Archives For Joseph

StJosephbyGerritVanHonthorst1620As promised, here’s the audio and video from the weekend’s sermon on Joseph. You can also download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the FREE Tamed Cynic mobile app linked in the sidebar.

Here’s the audio:

      1. There’s Something About Joseph

And here’s the video:

 

Caravaggio_FlightIntoEgypt_detail_Joseph_and_angelHere’s the sermon from this weekend. I’ll post the video and audio from the sermon once it’s ready. As you’ll see below, I began with an updated rehearsal of Numbers 5 that’s better seen than read.

Joseph has gotten short shrift in the Gospels, Church History, Christian Art and Preaching. If you’d like to read more beyond the sermon, I’d suggest Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed, or Ken Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Matthew 1.18-25

     The sermon begins without explanation, with random volunteers from the audience performing updated parts of the ritual for the bitter waters:

First, barley is measured out of its package- 2 quarts worth- and poured into an offering plate.

Second, holy water is poured from the baptismal font into a large clay pitcher.

Next, the ‘indictment’ is written on a piece of parchment and then its burnt, its ashes put into the water and mixed together.

Then, the pen with which the indictment was written is unscrewed and the ink is poured into the pitcher of water.

Finally the floor of the altar is vacuumed and the suctioned dirt is removed from the bag and put into the pitcher. It’s all mixed together a last time and poured into a clear glass.

‘Does anyone want a drink?’

There’s something about this (the bitter waters) story, and there’s something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

But it’s not for the reason you might guess.

Sure it’s true that Jesus isn’t Joseph’s biological son.

It’s true that, like me, Joseph is an adoptive father.

It’s true that in Jewish tradition as soon as Joseph names him and claims him as his own- adopts him- Jesus is as much Joseph’s child as he would be had Joseph been the biological father.

And it’s true that I know firsthand how true that is and feels.

But that’s not it.

That’s not the something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

Matthew says that Joseph was a ‘righteous man.’

And that’s all Matthew has to say.

I know Matthew’s nativity sounds like a short, simple, straight-forward story, but that’s because we live on this side of Christmas. On the other side of Christmas it’s not a simple, straight-forward story at all.

And it all hinges on Matthew calling Joseph a ‘righteous man.’

     In Hebrew the term is ‘tsadiq.’ And it’s not just an adjective for someone.

By calling Joseph a righteous man, Matthew’s not simply saying that Joseph was a good man or a moral man or even a God-fearing man.

Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title.

Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously.

Tsadiqs were those rare people who believed the Jewish law was the literal Word of God as dictated to Mose, and therefore, as the Word of God, tsadiqs believed the Torah should be applied to every nook and cranny of life.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was one of those rare, elite tsadiqs- righteous men- Matthew tells you everything you need to know to unlock this story.

 

Because when Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you, for example, that Joseph wore phylacteries, little boxes of scripture against his head and around his arm- as commanded in Deuteronomy 6.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a righteous man, he’s telling you that Joseph wore a prayer shawl at all times as commanded in the Book of Numbers 15. A shawl with tassels hanging from every corner, each tassel a tangible reminder of all the commands of God.

When Matthew tells you Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph had a long, never-trimmed beard, a beard that would fill me with envy, a beard that would set him apart as different and holy- just as Leviticus 19 commands.

Joseph was a ‘righteous man,’ says Matthew. A tsadiq.

Which means there were specific things Joseph did and did not do.

As a tsadiq, Joseph covered his right eye and prayed the shema twice a day: ‘Shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.’

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’

And as a tsadiq, you can bet Joseph had a copy of this prayer rolled up and nailed to his doorpost.

If Joseph was a tsadiq, then he gave out of his poverty to the Temple treasury.

He traveled the 91 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem every Yom Kippur to have a scapegoat bear his sins away.

He practiced his piety before others to remind them that God had called them to be perfect, as God is perfect.

Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew says. A tsadiq.

Meaning, there were specific things he did and did not do.

He did not violate the Sabbath, no matter what, because God created man for the Sabbath, for the glory of God.

And as a tsadiq, Joseph did not eat unclean food.

For that matter, as a tsadiq, Joseph did not eat with unclean people: gentiles or outcasts or sinners.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a righteous man, he’s telling you that Joseph was one of the rare few who could be called ‘righteous’ because they lived the righteous law of God to the letter.

