A father’s view of Joseph

I wonder if you’ve seen the church’s Christmas poster? The one with the pregnancy scan? You’ll know it if you’ve seen it – and I suspect that there will be strong views about it. I think it’s a very powerful poster, I love it. When I was a father to be I carried similar pictures in my wallet until the arrival and I still remember the excitement and nervous anticipation. Those scan photos are all about promise and vulnerability – how appropriate for the incarnation. And I think it also takes away that fairy story veneer that sometimes gathers round the nativity, brings it down to earth in a real stable and a real pregnancy.

Today is the day when we traditionally think about Mary and her role in saying yes to God, enabling the incarnation to happen. Yet our reading focusses on another person, almost as important. For in the culture of the time it would have been very difficult for Mary to manage by herself. St Joseph had a vital role too: St Joseph the Worker, the Carpenter, Husband and Father.

His influence on Jesus must have been immense. We take it for granted that Jesus calls God Father, he does it so much. Yet it need not have been like that. There were lots of types of relationship Jesus could have used as a model. In the Old Testament Israel’s relationship with God is described as being like a master and his servants, or a shepherd and his flock, gardener and vine, or a husband and his wife.

Yes, the image of Father God is sometimes used in the Old Testament, but Jesus takes it to a new level. He alone calls God ‘Abba’ or ‘Daddy’ which is the actual intimate meaning of the word in the Lord’s Prayer. And whereas in the Old Testament Israel as a nation was God’s child, Jesus encourages each single one of us to think of God as Father. Father God is more intimate, more accessible for Jesus, and it is hard to see how this could have been the case if Joseph was not a good earthly father. His support was crucial in bringing up the young Jesus and his example would have been a key part of our Lord’s formation.

In doing so, St Joseph affirms fatherhood as an important role and an immense privilege. It’s clear that being a father is a calling, for vocation is not limited to Christian ministry, but instead vocation is about becoming who God calls us to be. Vocation is about following God with all of one’s life, including family relationships. Whoever we are: Father, mothers, grandparents, family friends; we should not think that family life is a distraction from our true vocation nor are the needs of children in competition with our calling – for God’s calling to us includes family, work and leisure. Being a father is a vocation – let’s not undervalue it but give it the time and attention it needs.

How can the church help? We ran a parenting course in the Autumn which several mums and dads found really helpful as we discussed together ideas on bringing up children. What really encouraged me is that some parents had little church connection but it was something we could offer that was useful to them. Another example: Sunday afternoon Messy Church in the British Schoolroom is a great way for families to be in church. As part of Messy Church they do activities together – games, craft, junk modelling and of course food! Giving parents and children a structured opportunity to spend time together can really help strengthen family time and make worship easier.

Over 200,000 fathers in the UK are stay at home dads who look after the children while their other half works. Some willingly, others seem to struggle! Many more take a share in childcare as they work complicated hours or shifts, and well over a million are single dads who may have sole responsibility for childcare or perhaps just at weekends. Each setup has different challenges. We need to be aware of this complex picture, not stereotyping and using language like ‘Mums and Toddlers’ – don’t forget the dads, grandparents too, and as this is Sherston, the nannies! It’s good to be sensitive to family time when organising social events and meetings.

St Joseph also shows us three aspects of being a father which can apply in other people’s lives too. Firstly, the need to be open to God. From v.19 we get the impression that Joseph is a righteous man, from long practice he automatically does the right thing. Imagine how devastating it must have been to find out his fiancée is pregnant. He knows it’s nothing to do with him. He cannot carry on with the marriage, but he is a gentle man who will not make a fuss and plans to dismiss her quietly.

Here he’s following general Biblical guidance, the right principles which are open to everyone. Yet sometimes we may receive specific guidance from God, a message for us – it won’t go against what the Bible generally teaches but it may be more personally tailored. For instance, when it comes to employment the overall Biblical teaching is that work is good, it is right to earn a living and we should do so honestly and diligently. That’s general guidance.

But it may be when you or I pray ‘Lord, what career should I take up?’ that something comes to mind. Or we miss out on an interview we hoped for and another door opens instead. We should pray about those big decisions: career, children’s education, retirement. For God can direct us individually, through prayer, the advice of others, circumstance, or in the case of Joseph, dreams.

When God speaks to Joseph in a dream – isn’t it important God addresses Joseph by name – he says ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.’ Joseph obeys, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He acknowledges the voice of God. He recognises him – and that comes through a life of regular prayer.

He would need that certainty for Joseph will make a great sacrifice. It is an aspect of being a parent that it always involves sacrifice but for Joseph it is particularly hard. A righteous man, his reputation will be ruined. Imagine the rumours, the sniggers. Is it worse to be thought lacking in self control or to be considered a cuckold? 

There are times when doing the right thing will lead us to be misunderstood. Countless Archbishops have found this when speaking up for the oppressed and finding themselves savaged as woolly liberals by the press. We may find if we are generous or see the best in people that others consider us a soft touch. Concerned parents who speak with the school about the way world faiths are taught in RE risk being seen as intolerant or even racist. Putting your family’s needs first may be seen as lacking ambition and drive, or not showing a spirit of sacrifice.

