Monday, January 5, 2015

Joseph: Hero of Faithfulness

January 4, 2015 – 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
On Friday afternoon, Frances and I drove to Tuscaloosa to watch the basketball game between Alabama and North Florida. On the way there, we passed some places that have been important in our family’s history. First, we drove by Birmingham-Southern, where both her mother and I went to college. Then, as we continued down the interstate, we passed by Ensley, where Elizabeth’s family’s grocery store, Graffeo Brothers, once stood. Finally, we passed by the U. S. Steel mill in Fairfield, where my father and grandfather used to work. At each point of interest, with a reminiscent tear in my eye (well, maybe half of a tear), I nostalgically described what it was and why it was significant to our family. And Frances’ response was, “What is steel?”

I laughed a little bit at the contrast between her pragmatic musing and my schmaltzy remembrance. I explained that steel was a kind of metal and that a mill was the place where that metal was manufactured. Then, she asked, “Is that why Superman is called ‘the man of steel?’” And I began to explain that steel is a particularly strong and hard metal and that “man of steel” did not mean that Superman was literally made of metal but that he was notably strong and hard. I started to explain that there are different measures for strength and hardness and that alloys like steel succeed by incorporating the strength of metals like tungsten and the hardness of metals like chromium, but she had already moved on. She was more interested in talking about Superman’s other super powers.

We talked about that for a while and about some of our other favorite super-heroes, and that got me thinking: what sort of super hero would I be? I’m not particularly strong, and there’s nothing fast about me—expect maybe my speech. Maybe there’s room in Marvel’s line-up for a super-hero that’s really good with budgets or maybe one who likes to argue esoteric theological points that have little or no bearing on daily life. Who wants to buy a comic about an argumentative clergyperson who dazzles his foes with interlinked spreadsheets? Yeah, no one. No one dreams up super-heroes who are super-normal.

The same is true for the heroes in the bible. Their stories are some of the first ones we learn in church because they amaze us: David and Goliath, Noah and the ark, Ezekiel and the prophets of Baal, Rahab the spy-harboring harlot, Jael the tent-peg-wielding killer. Some of them are known for their feats of strength. Others are known for bravely standing up for God’s people. Some use their brains to trick their adversaries while others use their voice to proclaim God’s message.

And that brings us to my favorite biblical hero of all: Joseph, the Galilean carpenter. What did he do? Well, not much really. In fact, he’s better known for what he didn’t do than for anything he accomplished. Namely, when his fiancée announced that she was pregnant by another source, Joseph, encouraged by the appearance of an angel in his dream, decided not to divorce her. Meek and unassuming, he accepted that his bride would bear the son of another because it was part of God’s plan.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that, when threatened by King Herod’s violent temper, Joseph, a biblical antihero of sorts, took his family and ran away. He did not organize a resistance against Herod’s evil plot. He did not lead a rebellion against the tyrant who slaughtered those innocent children. He did not stand up for the nameless victims whose lives were cut short because Herod’s jealous rage had been provoked by his own stepson’s birth. Instead, he gathered his wife and infant child and escaped to Egypt, where they laid low until it was safe to return.

Does it bother anybody that that’s how God’s plan worked out—that the birth of God’s own son would lead to such violence and tragedy yet God’s instructions to Joseph were to turn tail and run? Couldn’t God have made it happen another way? Couldn’t he have told Joseph to gather his friends and relatives and lead a crusade against Herod? Wouldn’t God have been able to bring victory to even a rag-tag guerrilla force led by Joseph, the direct descendant of King David? Or couldn’t Joseph at least have stood up in the Jerusalem square and proclaimed the injustice of Herod’s tyrannical plot and trusted that God would strike Herod down with a plague or an illness or an otherwise untimely death so that such a horrible event as the murder of every male child two-years-old or younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem would be averted?

Why? Why this way? Why this plan? Why must God’s story of salvation unfold upon the sacrifice of so many innocent lives? Why? Because God’s power is expressed in ways that the world cannot recognize. It does not come with force or violence or victory in the earthly sense. Instead, the power of God’s kingdom is manifested principally in weakness. God power does not overthrow the powers of this world by force; it subverts them through a king whose crown was made of thorns and whose throne was a hard wooden cross. In other words, God’s triumph comes not as an expression of might but as a testament of quiet, patient, faithful love.

Joseph’s justly deserved heroic status is not tied to super-human strength or astounding bravery. He is not known for a military victory or a rousing political success. Joseph exemplifies biblical heroism because of his faithfulness. And that is the only measure by which the heroes of the bible are reckoned. All of them—great and small—are celebrated for their faithfulness. And what does it mean to be faithful but to trust that God will bring his people to that promised place of peace even though the powers of this world seem stacked against them? Faith is not waiting for your day in the sun. We, the people of God, are not waiting for our savior to flex his muscles and defeat our enemies. We are waiting and watching and hoping for peace—nothing more than peace.

No, that isn’t really satisfying in the human sense. We’d rather win and rub our enemies’ noses in it. We’d rather God show up now and make sure that the people who want to do us harm are defeated before they even start. But that isn’t how and where and when God shows up. Instead, we must wait with the patience of Joseph. We must believe that the evil of this world—no matter how great—can have no effect on the power of God’s kingdom and his plan of salvation. And that is why our hope is in the cross…because even when the powers of this world give God their very worst, God brings it to victory. Let that be your hope. Even when all that is wrong in this world seems to have turned against you, believe that there is nothing that can get in the way of God’s plan for your life. Have faith that God is with you in your struggles and that in his perfect time he will guide you into his place of peace.

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