Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Birth Announcements: To an Upright Man

Sunday, December 24, 2006

 

 

Matthew 1: 18-25

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

The Gospels tell us very little about Joseph. Mary is intricately a part of the Jesus story from cradle to cross, appearing again and again in Jesus’ life and ministry, but we don’t know much about Joseph. 

 

We have the passage that is our Scripture lesson this morning and a few other things: that an angel told Joseph to take Jesus as a child to Egypt to save his life from King Herod and then, after King Herod died, an angel told Joseph to return again to Israel (Matt. 2: 13-15; 2: 19-23); and that Joseph was a descendant of David, Israel’s greatest King (Matt. 1:15; Luke 2: 4). This is why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to the Gospel of Luke, because Joseph had to go to the city of David, Bethlehem, to participate in a census. 

 

The only other time Joseph is referred to at all is when Jesus tries to preach and teach in his hometown and people scoff and won’t listen because he was just “the carpenter’s son.” (Matt. 13:55)

 

But Joseph is one of those to whom the angels announced Jesus’ birth.

 

Our theme during this Advent / Christmas season is birth announcements. The nativity stories in the Bible are full of birth announcements by angels and stars and heavenly hosts.

 

And one of the people to whom the angels announce Jesus’ birth is Joseph.

 

The nativity stories are some of the purest theology in the Bible. These stories were written after Jesus death and resurrection by the first Christians to articulate the truth of whom they believed Jesus to be, and thus their theological understanding of the heart of God that Jesus reveals.

 

What are the theological truths within the story of the birth announcement to Joseph?

 

The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes this about Joseph: he was an upright man…a righteous man. The Greek word is Dikaios [dik'-ah-yos].  It means one who obeys the commandments, someone who follows the rules, who does what is right according to the understanding of right and wrong that he has learned from his religion and tradition. Furthermore, it implies someone who can be trusted to do this, someone who has a reputation for dependably doing what is right and proper.

 

Joseph was a dikaious man, an upright man, a righteous man.

 

And this is no small thing. Commandments and rules are important. It was commandments and rules that took Israel from chaos to community, from anarchy to nationhood. It was commandments and rules that won Israel respect among the nations and that won Israel’s God honor among the world’s many deities.

 

At the heart of Israel’s commandments, laws and rules were principles like fairness, fidelity, faithfulness to your promises, justice, integrity.

 

Commandments and rules are valuable and important. They are checks on our human capacity for self-justification – our almost infinite capacity to rationalize whatever it is that we want to do for the sake of our own desires, and greed, and neediness.

 

The “creative accounting” that has brought major public corporations to ruin or near-ruin and destroyed the careers of some of our nation’s top executive’s in recent history is a reminder that rules, such as the rules of accounting and auditing, exist for a reason.

 

Scandals within the churches and within the political realm remind us that rules exist for a purpose. Commandments and laws and rules are important.

 

Joseph was a dikaious man, a trustworthy man with a reputation that he could be depended upon to obey the commandments and to follow the rules.

 

Reputation is important. Who of us does not value our reputation as trustworthy, honest, dependable, competent, caring? Shakespeare wrote: “Who steals my purse steals trash; …But he that filches from me my good name…makes me poor indeed."[i]  

 

In whatever we seek to do with our lives our reputations are invaluable. Reputation is important.

 

Joseph was a dikaious man, an upright man who followed the commandments and the rules with a reputation as an upright and righteous man.

 

And in the nativity story in Matthew what Joseph is asked to do is to sacrifice both his uprightness and his reputation for the sake of what God was seeking to do in the birth of Jesus.

 

Joseph was engaged to be married to Mary. Before they had lived together Mary became pregnant. Being an upright, righteous man Joseph resolved to end the engagement because of Mary’s apparent breach of her promise. He intended to do it quietly in a compassionate way, but this was the least that the rules required. To be a dikaious man, an upright and righteous man, meant holding others accountable to their promises as well as being trustworthy to be faithful to his own.

 

And not to end the engagement would be to sacrifice his hard-earned reputation, because it would be a public admission that he had broken the commandments, the law, the rules, by fathering a child with Mary when he was not yet married to her.

 

But this is exactly what God’s angel asked Joseph to do in a dream when the angel announced to Joseph Jesus’ birth.

 

The key, I think, to understanding the significance of this for us today is the words spoken by the angel. The angel said in Joseph’s dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife...”

 

Do not be afraid.

 

It is risky to give up rules for the sake of principles. We want to know what we should and shouldn’t do written down in black and white in one of the books we use. Clear and direct answers.

 

But God apparently doesn’t want robotic obedience. God wants partners.

 

We perhaps don’t really know ourselves until we are in a situation in which choosing to do that which is right and good forces us to break the rules. We don’t really know ourselves until doing that which is right and good may lose us our good reputation.

 

Joseph, son of David, dikaious man, do not be afraid to break the rules, do not be afraid to give up your good reputation. There is something larger at stake here.

 

Jesus said he had come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. His life was a judgment of those of us who obey the letter of the law but miss its deeper meaning.

 

Jesus’ coming was an expression of God’s deep longing that we might live together finally not merely following rules but committed to the principles of integrity, faithfulness and caring that the rules are meant to facilitate….Not letting either rules or reputation get in the way of profoundly honest and caring relationships.

 

Bill Coffin used to compare commandments and rules to the stakes you use to hold up tomato plants when you are growing a garden. When they are young, the stakes keep the plants from falling, but when the plants become strong the stakes become unnecessary.

 

Jesus is an expression of God’s deep longing not to regulate us but to live inside of us, to grow inside of us and among us, to be Emmanuel – God with us, God in us, God through us.

 

 

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[i] William Shakespeare, "Othello", Act 3 scene 3.