Every jot and tittle.

If the Torah commands that you care for the immigrant in your land then a tsadiq does just that without questioning.

And if Torah commands that you avoid and dare not touch a leper, then a tsadiq obeys God’s righteous law and keeps his distance.

In Israel, in Matthew’s day, after being a priest there was no greater honor than being given the title tsadiq- a righteous man who follows every letter of God’s righteous law.

And that’s the incredibly complicated dilemma that Matthew hides behind that word ‘tsadiq.’

Because this tsadiq is engaged to a woman named Mary.

And she’s pregnant.

And he’s not the father- of course he’s not. He’s a tsadiq.

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You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract. Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply fiancees.

For all intents and purposes, they were husband and wife.

They were already bound together and only death or divorce could tear them asunder.

For that reason, according to Torah, unfaithfulness during the engagement period was considered adultery. Actually, according to the Mishna– which is Jewish commentary on the Torah- infidelity during betrothal was thought to be a graver sin than infidelity during marriage.

Matthew tells you that Joseph is a tsadiq.

Betrothed to an adulteress.

 As a tsadiq, Joseph knows what the Torah now requires of him.

 

Joseph can’t simply forgive Mary and forget. Only God can forgive sin.

No matter how much Joseph might love Mary, his love of God must trump his love of neighbor- they’re not equivalent. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house, accuse her publicly of adultery and say to her: ‘I condemn you.’ And if she does not protest or deny the accusation, the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death. On her father’s front porch.

That’s what the Torah commands.

And Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a tsadiq. A righteous man.

Of course, if Mary does protest, if she denies that she’s sinned, if she’s foolish enough to tell people something as ridiculous as her child being conceived by the Holy Spirit then Joseph, as a tsadiq, certainly knows what course of action the Torah requires: the ritual of bitter waters.

According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, bringing an offering of barley with them. About 2 quarts’ worth.

After offering the barley upon the altar, the priest will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her and Mary will be compelled to say: ‘Amen, amen.’ Finally the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water.

And then command Mary to drink it.

The bitter waters.

If it makes her sick, she’s guilty and she’ll be stoned to death.

If somehow it does not make her ill, then she’s innocent.

Her life will be spared though, in Mary’s case, her life still will be ruined because she’s pregnant and Joseph’s not the father.

She will be considered a sinner. Specifically, an am-ha-aretz, a term that was reserved for people like lepers and tax collectors and shepherds.

 

And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Torah inside and out, Joseph certainly knows he’ll be considered an am-ha-aretz too if he marries Mary.

He’ll be a tsadiq no more.

On the other hand, if he does anything other than, anything less than, what the Torah commands he will be a tsadiq no more. He will lose his status as quickly as though it were emptied and poured out from him.

But that’s what Joseph chooses to do.

Matthew says in verse 19 that ‘Joseph resolved to…’ but Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it must’ve taken Joseph to come to that decision.

And it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.

That word in verse 20 that your bibles’ translate ‘considered,’ the root word in Greek is ‘thymos.’ It can mean ‘to ponder’ as in ‘to consider’ or it can mean ‘to become angry.’

It’s the same word Matthew uses in chapter 2 to describe King Herod’s anger at learning the magi have escaped him.

It’s the same word Luke uses to describe how the congregation in Nazareth responds to Jesus’ first sermon right before they try to kill him.

So it’s not like Joseph is happy about it.

But still, Joseph decides to violate the Torah by refusing to condemn Mary.

Joseph ignores his obligation as a tsadiq by refusing to have Mary’s guilt tested by the bitter waters.

Joseph forsakes his power and privilege as a tsadiq for Mary’s sake, for a sinner’s sake.

     He decides to divorce her in secret.

He chooses love over the letter of the law.

He chooses compassion over condemnation.

He chooses sacrifice over safety and self-interest.

And here’s the giant thing Matthew hides in these few, little verses:

     Joseph makes that choice before the angel Gabriel ever whispers a word to him.

     Joseph chooses this path before he finds out that Mary is anything other than exactly what people will assume she is.

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Flash forward 30 years or so.

 

And the boy that Joseph made his own is all grown up.  And one day Joseph’s boy meets a woman at a well. Jacob’s well.

