Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7,17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
In this month’s National Geographic there’s an article titled “Veiled Rebellion.” It’s about the women of the Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan and the difficult lives they lead. Few of these women have any real power. It’s a man’s world and the foundation of a man’s world is a man’s honor. A man’s honor is judged by three things: gold, land, and women. “If any injury is done to a man’s land, women or gold, it is a matter of honor for him to exact revenge. A man without honor is a man without a shadow, without assets, without dignity.”
The world that Jesus was born into was not so different, either geographically or culturally. It was a man’s world and in that world Joseph held all the cards. Not only was he a man; he was a man of royal stock. He could trace his family all the way back to King David. Joseph was a man of honor and he was expected, not only for his sake but for his family’s sake, to preserve that honor.
So imagine what it must’ve been like for this proud man to learn that his fiancé was pregnant. In his time being engaged was not something you just broke off; you were as good as married. In Joseph’s world it would’ve been bad enough if the baby were his, but it wasn’t. How could Joseph preserve his honor in such a situation?
The religious law entitled him to divorce Mary, and that’s what Joseph intended. But–he was torn. Matthew tells us that he was a righteous man; he loved Mary. Although he was perfectly entitled by culture and custom to do whatever it took to preserve his honor he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [and so] he planned to dismiss her quietly.
I am moved by Joseph’s story. On the one hand, here is a man who is a creature of his culture. He knows the rules. He knows the customs. He knows the traditions. But as a man of faith he knows there is more to life than living by the rules. He knows that there is more to life than living by other people’s expectations. There is love, and that creates a real dilemma in deciding how to live one’s life.
This was Joseph’s situation. It’s our situation, too. We also find ourselves torn. On the one hand are the pressures of our society—the traditions, the customs, the social expectations; on the other hand, we are offered a very different alternative through the stories of our faith.
This is true for both men and women, in different ways. But this morning’s reading is practically all we hear about Joseph so I’m drawn to the power of the gospel as good news for men.
Look around you and you will see…not very many men. Some of this can be explained by life expectancy: on average, women live longer than men. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, does it?
There was a time when churches were full of men. I remember those days. Not surprisingly, those were times when new churches were being built and older churches were expanding their facilities. Men could jump in and swing a hammer or crunch numbers or maintain the facility. That’s work our society approves of. Society says: This is what men do. We’re not really so different from those Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan, are we? Little boys in every culture are not born with ideas about what men are supposed to do. They are taught what they should do. It’s the rules of society that say, “This is what makes you a man.”
That National Geographic article tells horrible stories about how women are abused by men who are trying to preserve their honor. My heartaches for those women. But my heart aches just as much for those men. They’re trapped. They see no alternative to society’s expectations of them. They make choices according to those expectations.
My heart aches for the men of our society, too—because we’re not really that different. Think about what men traditionally have taken pride in: being the breadwinner of the family, making the most money if there are two wage-earners. So what happens if a man in this economy of high unemployment doesn’t have job? Can’t get a job? What happens to his dignity? His honor?
Like the men of Afghanistan, or Israel, or any other country of the world—there’s a code of honor that men feel they must follow in order to be fully men. It’s different from culture to culture but in each culture society says that men must act a certain way, be a certain way. In our society that means that men are taught that physical strength and even violence are the marks of a real man. Domination is valued. Economic power is valued. It means that men often feel threatened by women who have more social or economic power. And, men feel threatened by men who are gay.
But these are not beliefs we were born with. Little boys don’t inherit these values. These are values that are taught. We are pressured from an early age to believe them and live according to them. This creates burdens often too difficult to bear. Most of all, it leads men to be something different –frightened, lonely, angry and self-hating–from what God created us to be.
Joseph is an example of the kind of person men were created to be. In him, we recognize ourselves at our best. On the one hand, we know what society expects of us and feel those pressures. On the other hand, we realize that society’s rules and expectations are not the same as God’s rules. The bottom line for godly behavior is love. We show love by patience, compassion, courage, and faith. We show strength and confidence when we don’t rely on force or violence or domination. Remember, this is the same Joseph who not only accepted Mary and believed God’s word that came to him in a dream. This is the guy who would later take his new family away from home and into a foreign country to keep them safe from a king who wanted to kill his son.
And don’t forget: this is the man who was responsible for raising his son, Jesus. From his father Jesus learned compassion and love. From Joseph Jesus learned to think for himself instead of following society’s rules. He developed an inner strength and confidence, partly because of his father. Jesus’ own life of love and courage is a testimony to the faith of his father and an example for modern men to follow.
Most of all, Joseph trusted that there was more to the truth than what he could see. In this I find shades of my own father. Instead of trusting in rules and tradition, Joseph risked living by faith, trusting in what he couldn’t see. Can you imagine trusting in a dream more than society’s rules and expectations? Joseph did.
So what would it look like for men to set aside what we think we’re supposed to be, and to accept what God created us to be? Churches mostly don’t need new buildings anymore. But God always needs righteous men to build the kingdom of God on earth. So what is our role? What can Joseph teach us about our place in God’s kingdom? What can the church do to affirm what we were created to be instead of what society expects us to be? How can righteous men be leaders and mentors for those to come?
How we answer these questions is crucial–because Christmas is not just about a baby in a manger. It’s about a mom and a dad who shaped that baby into the man he became…as an example for us all.