Starburst In A Time Of Storm
A friend I know set out to try to make Christmas an especially significant faith experience for his family one year. And so three weeks before Christmas, he bought a manger scene to use in teaching his children the real meaning of Christmas. He selected one with inexpensive and unbreakable figures so that his children could feel free to pick them up, examine them, play with them and arrange them as they wanted. It worked like a charm! His children spent hours playing with and talking about the figures in the nativity scene. A couple of weeks passed and then came the “acid test”. The father went in one day, sat down with his children and asked them to tell him about the characters in the scene. With great excitement, they pointed to shepherds, Wise Men and angels, to barnyard animals and desert camels, to Mary and the baby Jesus. “That’s great”, said the father, “but didn’t you forget somebody? Who is this man standing by Mary?” For a moment there was silence. Then suddenly, the five-year-old piped up: “Oh, I remember now, that’s old Joe what’s-his-name!”
Those children inadvertently put their finger on a fascinating phenomenon of Christmas, namely, that we tend to forget about Joseph. Joseph is the forgotten man of Christmas. In the Word of God, Joseph never speaks a word. He is spoken to and he is spoken about, but not a single syllable crosses his lips. We tend to view him as just a bit player, an extra, in the Christmas drama. Over the years, we have unconsciously, and I suspect, unintentionally, ignored him and pushed him into the background. But today I want to bring him front and center to the place in the story I think he deserves. His faith, his courage, his strength, his sensitivity, his compassion, his devotion, his determination, his foresight and his obedience to the will of God had a greater impact on Christian thought and the Christian lifestyle than we have been willing to acknowledge. Remember, please, that that first Christmas was not a time of sweetness and light—it was a time of storm and darkness. We have so romanticized the whole story that it has lost its bare, brutal impact. But let me set the story in our own time to better feel the sting of it all.
Let’s say that Joseph is an older teenager engaged to a young woman who suddenly is pregnant, not unlike the young couple in Delaware who wound up destroying their baby and who now face the horrors of our criminal justice system. But Joseph, living in his tenement apartment, dreams that God tells him to marry the young woman anyway and to bring the child into the world. As he is dealing with that, some government bureaucrat decides that everyone in the United States must go to the town of their birth for a new census. So they climb into his old car and drive halfway across the country to his little hometown, where he no longer has any family living and where every motel is full. He winds up putting his wife in a garage loaned to him by an older man. While they are living there like illegal aliens in that garage, the baby is born. One day some street people come by singing songs and speaking of angels. As disconcerting as that would have been, more jarring still was the day when three ambassadors from the United Nations pull up in big limousines and present bags full of Krugerrands to the newborn baby. Then came terrifying news indeed. The governor has called out the National Guard to find the baby and kill him, if necessary, killing all of the other babies in the county in order to get at this one. Joseph gathers his wife and child, and climbs into his old car again and drives at breakneck speed toward the Mexican border. Once in Mexico, they move from place to place, always looking over their shoulder, never free from the clammy grip of fear, living like refugees for more than two years before they can return home.
That’s exactly what Joseph faced. Here he was, just an ordinary working man suddenly caught in a terrible storm. He faced emotional storm—how to deal with the potentially cataclysmic consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. He faced physical storm—how to escape the vast military machine triggered by King Herod to destroy him and his little family. Yet this young man’s faith, courage, compassion, obedience and strength are like starbursts in the midst of that storm. That’s why I believe that we need to see Joseph, not as a bit player, but as one of God’s stars on the Christmas stage. In fact, the way he combined toughness and tenderness in his life can serve as a lesson to us all.
Joseph was tough.
Tough enough to make tough decisions. Tough enough to face down opposition. Tough enough to obey the Lord even when it cost him something. We see it right from the very first moment we meet him in Scripture. When he found out that Mary was expecting, he faced a real problem; a profound dilemma. The Bible says: “He considered this.” It sounds so simple, so easy, so quick, but really that’s the Biblical way of saying: “He agonized, he grappled, he deliberated, he wrestled, he grieved, he struggled, he prayed…” He was tough enough to face the tough problems, and out of that came God’s answer.
