“Salvation: The Family Business”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)
Over the millennia, few things have dominated the minds of human beings like power and sex. We’re always obsessed with one and fixated on the other. Deuteronomy 22 records a law stating that a woman who marries and fails to prove her virginity must be stoned to death. This biblical law is a perfect example of how intimately we have coupled sex with power, and how we have attributed unspeakable brutality to the will of God.
I wouldn’t even know how to look for reliable data to estimate how many girls in ancient societies have been murdered by their communities—specifically, by their faith communities— because they were, or were simply accused of having been sexually active before marriage. Since pregnancy counts as lack of proof of virginity, imagine the terror that Mary, a first-century teenager, must feel as she considers the news that her body is going to demonstrate the undeniable changes that will give religious leaders the de facto right to subject her to a violent, painful, and public death. Imagine the despair she must feel knowing that she is powerless to fend off the judgments of the powerful.
In a dream, an angel appears to Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, and says, Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Take full responsibility for her child. Name him; call him Jesus. He’s going to be a remarkable man, one who will save his people from their sins.
Joseph listens, and for the sake of a son the story says he has nothing to do with, he enfolds Mary’s life into his life. And in so doing, he defies the judgments of power and the stigma of shame. Joseph’s actions save Mary, but not from her sins. He saves her from the sins of the ones whom the angel calls Jesus’ “people.” At God’s direction, Joseph salvages Mary, and therefore Jesus, from the indignant judgments and the violent outbursts of a male-dominated culture that abused women, children, and outcasts simply because it could.
Who knows if Joseph and Mary ever told their story to Jesus just like Matthew tells it to us? It seems to me, though, that Jesus knew or at least suspected something. Under the influence of nothing more than the deeply subjective authority of a dream, Joseph defies the arrangements that allow, in the name of God, some to prosper and others to suffer. In taking responsibility for Mary and the baby she carries, Joseph not only swallows his pride, he does the kind of thing that we often associate with young adults in our on day. He deliberately flouts long-standing tradition. He throws out the window the institutional practices that older generations take for granted. But he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. As upsetting as Joseph’s actions might be to powerful and privileged people, they reveal the kind of inspirational character that helped to shape Jesus’ own character.
For the most part, Christian tradition forgets Joseph, but salvation seems to be the family business. Jesus emulates Joseph when he takes up the mantle of God’s iconoclastic Christ—the one who comes in the name of the Lord to turn the world upside down with messages of universal welcome, unmerited grace, and non-violent redemption.
You know, for all the positive work done in grateful, generous, and humble love, the Church’s history in missions is still tarnished with considerable embarrassment, even shame for us. Think about it: When missionaries went and told some remote tribe that Jesus saves them from their sins, how many missionaries would have been ready for a moment when the people to whom they preached, people who had watched invaders seize their ancestral lands, desecrate their holy sites, and violate their women and girls turned and said, Ok, but will he save us from YOUR sins?
Jesus does more than simply forgive sins. He saves from sin, and he does so by dismantling the arrangements that addict us to privilege, power, and violence. And the privileged, powerful, and violent seldom want to be saved because they’ve chosen—we’ve chosen—to regard worldly advantage as divine blessing, even when maintaining advantage causes relentless human suffering and degradation of soil, water, air, and climate.
In recent weeks, I’ve heard increasing concern from members of this congregation about the lack of young people in our church. While I’m grateful to hear this conversation, I also feel some uneasiness. I’ve read a little bit about what makes a congregation youth- and young adult-friendly, and I have to wonder if we’re ready for that. Preparedness doesn’t have to do with PowerPoints and praise music. Our mission will have to go full-on Joseph in the world. Some of our familiar ways of being and doing will have to go the way of 8-track tapes and phonebooks. We’ll have to recognize and confess the sins we’ve committed and are committing, then repent and live a new life. We’ll have to step out in faith and make room for the new thing God is doing.
Rachel Held Evans was a gifted Christian writer and speaker who, very tragically, died earlier this year at the tender age of 37. In her brief adult life, she influenced many individuals and congregations with her bold-yet-humble honesty about her own experience growing up in an evangelical household, leaving the church, then returning as one who loved Jesus, loved the Bible, loved Christian community, and who was fearless in challenging the institution’s death grip on the way we’ve always done it. Having said that, Evans let us know, too, that many of the ancient traditions are things that young people value and want—sacraments, spiritual depth, real faith community, and, in the manner of Jesus, social justice. It’s just that so many people, young and otherwise, find contemporary churches more in love with their own buildings and habits than with Jesus and with those whom Jesus loved and served, the poor and the forgotten—those who desperately need saving from the sins of the powerful, the privileged, and the so-called righteous.
This morning’s worship isn’t the time to explore specifics about how we might become more engaged with and relevant to younger generations. That’s the session’s responsibility, and we’ll start trying to do that in the new year. Still, the example of Joseph can be a guiding light for us. How will we recognize that life is pregnant with possibilities we can’t have imagined, possibilities that may even seem not only uncomfortable, but down right illegitimate? And what will we need to let go of so that we might take responsibility for the new thing God is revealing to us, and bringing into the world?
However we answer those questions, we can be confident that as long as that new thing challenges us to love more deeply, to welcome strangers more graciously, and to treat each other with greater kindness than we see and hear around us right now, then God is surely in the midst of it. That transforming new thing is a fresh revelation of, a fresh fulfillment of, a fresh Incarnation of God’s eternal Christ, who is, even now, saving us.