Even though it’s almost dark and Torah commands that they shouldn’t be talking with each other, especially at night, Joseph’s boy sits down next to her and does just that. The woman’s had 5 husbands and the man she’s with now, she’s not married to. Which, according to Torah, makes her guilty of adultery.

According to Torah, she’s exactly the type of person who deserves to be given the bitter waters.

But instead Joseph’s boy, who doesn’t even have a bucket, offers her something that sounds like the opposite of bitter waters: Living Water.

     Like father.

     Like son.

 

And one day, Joseph’s boy is at the Mt of Olives and a group of experts in the law- tsadiqs- come up to him, carrying stones and a woman they’ve caught in adultery.

She’s guilty.

And Joseph’s boy knows what the Torah commands. He can probably cite the chapter and verse: Deuteronomy 22.

It’s not an ambiguous case; it’s a dare.

And Joseph’s boy looks down at the ground and responds with a double-dare: ‘Whoever is without sin may cast the first stone.’

And when he looks up the tsadiqs have all left, leaving their stones on ground. Then Joseph’s boy kneels down and looks the woman in the eyes and says the opposite of what Torah commands: ‘I do NOT condemn you.’

     Like father, like son.

And one day as Joseph’s boy is leaving synagogue a leper reaches out to him and says ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’

Because he’s not clean, Torah is clear about that.  And Torah is clear about commanding that Joseph’s boy should put as much distance as possible between himself and this leper.

But instead Joseph’s boy reaches out to him and touches him and says to ‘I do choose.’ And Joseph’s boy reaches out to him and touches him and says that to him before he heals him.

And then Joseph’s boy flees to the wilderness.

He has to- because the leper’s uncleanness has become his own.

    Like father, like son.

And when Joseph’s boy returns from the wilderness he invites himself to dinner.

At a tax collector’s house.

And it’s when Joseph’s boy is seated around a table, eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors- people who were considered am-ha-aretz by good Jews- that’s when Joseph’s boy uses the word ‘disciple’ for the very first time.

But I can’t help but wonder if maybe Joseph’s boy was the first disciple.

I can’t help but wonder if maybe he was an apprentice in more than just carpentry.

 

When Joseph’s boy grows up, again and again, he chooses mercy over what the law mandates.

He reaches out to women Torah says he should reject.

He teaches ‘You’ve heard it said…I know Torah says this…but I say to you…’

He talks about the spirit of the law and not the letter.

He says the law was made for us to thrive; we weren’t made for the law to trip us up.

When he grows up, this son-of-a-former-tsadiq preaches ‘Blessed are those who…’ and in doing so he redefines ‘righteousness’ in a way that was all upside down from ‘right.’

    In other words, when he grows up Jesus acts and sounds an awful lot like his father.

     His earthly one.

I don’t know why that should surprise us.

After all, as Matthew points out, we call Jesus: ‘Emmanuel.’

God with us.

 

We believe that Jesus is fully God.

We believe that Jesus is God incarnate. God in the the flesh.

     But paradoxically, we also believe Jesus was fully human.

     As human as you or me.

Jesus stank and sweated. He spit up as a baby, and when he sneezed real boogers came out of his actual nose.

He was fully human.

And if you don’t believe that you’re committing the very first Christian heresy. Your thinking is what St John calls ‘anti-Christ.’

 

He was fully human.

He didn’t just seem human. He wasn’t God pretending to be human.

His humanity was not a disguise hiding divinity underneath.

His divinity did not steer his actions or control his thoughts anymore than you or me.

 

He was truly human. As human as you or me.

He got tired like we do. He got hungry like we do. He laughed and he wept like we do. He sometimes lost his temper and dropped a curse word like we do (Mark 7). He got constipated and everything else I can’t get away with mentioning in church.

Just. Like. We. Do.

    He was fully, completely, 100%, no artificiality, nothing missing, no faking it, human.

     And that means…

     that Jesus needed to be taught.

     Like we do.

Jesus needed to be taught how to pray.

Jesus needed to be formed by the practice of worship.

Jesus needed to be nurtured into his faith.

Jesus needed to be instructed in how to interpret scripture

Jesus needed to be trained to give and forgive.

Jesus needed to be discipled in what it means to follow God before he ever called his disciples to follow him.

     We believe that Jesus was truly human, as the creed says.

     You see, Jesus taught what he taught not because it was a satellite broadcast from our Father in heaven.

