18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us." 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Since last week, we have begun a new series of sermons for the bilingual service that talk about specific passages from the four Gospels. We wish to look into different issues related to the Christian life when one is confronted by the Gospel and by the encounter with Jesus Christ. Today, we want to talk about Joseph. What happened to him when Jesus came into his life? What was his response? What can we learn from his struggles and his actions? This is our message for today.
Point 1: Joseph’s problem
To appreciate Joseph’s story, we need a clear understanding of Joseph’s background. We are given a very important key to that: Joseph was a righteous man. Now, those two words have tremendous implications on Joseph’s standing in the Jewish community. This label is given to someone who studies and observes the Jewish Bible. It means he obeys the Ten Commandments, the food laws and he attends the synagogue and celebrates the holy festivals. This is a desirable reputation of a man well-regarded by others as good and respectable. Joseph was a righteous man.
But Joseph’s identity and reputation were facing a crisis. He heard rumors that his fiancée Mary was pregnant before their marriage. An unwed mother came into his life. Young women who dabble with sexual relations before marriage were considered religiously second class. They are not righteous. This was definitely what everybody was whispering about Mary and her pregnancy. Yet, this person was the woman that he loved and whom he originally intended to marry. What is a righteous man to do? According to the Jewish law, he had a few choices.
If Mary had been seduced, then both Mary and the seducer were to be stoned to death. If Mary had been raped, then the rapist would be put to death. If no one confessed and the rapist was not found, then Mary had to drink some “waters of bitterness”. If she died from the water, she would be guilty, if not, she would be innocent. There was another method, and quite a tricky one. Joseph could marry Mary, and then ask her parents to produce “tokens of virginity”. If Mary was not a virgin, then no proof of virginity would be found on the wedding bed and she would be stoned. In the end, Joseph chose the way that kept his own good name and protected Mary the most, and that was to divorce her privately. In this way, Joseph kept the law by not marrying a suspected fornicator and Mary was sheltered from a disgraceful public persecution. Most would have considered this a very noble act, and certainly it is so. But was just following the law really the right thing to do? What were to become of Mary and her child? Is what that is considered righteous to man also considered righteous to God?
Two explorers were on a jungle safari when suddenly a ferocious lion jumped in front of them. “Keep calm” the first explorer whispered. “Remember what we read in that book on wild animals? If you stand perfectly still and look the lion in the eye, he will turn and run.” “Sure,” replied his companion. “You’ve read the book, and I’ve read the book. But has the lion read the book?”
Clearly, there is the obvious written word in the book, and there is also the actual situation. To do the ‘right’ thing involves more than just following the law, the written word. You need to know the entire reality. More importantly, you need to know the situation from the perspective of God, God’s reality.
Point 2: Conquering his fear
Clearly, Joseph was not seeing the entire reality, God’s reality. He saw the problem, his reputation as a righteous man at stake, and he did what he thought was enough according to the written word. But God made it clearer to him by sending an angel to enlighten him. The child in Mary, her conception was from the Holy Spirit. The son that will be born will save his people from their sins. This is done so as to fulfill the prophecy that God will be with his people. God is with us. Immanuel. If this was God’s reality, if this was God’s plan, then what was the right thing for Joseph to do? There are two parts to the right thing to do.
Firstly, Joseph was not to be afraid. This was the same command given to Mary as well. “Do not be afraid”. Mary was obviously fearful because she was going to be a mother. A mother without marriage. Teenage pregnancy and everything. We can understand why Mary needed the command. Why was Joseph was fearful? I’m always glad that we have Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, because it is so different from Luke’s version. He lets us appreciate the parallel side of the story, the father’s side, and frankly it deserves as much attention as what Mary had to go through.
I remember when my wife told me she was pregnant again. Sure there was joy, because we wanted two children. But all the “interesting” memories that I had buried away resurfaced again. Before birth, you face the many helpless moments between eccentric cravings and nausea. After birth, you have the sleepless nights to feed milk and change diapers. Nobody mentions the father’s side of the story, and we are supposed to take it like a man. Luke and the Roman Catholic Church are all about Mary’s wonderful act of motherhood. But, Matthew redeemed this for us by telling us the father’s sacrifice. I’m just kidding. The truth is that Joseph’s true fears went beyond these.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name will smell as sweet.” This is a feminine point of view and indeed very true. It is the essence that counts, not the title or reputation that matters. But even until today, a man’s reputation defines who he is to the world. He is only as good and worthy as his namesake. In ancient times, a general would rather die in the battlefield than to stain his good name. Sure, Joseph could claim that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. But it would have convinced no one. And there was a real fear that if he married Mary and took her home, his righteous name would be gone forever. To do the right thing, Joseph needed to face and conquer his fear. What is fear?
