A War Cry: Joseph and Family - Matthew 1:18-25 (HIUMC)

Almost every family has one.  The family gathers, and there they are.  They couldn’t stay at home, you couldn’t not invite them (well you could, but then there’s all the disruption that would cause in and of itself—there’s the whole thing of not letting the rest of the world know about that person and your family’s problem with them).  So they show up…and it’s clear to everyone there that you really don’t want them around.  If there’s a meal, they don’t get to sit at the main table (or if they do, the hosts have already worked out ahead of time who has to sit beside them).  When they walk into a room, the conversation completely grinds to a halt (most likely because the conversation was about how everyone couldn’t believe they had the nerve to show up, considering what they had done).  Maybe they rang your doorbell yesterday.  Maybe you were the one ringing the doorbell.
We are in week three of our “A War Cry” journey, as we consider the signs of God’s declaration of war that we call Christmas—the ways in which God entered the darkness of our world in the Christmas story to battle and overcome sin and death.    We have been examining the key elements of the nativity to better understand the role they played in God’s plan.  We began with not a person, but a place—Bethlehem.  We learned that contrary to being just a sleepy little suburb of Jerusalem, that Bethlehem holds great significance in the history of God’s people—from being the burial location of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel—to being the central location stories of idolatry, butchery, and death in the time of the Judges—to being the home of Naomi as she returned to Israel after losing her husband and two sons—to being the hometown of King David though even that story reflects humanity’s tendency toward prejudice.  The significance of Bethlehem’s selection as the birthplace of the Son of God is that there is no place too dark for God to enter in, no place so filled with sin that God won’t enter in. There is no place or no person that is truly God-forsaken. It is through the manger, cross, and empty tomb, God has entered into battle and won the war.
Two weeks ago, we considered Mary.  We delved into the world of honor and shame that was part of the culture of Mary and Joseph’s time. We considered that because of that, that Mary may not have eagerly agreed to God’s request through Gabriel, but knowing that she risked becoming an outcast from her family, and even being stoned to death by her family and the community, with trembling and hesitation, Mary agreed to join God’s cause.  Mary willingly agreed to be part of God’s plan to liberate His people and all the world from the injustices of those living under the consequences of sin and evil.  With that consent, Mary entered into the darkness of the first Christmas story. She was forced to flee her home, heading at first to spend the first months of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous time of expectation.  After Elizabeth gave birth to John, Mary went to live with Joseph as they quickly moved up their wedding date, moving from engaged to betrothed.
Today, we enter further into the darkness and danger of the nativity story, as we move from considering Mary to considering the man who would agree to be Jesus’ earthly father. In our reading this morning, we read that Joseph was a righteous man. This meant that Joseph felt bound by the Law of his faith.  He sought to please God by living a life that would be obedient to God’s expectations. What we don’t read is that Joseph was also a grace-filled man. We see this as he resolved to dismiss Mary quietly. Being part of that honor driven culture, Joseph could have, within his rights, been the first to call for Mary’s death. Her pregnancy was a smack in the face to his reputation. Yet, we read that he planned to dismiss her quietly-simply having them part and go their own separate ways. He could not just ignore it and go own with their relationship—that would cause him to look like he disregarded or even had contempt for the Law. So, to maintain his image, and treat Mary as kindly as possible, Joseph decides to dismiss her. However, no sooner than he makes this decision, God, as He did with Mary, sends Joseph an angel.  The angel invites Joseph to volunteer for service in God’s Christmas campaign: “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, got he will save his people from their sins.”
The dream through which the angel spoke had a powerful impact on Joseph, because he woke up, and without hesitation took Mary to be his wife. This cannot have been an easy choice for Joseph. It had the potential to cost him dearly. It could have a significant professional and financial impact on him.  With his reputation of being an upstanding, faithful man tarnished by the appearance of having taken an unfaithful wife, folks would have looked elsewhere for carpentry or construction work-the idea of boycotting a business you don’t agree with did not begin with the AFA’s “Naughty and Nice List” for Christmas shopping. In addition, there was the potential for personal loss as well. For Joseph to take Mary into his life and his home would risk Joseph being ostracized by his family in the same way and for the same reason as Mary was rejected, and if we turn to the Gospel of Luke, and put out of our thinking the years of Christmas mythology we grew up with, we will see that is likely what happened.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Up until the last few years, I have read and heard that text in much the same way as many of us. The villain of the story is the uncaring innkeeper. He has all his wealthy guests coming unto town and looks at this poor couple, with Mary already in labor, and says I have no room, but I can put you out with the livestock. What if I told you that if we look more closely at the biblical text, we find a different villain, or set of villains, and a much more heart-wrenching story.