     No, Jesus taught what he taught because that’s what his father and mother taught him.

     And that’s the something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

 

Because if Jesus couldn’t be Jesus without his father, then my boys can’t possibly ever be like Jesus without theirs.

Without me. Without you. Without their mother. Without a community like this one.

Jesus needed to be apprenticed into the faithful person he became.

And so do my kids.

And so do yours.

And so do I.

And so do you.

     If Jesus wasn’t Jesus all by himself, then it’s ridiculous to think that we can be like Jesus all alone by ourselves.

That’s why we do what we do here.

Teaching the stories. Offering bread and wine. Baptizing with water. Serving the poor. Praying the prayer he taught us- which I’ll bet sounds just like the prayer his father taught him.

And that’s the reason we’re starting another faith community in Kingstowne.

Because if Jesus needed to be discipled before he could deliver the Sermon on the Mount, then we need to be discipled before we can live it.

And we can, you know.

Live it.

     Because if the incarnation is true, if Jesus was fully human, as human as you or me-

then the life of Christ isn’t just an impossible ideal we admire once a week.

It’s a life we can make our own.

Because if its true that Jesus was fully human, as human as you or me, then the logic of the incarnation works the other way too.

     If Jesus was as fully human as you or me, then you and I can become as fully human as him.

     If Jesus was fully human, then you and I become as fully human, as fully alive, as him.

It’s not just that Jesus got tired like we do, got hungry like we do, laughed and wept like we do.

No, if the incarnation is true, then we can forgive like he did.

We can serve and bless and welcome like he did.

We can receive those whom others would reject like he did.

Like him, we can turn the other cheek.

Like him, we can love our enemies.

Like him, we can give our selves to an upside Kingdom.

And like him, we can live such beautiful lives that God can’t help but to raise us from the dead.

But just like him we can’t do it by ourselves.


photo-1Last Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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I answered this question yesterday: Do you even like Christmas? Every year you seem determined to ruin Christmas by preaching on the dark, depressing stories. 

Here’s the sermon (WORST SERMON EVER #3) that prompted the question:

Matthew 1

The Genesis of Jesus

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, discharging her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano. The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger, prompting one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

This was the Fourth Sunday of Advent several years ago at a church I once pastored. A brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a Christmas pageant.

And because I was young an didn’t know any better and, honestly, because I was terrified of this woman I said yes.

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived.

So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel.

At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘We’ve got no room.”

The man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

John was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door. They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy. At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more uptown gigilo than biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the back bench in the narthex where the ushers normally sat.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program. On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes. Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a woman married to a man more than twice her age; she’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business. Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation. The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear: Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

Do you really think this is appropriate?

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St John begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus and a census, about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story with a genealogy:

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but Dennis wouldn’t let me.

Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of begats, going all the way back to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:
Everything about Christmas
Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel
All of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his

stable.
The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- it’s not the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-
There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat.
Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining

character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he slept with the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah.

Judah slept, again by mistake, with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. She’d cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

I mean- these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth getting in to bed with him.

Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a prostitute who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David, who fell in love with a girl he happened to see bathing naked one evening. David arranged for her husband to be murdered. He then slept with her and became the father of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw.

Matthew instead tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

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The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary. She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads.

Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began.

I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree.

About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list.

About her daughter’s broken marriage.

And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her medication-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with the Gospel of Matthew.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back. ‘No…no, I think it’s perfect.‘

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I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was up and down and then it was over.

I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

What I mean to say is-
I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come here and pretend you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that if God knew who you really were then he wouldn’t be born for you.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story. I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

But then again, so is ours.
And that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.
And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

and shepherds and mangers filled with straw.
The gift given tonight is that God comes to us just as we are.
Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be.

Tonight Emmanuel
God with us
Comes to us
Just as you are.
Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 


photo-1Last Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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Question: Do you even like Christmas? Every year you seem determined to ruin Christmas by preaching on the dark, depressing stories. 

Yes, for the record, I like Christmas. Love it.

I hate preaching Christmas though. Hate it.

People complain about the commercialization of Christmas and ‘Happy Holidays’ secularism, but actually I think the greatest threat to a Christian understanding of Christmas isn’t commercialization or secularism. It’s sentimentality.

And people love sentimentality. Believe me. I got a shoe box worth of hate mail the last time I preached Christmas Eve. Actual snail mail.

