January 23, 2014

Warned and Wary


Text: Matthew 2:22: “And being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.”

Joseph is a man who invites a lot deal of speculation. All throughout the books of the Bible, the vast majority of the stories are stories about men, and in those stories the vast majority of the speaking lines also go pretty much all to male figures. But here, in the most pivotal story of the entire book—at least for us—Joseph is a major character who is also mute.

That is usually a fate which befalls the women of the Bible’s stories; we hear of them but not from them. But the story of Jesus’s parents is a role reversal; Mary does all the speaking for both of them.

Of course that does not mean Joseph is not without importance in the story. In fact Joseph is responsible for a series of critical decisions in the life of this little family, decisions that keep them together and that keep them safe. You might say that without uttering a word Joseph gives us a Biblical model for fatherhood. And in no small way the power of his example arises from the fact that Joseph is a man who dreams dreams—and pays attention to them.

You all know—and I know, too—that I am on dangerous ground daring to preach a message about fatherhood, to say nothing about Christian themes of parenting. I have no authority whatsoever to speak on such things. And yet I cannot quite escape the simple fact that the story of the birth and early life of Jesus as it is given to us in Matthew’s gospel is very much situated in the story of this little family.

And here, more than anywhere, we get a sense of Joseph, the Joseph not just of the carpenter’s shop and the manger but of the confusion over a pregnant fiancée, and of the faithful Jewish man who goes to be recorded in the census as a Jew, and of the man whom God has chosen to stand in his place as a surrogate father—think of that.

Mary may get to be the focus of attention in the story, but it is Joseph who is so central to God’s concern and care that he gets not fewer than four visions of God speaking to him in dreams, three of them packed into the small space of the story we heard today. And in both of these cases, Joseph is warned; he is given advice to avoid dangers around him.

Now, I’d like to speak to the parents here for just a moment. Don’t you wish you had something like Joseph’s advantage? Don’t you wish you had a kind of intelligence service to warn you of the dangers that lie in wait for your children?

The visions Joseph gets aren’t just general, ambiguous sort of warnings. They are specific suggestions for action to avoid disaster. No, not suggestions—directions. In most cases my guess is you wouldn’t take too kindly to that sort of advice about how to raise your kid. But it may be that Joseph is given the benefit of these visions exactly because God has already sized him up as the kind of man who is open to that kind of advice.

The parent that Joseph is, the model he gives us for leadership in a household dedicated to understanding God’s purposes and trying to live them out, is one of living in a kind of quiet readiness to take action quickly when the circumstances require an immediate change of direction. We can admire that ideal from a distance, but when it comes to our own lives it is a very different matter.

Joseph packed up and moved his family to another country simply on the basis of a message he received in a dream. What is harder to grasp is all that he must have left behind—family and colleagues and clients of the carpentry shop, a network of people and a way of life. All of that amounted to nothing against the safety of his son—a child he still wasn’t quite sure was really his own in the first place.

And then, after taking all that risk and making a life for his family in Egypt, a year or two later another vision calls Joseph to pack up again and return to Israel—except not even then does he get to go back to his own home and his own people; instead he goes to a new town, to a place called Nazareth, because his own hometown is now run by a questionable character.

Joseph is given the gift of a series of warnings. He is a man who lives on the lookout. He knows he has entered onto a chapter of his life in which he will have a very different relationship with God, and he, like his wife, is open to whatever that will mean. We meet him as a man who has considerable worry about social expectations and reputation; but as we learn more about him he becomes a man willing to stake everything—reputation, professional stature, hometown, everything—to keep his family safe and secure.

We are given a picture of a man who lives poised and ready for a helpful word, a glimmer, a vision, a message for how to handle this child committed to his charge. Joseph lives a life of sort of perpetual Advent, always in expectation even after the child has been born, always on the lookout, always wary.

Joseph raises this boy knowing from the outset that he is different, he is special, he will always not be far from danger—and he needs the best protection, the best guidance, the best looking after Joseph can manage. Joseph is a man always wary about waht those dangers might be; he knows he doesn’t fully comprehend his own son, but he knows enough to know he needs to keep the channel open for the help God has to offer.

In that, Joseph’s situation isn’t perhaps that much different from that of any of us who are parents. Parenting today surely can’t be any simpler or safer than it was in Joseph’s day, and it seems a pretty solid bet that it’s a lot more complicated—in a world filled with dangers that may be a greatly different, but aren’t a lot less worrisome, than the challenges Joseph and Mary faced.

Every year, just at the time we are reminded again of that little family of Bethlehem, and the terrible troubles they faced in the first difficult years of their son’s life, our own families regather as the schools shut and the children hang around the house again. Now, the kids are back in school, for the most part, and those few days of having them around all day long are over—at least for now. We have returned to our usual routines; we’ve survived another year of having to be full-time, all-the-time parents while the schools are out.

I suppose Joseph and Mary never got anything like that kind of break. Maybe that is why Joseph remained so open to God’s parental coaching. Whatever the reason, Joseph’s example of how to manage the vicissitudes of parenting—staying open to the hints and helps that God sends along—is worth keeping close to mind and heart as we raise the amazing, gifted, remarkable children of this community. Amen.