Going back to the Greek text we read that there was no room in the kataluma [kat·al·oo·mah]. The only other place that word is used in the Gospel of Luke is when Jesus is having his disciples go to prepare for that final Passover meal.  They were to go into Jerusalem, to a man’s home, and ask him for the use of his kataluma, his guestroom, or spare room.  It was a personal home, not Jerusalem’s Motel 6.  In contrast, when Luke relates Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is to a pandocheion [pan·dokk·i·on], an inn, he takes the injured victim.
What difference does it make?  Well, consider where the Scriptures say that Joseph took Mary—because of the census, he was to return to his hometown. Think about that, my brothers and sisters, you are traveling with your pregnant wife, you are already struggling financially, due to the “morality” boycott, where are you going to seek help, compassion, and a place to stay? Not the Hilton, that was just up the road in Jerusalem—if you want to think of what they would have found in Bethlehem, think of Bethlehem as Harkers Island and Jerusalem as New Bern or Jacksonville—most likely you would go to a relative’s home.  While most of the family has moved elsewhere or passed on, your Uncle Jacob is still in town and he has a good-sized home.  You knock on Uncle Jacob’s door and as he opens it, Mary lets out an agonizing, contraction-induced groan.  The disapproving look on his face clearly lets you know that Mary’s reputation has preceded y’all’s arrival.  You ask for compassion, for space in his home, for mercy for your wife…and are met with a stare.  His wife whispers to him, he steps outside and motions for you to follow him.  He leads you around to the back of the house, and down the grade into the stable, and motions to the hay before turning away and walking back into the house.  Later, Uncle Jacob’s wife comes, bringing some spare cloths, sheets that appeared to be ready to be discarded, and said, “Joseph, even if things were right, even if this was your child, you know we couldn’t have you in the house.  All the blood, if she were to give birth in that room where all of your cousins have come to stay for the census, everything and everyone in there would be rendered unclean and we wouldn’t be able to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath.”
Think of the consequences that both Mary and Joseph would likely have endured.  It is a lot different than much of the pageantry we are used to…both rejected and cast aside by their families, and possibly the greater community, all for agreeing to submit to God’s Will as God sought to bring salvation to all the world.
As we consider that, my friends, we have to stop and ask ourselves, where are we in comparison?  When God seeks our enlistment in His service, what are we willing to risk, what are we willing to endure?
Are we willing to put our reputations in the community on the line?  Maybe we’re asked to take a stand in our community alongside those whose skin color is different, who don’t speak English, whose legal citizenship is in question.
Are we willing to put our financial stability at risk?  Are we willing to run our business as Jesus would have run them—ensuring fair wages, fair prices, ethical acquiring of the resources we sell or provide, environmental care of the resources we consume?  Are we willing to make sure that our financial investments, including our retirement, meet the same standards—whether or not it limits or puts our investment at greater risk?
Are we willing to alienate ourselves from our families?  Are we willing to make our commitment to worship, our commitment to study, our commitment to serve, and our commitment to follow Christ ahead of even our families?  Are we willing to say to them, whether they are in our homes every day or visiting from out of town, “I will be in worship today, I would love for you to join me, but that is your choice?”  Will we say, “I am honoring the Sabbath, I will be learning in Sunday School and worshiping with the congregation, not slaving over a hot stove, we can enjoy sandwiches, soup, and conversation when we get back home”?  Are we willing to commit fully to following Christ, even if it means that our family will not take that walk with us and choose to go a separate way?
My brothers and sisters, as we continue to consider God’s War Cry, when He calls on us to risk it all, as we continue our journey through this Advent season where we not only prepare to celebrate His birth, but also anticipate and prepare for His return, where are we?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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