The problem with sentimentality is that it isn’t true. The Gospels don’t tell a sentimental Christmas story. Jesus is born in to poverty and oppression. His mother would’ve been viewed as an adulteress. He’s born with monsters like Herod and Caesar at this manger. When Jesus is born all the other new born sons are slaughtered- it was not a silent night. And no sooner is he born than his family become political refugees in Egypt.

So when we make Christmas sentimental, we forget the actual story. And when we forget the actual story, we risk forgetting why Jesus came in the first place and why we’re waiting for him to come again.

And on another note, I’d just add that, I grew up up in a broken home that was chaotic and anything but happy. So, I’m aware that when we make Christmas sentimental we’re not only describing something that’s not true about the Christmas story, we’re also describing something that’s not true for a whole lot of people in their own lives.

So for me, making sure Christmas isn’t all cuteness and cheer is a way of making sure those people know the story is for them too. For them especially maybe.

 


photo-1This Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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One thing you have to remember is that the early church was an oral culture. They were good storytellers and, being good storytellers, they would never begin a Gospel with a list of begats unless there was a good point they wanted their listeners to catch.

The first thing Matthew’s audience would’ve noticed is the fact that this isn’t a traditional Jewish genealogy. You can compare Matthew’s list to the lists in the Old Testament. Jewish genealogies were men’s only clubs. But Matthew’s has women in it.

And not just women. Gentiles. Matthew’s constructs a genealogy of Jews and Gentiles, and the only way Matthew can include Gentiles is through women because all the men in Jesus’ family were Jews. So Matthew works in Ruth and Rahab and Tamar and Bathsheba.

Those women aren’t just Gentiles. Matthew also constructs a genealogy of saints and sinners. Tamar slept with her father-in-law, on ‘accident.’ Ruth seduced Boaz. Bathsheba very likely seduced David. Rahab was a hooker.

So what Matthew’s doing isn’t trying to biologically tie Jesus to Jewish history because that would be impossible. What Matthew’s doing is giving you the overture to his Gospel; he’s hinting at the themes to come.

And one of those themes is the compassion Jesus shows women like Tamar and Rahab, who, incidentally, are the kind of women that most would’ve assumed Jesus’ own mother was.

He’s foreshadowing themes: Jesus’ compassion on sinners and women, Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles and outsiders. This becomes more obvious when you flip to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and see that it closes with Jesus giving his Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations…‘ Meaning: Jews and Gentiles.

So the genealogy isn’t about Jesus’ biological make-up; it’s about the make-up of his Kingdom. It’s Matthew’s of telegraphing that Christ will be a different of King.

A couple of other points:

The word genealogy is genesis. In the beginning. Matthew begins his Gospel in the same way the Hebrew Bible begins. This is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the beginning of a new creation.

Another thing, Matthew says ‘from the deportation to Babylon to the birth of the Messiah…’ In other words, Matthew’s suggesting Israel’s exile to Babylon never ended, that even though Israel returned from Babylon, their exile never truly ended until Jesus was born. That’s what makes ‘Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ an Advent song.

Lastly, Matthew’s not trying to give a proper, traditional family tree for Jesus, but if he wanted to he could do that through Joseph. As an adoptive father myself, I have a stake in this point. In the same way my boys have Virginia birth certificates though they were born in Guatemala, according to Jewish law, Jesus becomes Joseph’s legal son the moment Joseph claims him as such, which is what makes Joseph’s leap of faith and participation in the Christmas story so vital.

We’re winding down our sermon series, ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ This coming Sunday we’re tackling, perhaps unwisely, the troubling passage in Exodus 4.24. Look it up, enough said.

Here’s an old sermon on the little known story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. This was my second stab at the same passage. I guess Joseph’s moral fortitude all depends on how was good-looking Potiphar’s wife…

 

Genesis 39

  I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 

 

My sermon title for you today is: In Between Doxologies.

The narrative of Genesis 39 is bookended by the doxology: ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’

At its beginning and at its end, this story asserts that the Lord was with Joseph.

 

But a lot happens in between.

 

The same is true of the Christian life, for there is much sadness, sorrow and second-guessing sandwiched in between Sundays. In between Sunday’s lofty amen, praises and Gloria Patris, our faith has to touch down and make contact with the real world.

