What are you really made of?
A sermon on Matthew 1: 18-25 by Nathan Nettleton, 23 December 2001
Joseph is an admirable model of the willingness to put calling and values ahead of convenience or reputation.
Last week I commented on how doing what we have just done spending time in prayerful silence can be confronting and unsettling because it allows space for our own questions and uncertainties to begin nagging at us. It could be confronting and unsettling for a quite different reason too. God might speak to us! And while God does often speak words of encouragement and comfort, more often than not when God speaks there is something in the message that could turn your world upside down if you were to take it seriously. Just ask Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth.
Joseph, we are told, was a good man; a man who always did what was right. He kept his nose clean; he worked hard; he stayed out of trouble; he did the right thing by his neighbours; he did unto others as hed have them do unto him. Joe Davidson, model citizen, all round good bloke. You know people like Joseph; there are lots of them. In fact most people I know and probably most people in this country would happily identify with that description. They might not say it too loudly, for fear of looking a bit too full of themselves, but most people set about living hard-working peaceable lives and doing the right thing by others. Live and let live. Do unto others... That sort of thing. Thats us. Mr and Ms Average Good Bloke and Blokess.
But one day, things begin to go wrong for Mr Average Good Bloke Joe Davidson. His fiance Mary confesses that shes pregnant, and although hes no obstetrician, Joseph has a fair idea how these things happen and he knows that he had nothing to do with it. And when you know that youve had nothing to do with it that means that someone else has, and your fiance has betrayed you. When youre the sort of bloke who always does the right thing by others, you cant go getting yourself hitched to someone who has proven themselves incapable of doing the right thing by you. No doubt Joseph had his moments of wanting to tell the whole town how Mary had done the dirty on him, but being the good bloke that he was, he decided to just quietly call off their engagement and not add to the trouble she had already made for herself. Do unto others and all that sort of thing.
But then Joseph has a dream, and in this dream a messenger of God shows up. Your Bible probably says it was an angel, but in both biblical languages, the word angel simply means messenger and doesnt imply halos and wings and harps. The word angel was used to describe anyone who was sent with a message from God. Anyway, the message delivered from God says, Joe Davidson, go ahead and get married to Mary. She hasnt done the dirty on you. It was my Holy Spirit who made her pregnant. She will give birth to a boy who you are to raise as your own. He will save his people from their sins.
Now right here, Joe Davidson, all round good bloke, is standing at the crossroads. This is where hes going to show the world what hes really made of. These moments come to all of us, although thankfully they dont usually come in quite the bizarre circumstances that they did for Joseph. But the ordinary circumstances of ordinary lives throw up situations where we have to decide what we are really committed to. Are we really people who do the right thing by everyone, or does that only hold so long as others do the right thing by us? Do we really do unto others as we would have them do unto us, or does that only hold so long as we know them and can rely on them to return the favour? Are we really ready to obey God no matter what, or does that only hold so long as God doesnt call us to do anything that might expose us to ridicule, rumour or major inconvenience?
We know what Joseph was made of. When God challenged him to take the hard road, he took it. If he had just walked away, all his friends and relations would have patted him on the back and commended him for doing the right thing, as always. But God asked him to walk away from his reputation instead. Nowadays, fathering a child which was conceived before your wedding wouldnt cost you much in terms of reputation, but in Josephs day, it almost certainly cost him business and the respect of his neighbours. Even today, many loving caring good blokes find it very difficult to commit themselves fully to raising a child that they know is not their own. Joseph has to choose between doing the right thing, and maintaining the appearance of doing the right thing. When push came to shove, Joseph proved that his commitment to doing the right thing was not just skin deep; it went to the core of his being.
This is the time of year when the majority of the Australian community are conscious of Joseph and Mary and Jesus, and participate enthusiastically in celebrations that still maintain some identifiable connection with their story. Tomorrow night, the biggest rating show on Melbourne television will be coverage of the glitzy show at the Myer Music Bowl where a range of high profile personalities will sing carols, many of which speak specifically of Joseph, Mary and the birth of Jesus. As a pastor Im quite used to the phenomena of people feeling the need to tell me that they intend to come to church sometime soon, but at this time of year, the variation is that they tell me that they will watch the carols from the Bowl. The difference, of course, is that they actually will watch the carols, but they tell me with the same air of needing to prove in the presence of a pastor that they really are Christian. In this country, being a model citizen who always does the right thing and does unto others etc is still understood as being somehow Christian, and singing the carols is part of the package.
But singing carols is easy. Ill bet Joseph would have much rather the message from God had asked him to prove that he was an all round good bloke by faithfully singing Christmas carols every year. The hard part is integrating the values of those carols into the core of your life. As Hugh Mackay pointed out in the paper the other day, the survey statistics tell us that the vast majority of those singing joyous Christmas carols in this country this week are in favour of closing our borders to desperate people seeking refuge from violence and oppression elsewhere in the world. We can sing about Joseph and his family having to flee to Egypt as refugees, but if he tried to flee to Australia hed be just another middle-eastern illegal and wed send the navy out to make sure he didnt enter our territorial waters.
When Joseph stood at the crossroads point of his life and God challenged him to do the right thing even against public opinion, conventional morality and good common sense, Joseph proved himself to be a man of integrity. Our nation has stood at the crossroads in recent months and proved itself to be a nation of heartless and godless selfishness. And no amount of carol singing can whitewash that. The wisdom of this season of Advent is that it challenges us to prepare for the celebration of Christmas by remembering that the one whose birth we will celebrate is the same one who will come to judge the substance of our lives and expose what we are really made of. Tomorrow night we are going to sing lots and lots of Christmas carols. Lets sing them with joy and enthusiasm, just like everybody else, but lets also remember Joseph, and remember that when God calls us to commit ourselves to the Christ-child in the real world, saying Yes may not be nearly as easy or popular as singing carols.