‘At least you know that you don’t know who your father was!’ my mother said to me
‘Lots of people think they know….’
It was a joke, I think and I like to believe that she knew that I was so comfortable about being adopted that she could afford to make such jokes, without upsetting me….
But I think that the identity crises which we, as adopted children, may encounter from time to time, are as nothing to the angst of a man discovering that his wife is pregnant, with someone else’s child.
In 2010 the BBC broadcast a totally brilliant series called ‘the Nativity’ (The Nativity on BBC) in which the whole story of Jesus’ birth was explored in great detail. I have just been viewing it again, because it is SO good – its available on I-Tunes.
One of the fascinating thing about the screen writer Tony Jordan’s portrayal of the nativity story is that he uses his imagination to flesh out, the few words about the nativity in gospel of Matthew, into the sort of actions and conversations that surely must have taken place….
Joseph’s reaction, in the Tony Jordan version, of the nativity story, when he finds Mary pregnant, on her return from an extended stay with her cousin Elizabeth, is realistic: He does what I think any man would do in such circumstances: he smashes up furniture and china, he goes on a rampage across his workshop, destroying everything in his way, giving full vent to his emotions.
But in Matthew 1: 19 all we learn is what he decides to do as a result of how he is feeling: he decides to put aside the betrothal.
But why does he do this?
You know I think ancient icons and mediaeval art give us a picture of Joseph and Mary which makes them appear so holy that they fail to be an example for us, they are just too good, the pictures show them kneeling with a halo, looking heavenwards, agreeing to accept God’s will, regardless of the consequences.
But we are just not so good as that….
So what can we learn about ourselves – real people, with all our faults from this little story
at the beginning of Matthew?
And we can all learn something from this, so for the women amongst us, this means you as well as the men.
In fact, please turn to your neighbour and say ‘be more like Joseph!’ and respond ‘I will’
And then say it to me…
So what can we learn?
Firstly, why does Joseph decide to put aside the betrothal?
It’s not just that Joseph’s reputation, even his identity, as a man, has been comprehensively crushed, in about the most painful way it could be;
it is not just that he is humiliated before his whole community;
not just that he has become a laughing stock, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and the subject of everyone’s gossip;
but rather that the hopeful love that he bears, for his pure bride (who was probably very young) has been so cruelly disappointed;
He doesn’t want it to be true, but the evidence before his eyes is clear. Mary is evidently not the girl, that he thought she was; evidently she is not the pure girl that he fell in love with, but rather someone who would just sleep with someone else, given the opportunity, of an extended stay with her cousin Elizabeth, even though she is engaged to Joseph
Joseph’s emotional reaction can easily be imagined….
Indeed it has to be imagined, as it is by Tony Jordan, because all we have in the brief passage in Matthew is not Joseph’s emotions at all, but only the bare decision that Joseph took in the circumstances.
Verse 19 reads as follows:
‘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.’
He had decided to put aside the betrothal, the engagement which, in those days, was a binding contract undertaken a year before marriage, a year before co-habitation. And which, it seems, required a divorce to break.
Anyway, Joseph had decided to separate from her in a way which avoided her being publicly humiliated or even stoned.
‘What a decent man!’, we might think, or any right thinking person might think in those days to avoid her humiliation: doing the right thing…
But its clear that this decision, however reasonable, is driven entirely in reality by Joseph’s emotions, by his injured pride…
It’s a mistake that all of us can easily make, when we are making decisions in any aspect of life, especially, perhaps, in matters directly concerning God, and the church.
We can decide on the basis of our emotions, putting our pride first, and our God second.
The longer I spend in this job, and the more I get to know people who don’t come to church, I realise that there must be many people, thousands perhaps, throughout the country, who have decided not to attend church anymore because of some slight
from someone in the church. Perhaps even not from the current vicar or church warden but even from the one before, or the one before that, something that was handled badly.
And when you hear the story, the reason that they don’t attend, you might agree that they had a point actually: the vicar before the one before the one before was rude when he said that thing; the church warden, who is now buried in the church yard, did behave very badly.