 

When I deliver the benediction week in and week out and send you forth from the worship gathering, you’re sent out into a world that appears altogether deprived of dream-coats, divine intrusions or dramatic change.

 

In between our Sunday doxologies, we make our lives on difficult terrain. In between our Sunday doxologies, most of us lack Joseph’s uncomplaining resolve, consistent virtue and unwavering faith.

For God’s Providence is hardly that apparent, and we are seldom that strong.

 

The Joseph story is not an easy template around which we can stencil our lives.

 

Too often, when we hit up against the uncertainties of the real world, echoes of stories like this one rattle around in our memory and we think: I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story.

 

A congregation as smart as this one knows well that the Joseph story begins with the hopeful hints of a dream and ends with the joy of a tear-stained reconciliation.

 

But much happens in between.

 

Joseph’s dream-coat’s been worn ragged by more than a few nightmares.

 

The dream-bearer’s brothers have sold him into slavery, and, as chapter 39 opens, Joseph falls into the charge of Potiphar, an otherwise unknown Egyptian officer. The nightmare abates briefly as Joseph, the slave, wins his Egyptian master’s trust.

 

Soon Joseph has the entire Egyptian estate prospering. For a little while, the dream-bearer finds favor and comfort living under the yoke of the Egyptian empire.

 

But it was not to last.

For reasons ambiguous, Potiphar’s wife preys on Joseph. She may think she is looking for love, but like all such instances of sexual abuse it is really about power.

 

Joseph possesses a power and a virtue that Potiphar’s wife can only intuit, and she grabs after it even as she grabs for his clothes.

 

Joseph resists without hesitation. His virtue is as ironclad as a chastity belt. Yet Potiphar’s wife proves herself a persistent predator. She wins their seductive stalemate by accusing him of rape, waving his loincloth in the air as the damning evidence.

 

Her accusations fall on easy ears, for Potiphar throws Joseph into prison where, we are once again assured: ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’ 

 

No, Joseph’s story is no simple template for the life of faith.

He bears the dream with ease and grace through what we would consider an unqualified nightmare.

Joseph is no easy model of faith.

 

 

No matter the nightmares, Joseph never doubts- never resents- his divine dreams.

 

Through brotherly betrayal, enslavement and imprisonment; the dream-bearer never, he never once distresses. Taking everything in stride, he never utters a single complaining word about his enslavement.

 

After Potiphar’s wife makes her predatory accusations, Joseph is never given a fair hearing- because he never asks for one.

 

He never protests her charges. He never seeks retribution. He never utters an angry, disparaging word about this sly woman or her fool of a husband.

 

Through what we would, no doubt, consider a nightmare, Joseph bears the dream with steadfast ease. Joseph body-surfs the waves of tribulation and he never once relaxes his resolve.

 

He never once questions his predicament. He never once frets that the burden is too much to bear. He never once shakes his fist at the sky and pleads to know why the God who gave him dreams now has given him nightmares.

Joseph is no easy model of faith.

 

     I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 

 

I first heard those words on a steamy summer morning at the state prison in New Jersey where I ministered.

 

Those words pierced me with their honesty…and their hard-felt, heart-felt accuracy. In the tiring humidity, Hector Castaneda looked at me with his reluctant eyes, and- with his spare response- revealed my pastoral wisdom to be that of a bathtub: shallow but deep enough to drown in.

 

Hector’s beige jumpsuit showed a year’s worth of wear. He was a bit older than me and a little taller. He was stocky with short, black hair, and he had the gardner’s hands of his previous profession.

 

His bulky, unfashionable, state-issued glasses slid down his sweaty nose. Hector and I sat in the chaplain’s classroom just off the prison auditorium. These grimy industrial fans blew stale warm air on us and drowned out our voices.

 

I was the theologically trained pastor, sitting in a squat plastic chair. Hector sat across from me; he had made an appointment. To tell me his story.

 

Hector told me of the father back in Guatemala he never knew. He told me about the multitude of jobs his mother always selflessly juggled. He half-smiled and told me of his two small children, the children that his wife had recently left with their grandmother without explanation and without a return address.

 

He confessed his crime, his only one. A common one. He was guilty, yes, but his guilt was grossly exaggerated by the strict, immigrants-only sentence he had received.

 

Hector told me about the guards, the police officers, and the judges who all looked very much like me. And the lawyer, who also looked a lot like me and who had stopped calling once the money ran out.