It is easy to be good when all approve, much harder when it makes you look a fool. Perhaps the hardest of all is if, like Joseph, you appear to have betrayed your principles when actually you are keeping them. To persist, you have to be sure of the right path, willing to pay the price, and trust in the ultimate vindication by God.

Perhaps over the years Joseph had his own doubts, whose son is that boy? how did it happen? Yet Joseph loves Jesus as his own, so much so that Jesus uses the language of Father as a helpful image for God.

Finally, Joseph trusted in God for the end result. It seems he did not live to see Jesus’ ministry. Joseph is there when the boy Jesus gets lost in the temple aged 12, but he never appears during Jesus’ public work. Sometime in those intervening 18 years, Joseph died, without seeing how Jesus would save his people. There may not even have been much sign of that promise being fulfilled – young Jesus was turning out to be a good carpenter, but whoever heard of the Messiah being a carpenter?

God did not lie. The angel was not wrong. Joseph’s labour was not in vain. In the same way much of what we do lives after us, the bud takes a long time to develop into the fruit, and we may never see the full result of what we achieved. So never believe that the impact of your life is limited to what you can see. If you become discouraged, persevere, for if, like Joseph, you are listening for God’s guidance and obeying it, if you are making the sacrifices when you must, then God will be at work somehow through you and you can trust him.

Today many churches will be remembering Nelson Mandela in their prayers. He was a remarkable man with an immense legacy. Inspired by a belief that all human beings are children of God, Nelson Mandela had an unceasing will for justice and human dignity. He fought many battles, in several different roles, in pursuit of this aim. The struggle for justice involved conflict and yet it is probably as a reconciler that Mandela will be most remembered – when he tried to build a united nation after the fall of the apartheid regime.

Today’s reading from Romans is part of a couple of chapters on conflict. How do Christians resolve disagreements? I’ve heard that the Quakers, will only accept a decision when everyone is happy with it. If that’s true, I’m intrigued as to how that works in practice – I suspect it can take a long time before anything happens!

Romans 15 verse 5 tells us we should live in harmony. Does this make disagreement impossible? I know one church which thought so. They were a chapel where the congregation chose their own pastor. Interviewees came and preached a sermon. The church met in secret and everyone voted on who they thought would be best. But there was tremendous pressure to get a unanimous vote. The feeling was that if everyone agreed, then it would really prove that the decision was God’s will! I don’t think life, even in the church, works like that.

We are all different, and have varying views and experiences. Sometimes those perspectives will clash, and conflict results. But conflict is not a dirty word. It needn’t be hostile or even a bad thing: a conflict of views can result in finding a new way through a problem. Being open about issues is healing. Conflict, well handled, is creative. 

On the other hand, sin can make it worse: pride, a refusal to listen and underlying issues can all inflame a conflict so that it turns into an argument. Sometimes issues of justice mean that an issue must be addressed – to fail to do so would not be peaceful. It all depends on how we handle it – not burying disagreements, but genuinely listening.

Sometimes you have to recognise that agreement is impossible. If the issue is really important, then you may have to go separate ways. Verses 5 and 6 say that Christian unity is based around Jesus. ‘May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

For instance, the Nicene creed is the result of a big argument in the fourth century. There was a huge discussion over the nature of Christ – how Jesus could be both God and man. Some bishops said one thing, others another. Eventually they drew up the Creed – and everyone who in conscience could sign it remained in the Catholic church, and those who couldn’t went off and did their own thing. On beliefs that are essential, the basics of the faith or principles of fairness and protection of the vulnerable, agreement may not be possible. As in apartheid South Africa, one hopes that the right will eventually triumph and those who were at war can be reconciled.

Sometimes diversity is a good thing. I find it striking that St Paul writes about living in harmony and with one voice glorifying God. In English harmony has a double meaning, it means a constructive kind of peace but also refers to music. The parts in a choral setting sound very different but they combine into one voice which, done well, often sounds better than singing in unison. Variety in styles, variety in personality, variety in minor things, such as the type of songs we sing, can help us to appreciate new angles on Christian truth. Paul was writing to a rainbow multi-racial church who welcomed both Jews and Gentiles – they saw that welcome to all could be part of their strength.

Perhaps an issue is debated and agreement is not possible. If the issue isn’t hugely important, why make life complicated? You can agree to differ. A husband and wife might agree to differ on politics – or all sorts of issues that don’t really effect how you live together. The Apostle Paul told his Roman congregation in Chapter 14 v5:  ‘One man observes special religious days, another treats all days alike. Each should be convinced in his own mind’. In other words: Agree to differ.

That way you don’t have to argue over unimportant things, you keep respect and tolerance. But there are limits to this: it can also be a refusal to engage with someone: ‘I don’t care what you do, I’ll do it my own way.’ ‘I’d rather be untroubled in my own views than listen to what you have to say’. And when the issue needs people to work together, you have to find a way forward. You can’t just stay stalled.

You have to negotiate an agreement. One key principle is to sort it out face to face. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says ‘if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault’. In person. It’s so important to keep speaking. I’ve learnt that letters and e-mails often don’t help. It’s easy to write something that you would never say face to face. And even if you try your hardest to be sensitive, the written word is readily misunderstood, and you don’t have the chance to explain what you really meant. When it comes to potential conflict, letters and e-mails are written in haste, and repented of at leisure. Far better to go round, see the person and calmly talk it through.

When we do that, we should remember that the person we’ve fallen out with is human too. They are made in the image of God, they also have frailties, weaknesses and blind spots. There may be a good reason, or a horrible experience that makes them react the way they do. Try and treat them with love. And of course – they might actually be right!

In v.7. Paul writes: ‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you’. It’s so important, if there are ever disagreements in the church, that we remember Christians of all shades are members of the same family, we have a basic identity in Christ. Sometimes sadly people write off their opponents and doubt their commitment to the faith. I’m hugely encouraged by the recent steps on women Bishops because it really seems that the different wings in the CofE are willing to recognize one another as fellow Christians. They’re willing to produce a workable solution even if they don’t agree on the principle

Remembering the centrality of Christ will also help us seek God’s glory and not our own. Once a missionary society split in two. There were minor theological differences between the factions, but they were just Trojan horses for the real issue, that people were building their own empires, putting themselves first. Seeking God, loving one another and looking outwards are the powerful antidotes.

And then there is the secret ingredient. Active love for others. It’s no coincidence that Paul talks about unity before moving on to writing about sharing the gospel with the whole Gentile world. Unity is a great witness, especially when combined with active, sacrificial love that seeks the best for its fellow human. This is the love that is prepared to put aside its own desires for the sake of someone else.

Even if what we want is right and good, sometimes it is better to give it up than to wound someone by insisting on our rights. I’m dreading the possibility that my daughters will become teenage vegetarians. Could I give up roast dinners if the girls insist meat is murder? I’m not sure. Yet Paul says in v14 of the previous chapter: ‘it is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything if it makes your brother or sister stumble.

It doesn’t just apply to food. It could be alcohol, forms of religious services – recognizing that what we value as an aid to worship may not be the most helpful thing for others. Being sensitive might include the clothes we wear on holiday in a traditional country, saying words that someone might see as swearing. It doesn’t mean that a Christian should always give way: far from it, he or she should act in love for the best. But sometimes love may mean putting ourselves second. What we do should be done in a spirit of love and charity, trying to put others first, to seek their well-being, even at cost to ourselves.

In that way, conflict can be transformed for the Kingdom of God, that love and peace may reign. As Paul says: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.’

Advent Carols

Before I say anything else, I would like to thank our choir, Richard and Katherine for their contribution to a beautiful act of worship. It’s lovely to have the chance to sing the Advent music and to hear some choral pieces once again…

Along with all the rehearsals, printing, organization and effort has been prayer for this service and those who will come. Prayerful anticipation is one of the things I like about the Evening service. Occasionally, when someone else is on duty, I am able to sit in the congregation, in silence.

Before the service starts I enjoy that sense of waiting on God, of peace and preparing for worship. It’s a great luxury too not having to be rushing around connecting up microphones and checking robes, but just preparing to be in God’s presence.

A sense of prayerful anticipation is central to the whole meaning of Advent. Advent comes from the Latin for arrival and these four weeks are a preparation for the arrival of Christ. This service offers the chance to get away from the hectic shopping and preparation, to come to church and be still, to prepare for Christ’s coming amongst us.

In doing so, we think of the Old Testament people of Israel as they waited for Christ. Remember the first part of Handel’s Messiah, or this evening’s antiphons and readings. They all look forward to Jesus coming, all speak of the Advent of the Saviour

In some parts of the Hebrew Bible the prophecy is clear, and amazingly accurate, like in the servant songs of Isaiah. Elsewhere, foresight seems to happen like a flash of light in the darkness. The prophet speaks of his own time and own people, but suddenly a glimpse of the future bursts through; and then, like a torch’s beam flashing one way and the next, it is gone. And yet other times, Christ seems to be spoken of mysteriously, allegorically, through symbol

When books were bound using thread and not glue, preachers would often refer to this as the scarlet cord throughout the Old Testament. Just as the thread passed through every page, binding them together, so the life, death and resurrection of Jesus could be found throughout Scripture. It was a unifying theme, God’s plan, binding history together.

So God spoke to his people, showing them what was to come. The light of his Son would shine forth in the world’s darkness. But in the meantime, they would have to watch and wait. Patience would rest on God’s promises.

We need that patient, eager anticipation too. At this time of year we wait for Christmas. But Advent has a double meaning. We also look forward to Christ’s return. His presence in our hearts will one day be real throughout all creation. Now we see signs of God’s Kingdom, but one day it will be everywhere. What we see now through a glass darkly will one day be face to face.

Advent is a season of hope, an encouragement to be patient and faithful, a reminder to live by faith in God’s promises, until one day, the Morning Star will rise in our hearts and all creation join in with the ‘Amen’.