During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”
Fear is what often immobilizes us from doing the right thing. And that is the first command to Joseph. “Do not be afraid”. Look beyond your own reality, your reputation, your name, your status before man. Understand God’s reality and his plans for mankind. Mary’s conception was of the Holy spirit, and Jesus the son will save God’s people from their sins. When God’s reality becomes clear to us, we must dispel all fears to do the right thing.
Point 3: Taking responsibility
The first part to doing the right thing is not to be afraid. The second part is to take responsibility. The second command to Joseph was to name the son Jesus. To name the child is to claim ownership. Joseph would be husband to Mary and father to Jesus. In naming Jesus, Joseph took up the responsibility of giving legitimacy to Mary and Jesus. He would naturally bear all the gossips and slanders that came along with Mary’s awkward situation. In thinking of this, I am reminded of a story I read in a popular blog Dooce.com.
“So I gave myself an enema and sat down on the bathroom floor to cry. Jon kept knocking on the door to see if I was okay and although I knew he meant well I was in so much pain that I wanted to dunk his head into the toilet. After almost ten minutes things started to happen. Enemas are supposed to work after just five minutes, but I had SEVEN WHOLE DAYS of stool softener and fiber lodged from my large intestine all the way up to my ears.
Every time I got up to sit on the toilet, however, things stopped working, and the only thing I could think to do was to get into the bathtub. Yes, the bathtub. The place where we washed our hair and innocent bodies. I didn't know what else to do. I didn't have a choice. Either I poop in the tub or I DIE FROM NOT POOPING.
In my hysteria I filled the tub with water thinking that it would calm me down, obviously not thinking about what things would look like after the "experience." And then it happened. You know. I had another baby in the bathtub, a floater the size of a men's size 13 clog. And then I gave birth to six or seven other babies, all floaters like their older brother.
I stood up and washed off almost passing out from the pain and exhaustion, and you know what? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT I'M ABOUT TO TELL YOU?
My husband toweled me off, helped me put my clothes back on, and then he did what no human being on this earth should ever have to do and HE CLEANED UP MY MESS. Not only did he see the mess, he physically transferred it from the bathtub to the garbage can outside and then scrubbed the tub with bleach. He says he can still remember being astonished by how much it seemed to weigh.
After that morning I've granted him a lot of things because people, he picked up my poop. And you have to ask yourself, would my partner pick up my poop? And if you think the answer is NO then JUST WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a partner? ASK YOURSELF THAT.”
This story etched into my memory like superglue and many times in my marriage I am reminded of this and what it means to be a partner. Today, I am relieved to tell you this story so that you share and bear this scary and yucky image together with me. To be a partner is to clean up all the mess. The only way to demonstrate that you are a partner is to take up the responsibility no matter how unpleasant it is. In thinking of what Joseph had to do, I immediately thought of this story. This kind of willingness and action is what I feel is doing the right thing. You first have to conquer your fears, and then you take up the responsibility.
“By focusing on Mary, Luke emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action: “Let it be me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Matthew, on the other hand, by selecting Joseph as his leading actor, stresses the active component in the human response.” Joseph had to do the right thing. He had to conquer his fears and take up the responsibility. In doing this, he showed that he is a true partner to Mary in bearing all the mess. And to us, it is a great witness of what it means to be a true partner to God.
Dr Henry Cloud has this interesting analogy of God’s Plan A and Plan B. We often think that God’s Plan A is to do his own work directly, and his Plan B is to do his work through human beings. This is a wrong concept of how God works. There is only one plan of God, and he always works through human beings. We all want to be part of God’s plan, and we think it is all about glorious victories and wonderful successes. But today we see that smooth sailing, painless, effortless work is not God’s work. To be a true partner to God, to do the right thing, is to conquer our fears and to take up the responsibility. To be mentally ready and to actually go into the job and get messy and dirty. God’s work is with people, and ministry with people is like opening cans of worms. Immanuel! God is with Man! In Jesus, God shows his willingness to be part of mankind. To work with disciples and to die on the cross. Messy stuff indeed!
I know. We have our reputations and polished images to upkeep. We want to keep our well organized lives, our routines and carefully selected comfortable group of relationships. But there is more than just our reality. There is God’s reality. He has a plan to save people from their sins. He has started the project. It appears to be a messy one that will transform our identity, our lives and our usual concerns. Ministry with people living in sin, self-righteous people, people with low self-esteem, quarrelsome, people with great pain and suffering, all messy stuff indeed! But today, I give you this invitation to do the ‘right’ thing. Conquer your fears and take up the responsibility. Be part of this partnership with God. And you will find your true self in God. Immanuel! God with us! And God be in you too.
 See Number 5:11-31
 See Deuteronomy 22:13-21
 See Deuteronomy 24:1-4
 Juliet, from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, 1594
 Today in the Word, July 13, 1993
 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, John Knox Press (1993), p8
 See Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Making small groups work, Zondervan (2003), p. 23-27