 

Hector looked at me with earnest eyes, waiting for a wise word from this theologically trained, spiritually sophisticated pastor- a teacher of the faith.

 

And what did I say?

 

What word did I offer?

 

I pointed him to a concise, little prison drama in Genesis 39.

 

I culled my pastoral insights and tried to acquaint Hector with Joseph, the dreamer who suffered many nightmares and found himself behind bars…with nary a complaint.

 

I held up patient, resilient Joseph, and I encouraged Hector to stencil his life around it. It’ll work out; just stay in the lines.

 

But Hector checkmated me with his incisive reply: I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 

 

And of course Hector was right.

I should’ve realized that Joseph makes for a difficult trace when the faithful life succeeds only in getting your things stolen every night because you refused to fight back- because that was be the Christian thing to do.

 

I should’ve realized Joseph was a painful model of faith, when you got beat up weekly for breaking the jailhouse silence and reporting abuse through the proper channels- because that was the Christian thing to do.

 

I should’ve remember the prejudicial slurs that I’d heard firsthand coming from the mouths of Hector’s guards.

 

I should’ve recalled the angry letters from Hector’s elementary-aged kids, wondering why he was not yet home and how they needed his help on their homework.

 

No, Hector’s story had a few more details than Genesis 39.

 

Joseph was no simple stencil for the life of faith.

 

 

Friends, this is my tenth year of ministry. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that folks like Hector are all around us.

 

They may look different. They may surprise you. They may come to church every Sunday dressed gloriously and sing like angels.

 

But, like Hector, they feel pulled by the tension between faith and life.

 

God’s voice frequently sounds muted to them. God does not always overwhelm or intrude upon their lives. There are some who are so mired in the ups and downs of their everydays that falling in and out of faith is the only constant rhythm to their lives.

 

Yes, there are folks like Hector all around you, if you only look.

 

You may be like Hector yourself, thinking you can’t, thinking you’re not strong enough, thinking this Story isn’t your story.

 

Hectors are everywhere. The Josephs are rare indeed.

 

Joseph’s resolve is not necessarily our resolve.

Joseph’s virtue is not always our virtue.

Joseph’s faithfulness is not often our faithfulness.

 

More often than not, when we’re knee-deep in the gray water of life- the real world, what will come to us won’t be Joseph’s unwavering, uncomplaining unafraid resolve.

What will come to us will be something more like Hector’s exhausted confession: ‘I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story.’ 

But here’s the thing-

 

It doesn’t have to be.

 

Joseph’s story doesn’t have to be our story. Or, better still, our story doesn’t need to resemble Joseph’s story…

Because you and I:

We have Jesus.

 

We have the One who modeled the life of faith and obedience perfectly.

For our sake.

For all time.

We have Jesus of Nazareth, the One in whom God has come to us and through whom God has become one of us- for us.

 

Neither Hector nor I nor you can reliably trump trial and tribulation, day in and day out.

 

But we need not despair, because for forty days Jesus Christ faced that which Israel never could, that which we cannot.

 

     We can’t; we’re not that strong. 

 

But we don’t have to be, for in Jesus Christ God does that which we cannot do ourselves.

In the garden, Christ prays in our place, because he dares to pray ‘Thy will be done’ even as he knows that prayer will lead him to the Cross.

 

We can’t. We’re not that strong.

 

But we don’t have to be.

 

Rather than despair over what you’re not, over who you’re not- you can instead rejoice that in Jesus Christ God becomes the accursed, the condemned, the Judge judged in your place.

 

So come to the Table and do not despair over the disparity between who you are and who God would have you be.

 

But rejoice- rejoice that Jesus Christ is the one true sacrifice for all those ways and all those days when you are not as strong, not as virtuous, not as resilient as Joseph.

 

Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine remind us that its not our faithfulness- its not our obedience- that God measures us by. It’s Jesus Christ’s.

 

Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine remind us that our weakness has been overwhelmed by his strength, his obedience counts for more than our disobedience, our every sin and our every shortcoming has been swallowed up by his perfect sacrifice.

 

Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine promise us:

that when you’re in between the doxologies in your life

when you’re sure you can’t

when you’re locked away in some dark place

and you’re convinced you’re not strong enough-

it’s not your strength God’s given you to lean on.

But Jesus Christ’s

     That’s our Story. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.