I was for her and Sarah, mostly because their mother is, in her own way, as fiercely protective of her children as Joseph was of his child. But when we reach that point where we have discerned we have done nothing wrong, we must let it go and let God. We must let the child choose their own path, trusting that one day, he or she will return to those grace and love lessons we taught day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out—examples which serve as far better sermons than the words of any mere priest or pastor.
What if, in the course of your self-evaluation and discernment with others you discover that you were not a good parent? Is all hope lost? Of course not. All the Lord requires is that we repent of our sins. He died even for those mistakes we would make with those wonderful gifts He gave us. But He rose again to teach us that nothing is beyond His power to redeem! It may not be an easy path. It may be a very painful path. But His example reminds us that all things are within His power. Own your failure or failures with your children, and ask them to forgive you. Even in such “countercultural action” you are modelling, you are preaching, the forgiveness which God offers us all.
Thankfully, none of us are dealing with a king dead set upon killing our children, but some may be worried about enemy soldiers or religious fanatics if our child is serving in the military. We may not have to worry that our child will be dying for the sins of the world because they have been paid in full by the Babe raised by Joseph, but that does not mean that our child may not face terrible diseases or even other people who care little for human life. Some professions chosen by our children are rather dangerous, and some career paths place our children among those who do not share the values which God demands. No matter the assaults against your children, remember the faithfulness displayed by Joseph. Joseph obeyed His Father and raised His Son as if He were his own. He saw the true image of God in that Babe and little boy and labored hard to set Him on the path for which He came down. All you and I can do, all any good parent can do, is the same. We can see in our children the image of the One who gave him or her to us, and then seek to raise that child as the precious gift that they are. You may not get lots of notoriety for your faithful obedience, but then you are in great company, the company of countless saints who number among your ancestors just like Joseph, who shared their love of God with each succeeding generation, that you and they might spend eternity together celebrating the One who made it all possible. That is the happy ending for which we all truly strive, the is the only story that makes the faithful labors of countless saints like Joseph and you worth while.