And as my friend Rupert Charkham, the vicar of Holy Trinity Cambridge, always says:
‘you can’t tell the good news, if you are the bad news’. The good character of those of us
who are church members, and particularly in any sort of church leadership is incredibly important, if we are to make any progress for the Kingdom in the community in which we live.
One theologian and vicar Robert Murray McCheyne wrote: ‘my people’s need is my own personal holiness’.
And that is true not just for church leaders, but for all of us who are part of the body of Christ, whether in leadership or not if we are to make any impact at all in our community.
Its a constant struggle…
But is it putting God first when we make a decision about our involvement with the church community on those emotional grounds, however reasonable?
God expects to be put first, because if we put ourselves, our pride, ahead of what God wants in any situation, then we are effectively worshipping another god: we are effectively worshipping, ourselves.
To love self ahead of loving God is idolatry
It’s a mistake we can all make
But, you may say, that’s all very well Alex, but does that mean that our emotions are no guide as to how we should take decisions?
What happens if the circumstances which have made us so emotional are not what God wants? What happens is God is as angry as us about what is going on in the church?
Emotion can be a helpful guide to identifying something which is wrong
‘What about Jesus in the temple, you might continue?’ ‘When he turned over the tables of the money changers there was plenty of emotion there!’
That’s all true, but when we are heavily affected by our emotions, we do need to stop, step back and ask ourselves before we make any decisions: is this about my pride or about my God? Am I righteously angry in defence of my Lord or just angry because, who I am, what I want, is in someway being challenged or I am not being shown the respect to which I am entitled?
Jesus was angry in defence of God and the insult to God’s holiness that the money changers in the temple represented; his was righteous anger; anger against sin…
And what we need to do is to put aside our emotion for one moment and seek to find out from God what he wants in the situation, and be willing to bow to his will.
This is the path of true humility: putting God first and our pride second.
But how do we find out what God wants?
If you are sailor and you want to navigate into Naples at night, I understand that there is a very narrow window to avoid you crashing onto the rocks on one side or the other.
So the port authorities have set up a number of navigational lights, and once you are correctly positioned for entry you see them in a straight row and you know that you can safely enter the port.
In the same way, we need to line up the five ways in which God guides us to see what God’s will is in any situation:
it can be from reading the Bible (convicting scripture)
speaking to other Christians (counsel of the saints)
using our common sense (common sense)
looking at what are called circumstantial signs – coincidences which tend to point
in one direction or another (circumstantial signs)
and seeking what the Holy Spirit – that still small voice is saying or is telling us even in dreams….. (compelling spirit)
And so we return to Joseph. If Mary had really slept with another man, then by the standards of the time, divorcing her quietly was a generous and righteous thing to do.
He was justified in being angry against sin because his emotions and God’s standards would have been aligned; because his pure bride appeared to have been defiled by her choice, no-one was suggesting she had been raped after all…
But the situation was not as it appeared….
The paradox is, of course, that it is precisely because Mary was the pure bride, the purest of brides, and, most importantly, was willing to do God’s will, whatever the cost to her, that God had chosen her to carry his son.
Joseph had decided to divorce her…and then God, through the Holy Spirit, intervenes: Joseph has a dream.
We read in verse 20: ‘But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.
The penny drops….
Joseph puts aside his anger and disappointment and puts aside his understandable emotions, and decides to take Mary home as his wife and most importantly of all , and this is where we come back to adoption, he does the one thing, which clearly indicated to everyone at the time, that he had adopted Mary’s child as his own, regardless of what people thought, regardless of the understandable emotions that he must have felt…
He does the one thing that indicated to everyone at the time that he totally associated himself and his family line with Mary’s son; that he had entirely submitted to God’s will
in that situation, despite everything that he initially felt, every assault to his own pride,that he decided to identify himself completely with God’s will…..
He does the one thing that indicates all this
That one thing is to give the baby the name that God had ordained for him: