Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Thanks to Scott Peterson sadly and many others of his ilk, we have no shortage of excellent bad examples of murderous husbands and ineffective fathers. Unfortunately, while our media treats us to the most sensational details of these tragedies, it is highly likely that in today’s congregation you will be speaking to someone who knows all too well the personally intimate details and the devastating consequences of marital betrayal and paternal failure. Add to these obvious failures of care the more fundamental disregard for life’s sanctity that we protect with the euphemism of ‘choice,’ and today’s text presents an opportunity for the pastor to speak directly about two desperately needed areas: men who are effective partners and parents; marriages which are successful and nourishing.
When was the last time you saw an image of an effective man in the media? Daniel Jones’ new book, The Bastard on the Couch, subtitled “27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood and Freedom,” details the hurdles the average decent male faces in today’s culture. As Maggie Gallagher notes in a column on this topic, these barriers are fueled by “a culture of grievance (and the illusions of power it gives)” that has replaced “the cultivation of gratitude.” Put in relational terms, “appreciation, approval and affection have been translated into ‘subservience’ rather than love” within our culture. (I Am Woman, Hear Me Whine, www.townhall.com/columnists/maggiegallagher)
Joseph was an effective man and a nurturing father. In an earlier text he is described as a righteous man who was unwilling to expose her (Mary) to public disgrace. Despite the high-profile screeds on reality television, many of the men I see in my clinical practice adopt exactly this stance toward their wives as their marriage begins to unravel. Regardless of fault, men facing divorce want mainly two things: access to their children and financial security (which translates into ‘don’t raid my pension or force me into bankruptcy’). Unfortunately, there is little said on these topics by those with access to the public’s ear.
This has nothing to do with the legal difficulties of proving female adultery or a fundamental failure of maternal duties. This has everything to do with the common decency of ordinary men. The fact that not every man meets this standard should not obscure the fact that it is true of many fathers when they face marriage-busting reality.
Joseph was in touch with his core values. Long before John Kerry was giving interviews to Gentleman’s’ Quarterly and Salon.com’s talking heads were lionizing the metrosexual male as the newest wave in masculinity, Joseph was responsive to his dreams in the only way that counts he acted. He embraced Mary in opposition to everything his culture told him to do (Matthew 1:24) and in today’s lection he acts to protect his family in obedience to God’s warning (v. 14). He will act once again in response to his dream as he returns his family to Israel (v. 21) and his goes to Galilee rather than Judea to keep his family safe (v. 23). This is ‘trusting your gut’ in the most fundamental sense of the word and it has little to do with being emotive or emotional. While masculine dreams certainly have emotional content, more basically all dreams are rich in value content – they depict what we believe and how we hope (or fear) we will act when facing great challenges.
As much as we need to see in Joseph the qualities of an effective father and view his marriage to Mary as successful—topics I will cover in a moment—there is a more fundamental message that needs to be proclaimed today. Here is the message: Joseph was humbly obedient to God’s command. This is the primary quality he passed on to his son Jesus. This is the quality that enabled Jesus to be a dutiful son in Nazareth, an effective leader of the earliest disciples and thus an eternally successful Messiah. Jesus learned humility and obedience from Joseph the way today’s children still learn all such qualities: by watching how fathers and adults conduct ourselves in the world.
Effective fathers are warm, consistent and real. Effective fathers exhibit warmth by showing their children, they enjoy being with them. Effective fathers show kindness in their interactions with their children, knowing that kindness is a stronger authority than fear. Effective fathers are consistent, fairly enforcing reasonable rules and keeping their promises. Failure to keep promises is the single strongest indicator of a troubled paternal relationship. Effective fathers show authenticity, treating their children at an appropriate level of maturity, neither denigrating them for failing at what they cannot yet truly accomplish nor treating them as fragile butterflies too delicate to embrace the cuts, scrapes and scraps that come with maturity.
An effective father—indeed an effective parent—instructs his children in the reality of these phrases as often as he tells his children “I love you!” These phrases are: “No, I love you too much to allow you to do that;” “No, we cannot afford this;” “Yes, I never thought you’d ask me!” and “Not yet, you’re not ready for that much maturity.” Notice the preponderance in these sentences of the one word that John Rosemond says builds character: “No!” If a child’s character is the best exhibit of a father’s effectiveness, then the character of Jesus as an adult tells us much about Joseph’s effectiveness as a father during Jesus’ childhood.
A successful and nourishing marriage avoids what John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. His book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, would be a great addition to a pastor’s bookshelf. But most importantly for today’s lection, Joseph exhibited the opposite of these qualities toward Mary. While there is scant support for this conclusion within the Biblical text other than that later report of parental worry over Jesus staying overnight in the temple (Luke 2:41f), it appears that Jesus’ parents demonstrated sufficient mutual respect that Jesus only had the option to be ‘obedient’ to them both. Apparently nose rings, tongue piercing and adolescent demands to sleep late were not well known in first-century Israel.
So what is the best way to illuminate this text and explore the theme of effective parenting? I recommend showcasing this text within a bouquet of grand examples of effective Dads—the guys who fix things or teach lessons or do the right thing when nobody’s looking and nobody finds out until twenty years have passed. The guys strong enough to let their children win foot races, dedicated enough to slip out of work early to attend a parent’s night, patient enough to teach a son how to throw a curve ball or tie their shoe and wise enough to teach a daughter what kind of man she should look for in a husband because he treats her mother with respect and decency. Selah!
The ancient world had no doubt that God sent his messages to men and women in dreams. So, Joseph was warned in a dream to ﬂee into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions. The ﬂight into Egypt was entirely natural. Often, throughout the troubled centuries before Jesus came, when some peril and some tyranny and some persecution made life intolerable for the Jews, they sought refuge in Egypt. The result was that every city in Egypt had its colony of Jews; and in the city of Alexandria there were actually more than 1,000,000 Jews, and certain districts of the city were entirely handed over to them. Joseph in his hour of peril was doing what many Jews had done before; and when Joseph and Mary reached Egypt, they would not ﬁnd themselves altogether among strangers, for in every town and city they would ﬁnd Jews who had sought refuge there.
It is an interesting fact that, later on, the enemies of Christianity and the enemies of Jesus used the stay in Egypt as a peg to attach their slanders to him. Egypt was proverbially the land of sorcery, of witchcraft and of magic. The Talmud says: ‘Ten measures of sorcery descended into the world; Egypt received nine, the rest of the world one.’ So, the enemies of Jesus declared that it was in Egypt that Jesus had learned a magic and a sorcery which made him able to work miracles and to deceive people.
When the pagan philosopher Celsus directed his attack against Christianity in the third century, an attack that Origen met and defeated, he said that Jesus was brought up as an illegitimate child, that he served for hire in Egypt, that he came to the knowledge of certain miraculous powers, and returned to his own country and used these powers to proclaim himself God (Origen, Contra Celsum, 1:38). A certain Rabbi, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, said that Jesus had the necessary magical formulae tattooed upon his body so that he would not forget them. Such were the slanders that twisted minds connected with the ﬂight to Egypt; but they are obviously false, for it was as a little baby that Jesus was taken to Egypt, and it was as a little child that he was brought back.
Two of the loveliest New Testament legends are connected with the ﬂight into Egypt. The ﬁrst is about the penitent thief. Legend calls the penitent thief Dismas and tells that he did not meet Jesus for the ﬁrst time when they both hung on their crosses on Calvary. The story runs like this. When Joseph and Mary were on their way to Egypt, they were waylaid by robbers. One of the robber chiefs wished to murder them at once and to steal their little store of goods. But something about the baby Jesus went straight to Dismas’ heart, for Dismas was one of these robbers. He refused to allow any harm to come to Jesus or his parents. He looked at Jesus and said: ‘O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me, and forget not this hour.’ So, the legend says, Jesus and Dismas met again at Calvary, and Dismas on the cross found forgiveness and mercy for his soul.
The other legend is a child’s story, but it is very lovely. When Joseph and Mary and Jesus were on their way to Egypt, the story runs, as the evening came, they were weary, and they sought refuge in a cave. It was very cold, so cold that the ground was white with hoar frost. A spider saw the little baby Jesus, and it wished so much that it could do something to keep him warm in the cold night. It decided to do the only thing it could and spin its web across the entrance of the cave, to make, as it were, a curtain there.
Along the path came a detachment of Herod’s soldiers, seeking for children to kill to carry out Herod’s bloodthirsty order. When they came to the cave, they were about to burst in to search it, but their captain noticed the spider’s web, covered with the white hoar frost and stretched right across the entrance to the cave. ‘Look’, he said, ‘at the spider’s web there. It is quite unbroken and there cannot possibly be anyone in the cave, for anyone entering would certainly have torn the web.’
So the soldiers passed on, and left the holy family in peace, because a little spider had spun its web across the entrance to the cave. And that, so they say, is why to this day we put tinsel on our Christmas trees, for the glittering tinsel streamers stand for the spider’s web, white with the hoar frost, stretched across the entrance of the cave on the way to Egypt. It is a lovely story; and this much, at least, is true, that no gift which Jesus receives is ever forgotten.
The last words of this passage introduce us to a custom which is characteristic of Matthew. He sees in the ﬂight to Egypt a fulﬁlment of the word spoken by Hosea. He quotes it in the form: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ That is a quotation from Hosea 11:1, which reads: ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’
It can be seen at once that in its original form this saying of Hosea had nothing to do with Jesus, and nothing to do with the ﬂight to Egypt. It was nothing more than a simple statement of how God had delivered the nation of Israel from slavery and from bondage in the land of Egypt.
We shall see, again and again, that this is typical of Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. He is prepared to use as a prophecy about Jesus any text at all which can be made verbally to ﬁt, even though originally it had nothing to do with the question in hand and was never meant to have anything to do with it. Matthew knew that almost the only way to convince the Jews that Jesus was the promised Anointed One of God was to prove that he was the fulﬁlment of Old Testament prophecy. And in his eagerness to do that, he ﬁnds prophecies in the Old Testament where no prophecies were ever meant. When we read a passage like this, we must remember that, though it seems strange and unconvincing to us, it would appeal to those Jews. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Matthew [2001, Edinburgh] Third Ed., pp. 39–42)
These passages bring us to believe that the role of father is more important then modern day thinkers give credit. Modern day thinking is more about being a baby daddy and less about being a good parent.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
“The ability to develop self-control depends upon being able to accurately predict the consequences of your own behavior. That’s why parental consistency is so important. Without it, a child wanders lost.” (John Rosemond, Daily Guide for Parenting, n.p.)
Sad but true, too many divorced dads are not stand up guys where their boys are concerned. Their guilt paralyzes their ability to square their shoulders when their boys test the limits. They cradle, coddle, and cave in when they should be paragons of the virtues of fatherhood. (John Rosemond, Parenting Stories, www.rosemond. com)
Children have the right to find out early in their lives that their parents don’t exist to make them happy, but to offer them the opportunity to learn the skills they-children-will need to eventually make themselves happy. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Children have a right to scream all they want over the decisions their parents make, albeit their parents have the right to confine said screaming to certain areas of their homes. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Children have the right to find out early that their parents care deeply for them but don’t give a hoot what their children think about them at any given moment in time. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Because it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, children have the right to hear their parents say “Because I said so” on a regular and frequent basis. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com) 5
Because it is the most character-building activity a child can engage in, children have the right to share significantly in the doing of household chores. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Every child has the right to discover early in life that he isn’t the center of the universe (or his family or his parents’ lives) that he isn’t a big fish in a small pond, that he isn’t the Second Coming, to prevent him from becoming an insufferable brat. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Children have the right to learn to be grateful for what they receive, therefore, they have the right to receive all of what they truly need and very little of what they simply want. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Children have the right to learn early in their lives that obedience to legitimate authority is not optional, that there are consequences for disobedience, and that said consequences are memorable and, therefore, persuasive. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
Every child has the right to parents who love him/her enough to make sure he/she enjoys all of the above rights. (John Rosemond, Rosemond’s Bill of Rights for Children, www.rosemond.com)
My father taught me several lessons in very direct, kind but unflinchingly serious ways. When I was learning to drive, he gave me two things that weighed exactly the same: a .38 caliber pistol bullet and a set of car keys. “Both of these will kill someone if they’re not used properly,” he said. When I was starting to travel to other cities with a band, he would say, “If you have to call home to ask my permission, you know that the answer is going to be ‘No!’” As I left to get on the bus for Marine Corps basic training, his last word to me was, “Keep your sense of humor.” Wise advice indeed from an Iwo Jima veteran.
Many children say they don’t have a close relationship with their fathers because they think their fathers are too competitive. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph (4/8/04), a recent survey of 1,000 youngsters in Britain found that children there say their fathers are their least favorite playmates. The main criticisms the children identified were that their fathers “played to win,” lacked imagination, and did not know how to play many of the games they like to play. Only one child in sixteen named their father as their favorite playmate, preferring instead the company of friends, mothers, and siblings.
The British news journal DeHavilland (8/4/04) reported that while most parents say they play with their children every day, a majority of children say they play with their mother or father only once a week or less. The findings come from a poll commissioned by the Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council. Approximately 40% of parents claim they would like to spend more time playing with their children, but about half of all children aren’t especially interested in that, expressing a preference to playing with their friends. 5
Part of parenting is teaching children the skills and knowledge they need. Statistics show that parents would be well advised to teach their children to graduate from high school, marry after the age of twenty, and marry before having a first child. Only 8% of those who do all three of those things end up becoming poor as adults, whereas 79% of all poor adults in the United States have failed to do all three of those things. (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p 54)
In Nazi Germany, parents were lauded for fulfilling a very utilitarian function. Hitler believed that Germany’s population needed to be replenished quickly, because they had lost so many of their young men in World War I. Therefore, the Nazis actively encouraged parents to produce as many children as they could. According to a pamphlet titled “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” published by the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, the Nazi regime awarded a bronze “Honor Cross of German Motherhood” to Aryan women who had four or five children, a silver cross to those who bore six or seven children, and a gold cross to those who birthed eight or more children.
Matthew’s Gospel is the only Gospel that tells about the wise men’s role at the time of Jesus’ birth. Although the wise men are traditionally portrayed as three kings in most nativity scenes, the Church of England is thinking about changing that way of depicting the magi. According to CNN (2/10/04), one of the changes the Church is considering is the possibility that some or all of the magi may have been women. A committee noted that “magi” is a transliteration of the name referring to officials at the Persian court, and that name itself does not denote whether the figures were male or female. To convey the ambiguity of that term, the committee is recommending that the Church of England substitute “magi” for “wise men” in prayers and readings pertaining to those early visitors to see Jesus. The committee acknowledged that while it is not very likely that the magi were women, the possibility cannot be entirely excluded. One British newspaper mocked the committee’s recommendation by running a headline “The Three Fairly Sagacious Persons.”
Right from his earliest days Jesus faced difficult situations. Although not pleasant to experience, those struggles have the potential of yielding benefits in the future. Doctors who have been researching the AIDS epidemic have discovered that in certain rare cases, some people are effectively immune to AIDS. Despite how much of the virus they are exposed to, they do not contract the deadly disease. Upon analyzing those who seem to be immune, researchers have found that what those people have in common is a genetic mutation known as CCR5-delta 32. The mutation is found primarily in white Europeans, especially in Swedes. Doctors conjecture that those people’s ancestors were people who had been exposed to the plagues that ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century. By surviving that ordeal, those individuals apparently passed on a genetic disposition to withstand severe health challenges. (Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History: The Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More [New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2003], pp 201-202)
Although Herod eventually died, he was by no means the last sinister person to stalk the earth. As Newsweek (6/28/04) reported, movies across the years remind us that villains are a constant part of our world. In 1962, Dr. No was presented as James Bond’s first nemesis. Across the years Agent 007 also had to struggle against such bad guys as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a leader in the SPECTRE crime syndicate; Scaramanga, the assassin who is the title character in The Man with the Golden Gun; and Max Zorin, who sought the destruction of Silicon Valley. Likewise, Batman had to face off against such figures as the Penguin, the Joker, and the Riddler. Superman is endlessly locked in a struggle against Lex Luthor; and Spider-Man was opposed by the Green Goblin in the 2002 movie.
Just as Jesus experienced a threat to his life and was forced to go into hiding for a while, many Christians in China continue to feel the need to shield themselves from the authorities. By law, Christians in China are supposed to attend only state-sanctioned churches. Protestants are required to participate only in churches overseen by the China Christian Council, and Catholics are mandated to attend masses only at churches under the auspices of the Catholic Patriotic Association. According to official membership statistics, there are about 15 million baptized Protestants in China and another 6 million baptized Catholics. The common belief, however, among Christians inside and outside of China, is that the total number of Christians in the nation is much larger. But the exact number is difficult to ascertain because most Christians in China belong to so-called “house churches,” which are worshiping bodies that meet despite the government’s disapproval. The current consensus is that there are probably somewhere around 80 million total Christians in China today, compared to the 21 million that are officially recorded by the government/ (David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power [Washington: Regnery, 2003], pp 7-8)
Sometimes fathers come up with rather unusual ways of trying to connect with their sons. According to the BBC (2/2/04), a man in Holland, Michigan, wanted to give his son the same name as his. But instead of affixing “Junior” or “II” at the end, as is usually done in such cases, Jon Blake Cusack decided that he wanted his son to be known as Jon Blake Cusack 2.0. The engineer said he thought it would be “cool” to use the software upgrade term as the suffix for his child’s name. The father admitted that it took several months to persuade his wife to accept the idea. Cusack suggests that perhaps his child will eventually call one of his own sons 3.0.
Many fathers across the United States are not exactly responsible parents. Government statistics revealed that in 1997 there were 6.3 million men not living with their children who were liable to pay child support, but only 2.6 million actually paid. By 2000 the situation had grown even worse, as nearly 9.9 million fathers were refusing to pay their full child support assessments. (US Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2000, p 219)
While Jesus’ genealogy is spelled out in the Gospel of Matthew, including the names of even some unsavory characters, Herod refused to allow people to know about his pedigree. Therefore, in order to satisfy his vanity, Herod destroyed all records pertaining to his genealogy so that no one would be able to compare their lineage to his. (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], p 51)
Because King Herod felt threatened by Jesus, he unleashed his emotions by ordering the slaughter of all the children in and around Bethlehem. The problem of finding ways to properly express our feelings continues to be an issue. The car maker Toyota, though, is developing a new kind of automobile they think might help with that problem. According to The New York Times (7/26/04), four inventors in Japan have won a patent for a car they say can help drivers communicate their emotions. Right now all that most drivers can do to express themselves is to blow their horn or flash their headlights. The problem, the inventors say, is that those options limit what a driver is able to say. After all, the same beep of the horn has to be used to express gratitude when someone lets you cut in front of them, and anger when someone dangerously swerves around you. With this new Toyota car that is being developed, however, drivers will be able to display a vast array of emotions. With an antenna that wags, headlights that vary in intensity, and hood ornamentation that looks like eyebrows and eyelids, the Toyota will be able to express many moods on the road. To display anger, the hood lighting glows red while the eyebrows light up. But if the driver is in a more joyful mood, the car is able to “wink” at other cars and the antenna is able to vibrate back and forth as if it were wagging. Moreover, the car is able to “cry” by displaying dark blue hood lighting, a shaded headlight, a lit eyebrow, and a blinking “tear” light. And if the vehicle detects sudden breaking, the car exhibits surprise by turning the hood lights orange, its eyebrows light up red, the headlights become shaded, and the vehicle’s height is lowered in the rear, as if it were startled and taken aback.
One of the problems with Herod was that he took his own importance far too seriously. In past centuries, royalty had a procedure to keep themselves from falling prey to their own self-image. Kings and queens appointed a court jester, whose job was to remind the monarchs that they really weren’t any better than anyone else, that they had their foibles and faults as well. Only the court jester was allowed to speak that kind of truth to the sovereigns without fear of losing his head. In essence, the jester was given permission to give voice to what everyone else was thinking but was afraid to say. In contemporary society, it could be argued that the function of the court jester has now been taken over by the late-night comedians. (Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank [Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society, 2004], p 41)
It is difficult to preach this passage about fleeing persecution and the slaughter of children on the day after Christmas. One congregation was able to hear these stories finally the year the resettled a refugee family from Liberia. Now they had not just a story, but the flesh and blood before them of what it was like to flee danger and try to keep your children safe in the midst of fear and hunger.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens!
People: Praise God in the heights!
Leader: Praise God all angels!
People: Praise God all the heavenly host!
Leader: Praise God highest heavens!
People: Praise the name of the Lord!
Leader: Young men and women alike, young and old together!
People: Let them praise the name of the Lord! Let God’s name alone be exalted!
All: Let us worship God.
O Lord, in the afterglow of Christmas, we confess that we got carried away. Did we forget You? Did we forget the real meaning of our celebrations? For any way in which we may have ignored Christ this Christmas, for any way in which we dishonored You, for any way in which our priorities were wrong, we beg your forgiveness.
Cleanse us of guilt or regret, O loving God, that we may prepare for the new year by putting the old behind us, with its mistakes and omissions, its missed opportunities and wasted time. Fill us with the Spirit of reconciliation, that we may be joyful messengers of your peace, through Christ, the Gift beyond compare. Amen.
Gracious and unfailingly generous God, we give You thanks for blessing us so richly. Receive now these offerings and gifts we return to your service. Through them, make dreams come true, answer prayers, meet needs, channel your love through us, that all may rejoice in your generosity, and so become generous givers, as your love flows on and on, in gratitude for Christ, who empowers us. Amen.
Rock of ages, as this year rolls on to its end, may we meditate upon your marks upon our lives. When we were downcast, You lifted us up. When we were discouraged, your encouraged us. When we were too proud or complacent, You humbled us.
You walked with us throughout this year. You wept with us. You laughed with us. You were the unseen Partner at every board meeting, the unseen Counselor by every tearful bedside, the Guide when we were confused or perplexed, the true Host at every meal, the greatest Teacher of all, the kindest and truest Friend, the Challenger when we had strayed.
For being You, we thank You. For loving us, we honor You. For your tender mercies, your rebukes, your encouragement, for allowing us to walk with You and seek your will, we are grateful. So guide us as we walk into the new year. May we walk well, and by your light, through Christ our Redeemer, Amen.