Friday, 20 December 2013

When doing the right thing is not enough

I find that people often equate being a Christian with doing the right thing.  But does that reduce Christianity to being merely an ethical path? 

Matthew 1 :18-end
Now 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.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But 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.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’  All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Going beyond 'the right thing'
Would you like to be a part of the story of our salvation?  That is the challenging question that today’s Gospel reading brings to us, and it all revolves around the story, not of Mary, but of Joseph.  Mary’s story is the one that we always seem to tell at Christmas.  Maybe it’s because children delight in the story of how a young woman had to travel in difficult circumstances in order to have a baby in a stable.  But all of that happening depends on the decisions made by Joseph, a man who is put in an impossible situation.  So let’s consider a little of what takes place in the life of Joseph.  We don’t know much about him, although his absence from the picture of Jesus’s life and ministry have led many people to assume he was older than Mary and had died by the time Jesus was thirty.  We simply don’t have access to that kind of information.  But Matthew does tell us something of supreme importance: Joseph was a righteous man.  This is vital because it tells us something about values.  Joseph was a man who would keep the ten commandments.  He wasn’t anything special, just a builder, a first century peasant trying to make his way in life, and trying to do the right thing.  And so he is engaged to be married to Mary.  Culturally this would have been very different from a modern engagement, and perhaps we don’t always appreciate just how different the culture was.  Let me therefore make it as clear as I can that marriage and sex were inseparable in that culture.  It was unacceptable to have one without the other.  But in the engagement there was no sex.  In fact once they were engaged it would be about a year before they married, and part of that delay may have been to show that they approached marriage in a state of being pure of heart.  In an age before contraception, it would therefore be obvious if they were unable to control themselves.

We have seen sweeping changes in our own cultural understanding of sex and relationships in the last two generations and so for many people today it is difficult to appreciate quite how difficult this was for Joseph and Mary when it became apparent that she was pregnant.  Two things appeared to have happened.  In Luke’s Gospel we learn that very soon after Mary learned she was pregnant she went swiftly to the hill country to stay with her relative, Elizabeth.  Now why would she have done that?  Mothers, who did you most want around you when you first fell pregnant?  Many women, if they have had a good experience of childhood, will say that it was their mother.  So why did Mary literally run to the hills?  I want to suggest that she knew she was in real danger.  You see marriage and sex were so inseparable, and Mary was already engaged to Joseph, that her pregnancy and his denial of being the father put her at risk not just of public humiliation and shame, but of being stoned.  Betrothal was almost as binding as marriage, so if she was pregnant and Joseph declared himself not to be the father, then that would have made Mary an adulteress.

So Joseph knew the risks for Mary, which is why he was going to quietly break it off, so as to not draw attention to her.  But also what about his feelings?  In a culture where virginity before marriage was absolutely sacrosanct, can you imagine how he would have felt?  For any man to  discover that their fiancee was pregnant from another man would be utterly devastating, but even more so when it was such a strong cultural taboo.  He would have felt utterly, utterly betrayed by her.  Now it is a mark of the kind of man that Joseph was that even despite his own feelings he still did not want to expose her to public shame.  How would we have responded I wonder?  That kind of shame usually leads someone to take action to respond to the hurt that has been caused, but Joseph planned to dismiss Mary quietly despite what must have been incredible feeling of turmoil and anger. 

Joseph was a righteous man and he planned to do the right thing.  That is until the angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and changes everything, and Joseph discovers that the right thing to do is not the righteous thing to do, which presents him with a new and greater challenge.  Now he has to face public ridicule and shame too, because in hastily marrying Mary he is publically owning her pregnancy which would make the others in their tiny village of Nazareth assume that the child was his, in other words that he and Mary hadn’t been able to wait until they were married.  Sex outside marriage did happen from time to time, and children were conceived and the law made it clear that if a man took a woman’s virginity then he must marry her.  To the outside world that would be how it would have seemed, and Joseph would have to bear the shame of people gossiping as he walked by, ‘Look there goes Joseph, the man who couldn’t control himself throughout the betrothal.’  Rumours like that stay with a person throughout their life, and indeed it seems to have followed Jesus.  Thirty years later, in an argument recorded in John 8 where it seems to be that Jesus’s accusers throw at him the charge of being illegitimate.  It seems that as a Rabbi he still had to live with this stigma.

This passage raises a question for us.  I think it asks us about our use of scripture to shape our morals.  Like Joseph, we can live a wholly righteous life according to the rules in the Bible...

...but it might not be enough.

God may ask us to do something else.  This is one of the reasons I have huge problems when people reduce Christianity to ethics or depend utterly on the Bible as a rule book when God sometimes asks us to go beyond the so-called righteous norms.  So when people talk about trying to live a Christian life, you can see the shortcomings of that in the light of Joseph’s experience.  He was a righteous man trying to live a good Jewish life, but it wasn’t enough.  Living ethically may be good for your neighbours, but unless we live both ethically and spiritually we can entirely miss what God is asking us to do.  Thankfully Joseph was a strong enough person to be able to step back from merely doing the right thing and go on instead to do the difficult thing.  And that is what following Christ may demand of us.  We can try and be good people and lead good lives, what we might even call Christian lives, but that may not be sufficient, not if we want to be a part of the story of salvation...

...which brings me back to the question I began with; do we want to be a part of the story of salvation?  Think about Joseph again for a minute.  What if Joseph had not been awake to revelation?  What would the story have been like then?  What if Joseph had just done the right thing because he was not in the state of mind and spirit to hear an angel in a dream?

But he was and his story is a cornerstone of our salvation story.  So let me suggest that if we listen out for revelation from God, then we to may be a cornerstone in someone else’s salvation, and I use the word salvation in a broad sense here.  For example some people may have significant resources which they are generous with according to biblical principles, tithing a certain percentage.  This is biblically the righteous thing to do.  But are they listening for revelation from God to do something else?  Or some people may be good at being friendly but what if they became aware of the call of God to befriend someone difficult?  And believing in Christ may well affect how we live our lives, but what if someone asks us about what we believe?  Are we spiritually aware enough to know what to say?

What we believe should definitely affect our morality, but living a good life may not accomplish the plans God has for us.  Sometimes the challenge is to do something very difficult and in so doing to be a part of the story of salvation for someone else.  Are we awake enough to revelation for that to happen?

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