Let me ask you something. What do you do when you face a difficult problem? DO you react or lash out or run away or feel sorry for yourself? Or do you, like Joseph, face it and wrestle it through?
I was reading recently about a politician who made a rousing and powerful speech to some prospective voters. He ended the speech in dramatic fashion and then cried: “Won’t you go to the polls on Tuesday and vote for me?” Just then a heckler in the audience yelled back at him: “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were Saint Peter!” Quick as a flash, the politician responded: “If I were Saint Peter, you wouldn’t be in my district!”
I wish I was as quick as that in response to my problems. But I’m not. I have to go down a lot of painful roads seeking answers which are sometimes hard to come by. When I have a problem, I need all the help I can get to stay strong and tough in the face of it. Dr. J. A. Hadfield, the noted British psychologist has written: “When four people run up against life and find it too much for them, one swears, one gets a headache, one gets drunk, and one prays.” When life gets hard, what do you do? Do you swear? Lash out in hostility? Try to find someone to blame? Cave in to bitterness? Run away? Drug yourself? Or do you pray? You see, it is when, like Joseph, we turn to God in the storms of life that we find the toughness we need to stand in the face of those storms.
But Joseph was not only tough, he was also tender.
We see his tenderness in the long and sensitive way he dealt with Mary. We also see his tenderness in the way he dealt with Jesus. Don’t miss this please. When Jesus grew up, He called God “Father”. When Jesus wanted to say the best and highest thing He could think of to say about God, He said: “He is like a loving and understanding father.” I think it is safe to say that what Jesus learned about being a father, He learned from Joseph. I think of the cliches, “a twig grows in the direction it’s bent” and “apples fall close to the trunk of the tree”. They remind me of the relationship Jesus must have had with Joseph, and something about that relationship allowed Jesus then to refer to God as “Father”.
How it must have been. Jesus, as a little boy, would crowd His way into the workshop and His dad would always stop what he was doing to talk a spell about whatever the boy wanted to talk about or to lovingly grab the little boy up and roll him in the piles of soft sawdust until the bits of wood mingled with His dark, Jewish curls. Maybe it was this ready access to Joseph’s shop which led Jesus, later on to say: “Never prohibit a child from coming to me.” And did they go for long walks in the fields around Nazareth stopping occasionally to pick flowers for Mary? Was it then that the seed was planted in Jesus’ mind which later moved Him to say: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…” As they walked together, did Joseph tell the boy how they had escaped Herod’s armies by taking that long, demanding, hazardous sojourn in Egypt? Was it then that Jesus began to tie into the concept of fatherhood, the virtues of courage and bravery? As they climbed higher into the nearby hills and came to places where flowing streams turned that desert-like place to lush green, was it then that Jesus began to imagine what it would be like to have streams of living water welling up within? And when they reached the summit where they could see caravan routes stretching off in all directions toward the horizon, was it then that Jesus began to lay hold of His idea which later He would express this way: “Go into all the world, and make disciples of all nations…”? And the lovely tenderness which Jesus saw Joseph give to Mary, was it this that led the Master to raise womankind to the highest level possible—a level never known before or since? When Jesus spoke of talents and the way we are to use them, were His thoughts shaped by the fact that He had seen Joseph develop his carpentry skills to virtual perfection, and that He had seen Joseph pour everything of which he was capable into everything he did? And was it Jesus’ deep appreciation for Joseph’s work that led Him, later on, to say so beautifully: “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Visit the Louvre in Paris and you will see a seventeenth century painting by Georges de la Tour called “St. Joseph in the Carpenter Shop.” It shows a sturdy, rugged Joseph hard at work. The only other figure there is the boy Jesus, age ten or eleven. Jesus holds a candle which is the only light. He looks attentively at the graying Joseph taking intractable material and shaping it by hand. It is a lovely painting. But what you might miss unless you look for it is that in the shadows at the bottom of the painting, you can see what Joseph is building. You can hardly make it out in the deep amber tones. Joseph is building a cross. I wonder if it may have been in that carpenter shop as He watched Joseph, that Jesus was marked with the obedience to His heavenly Father that led Him to the cross.
So when Jesus wanted us to know what God is like, He said: “God is like a tender, loving, understanding Father.” I think it’s safe to say that Jesus learned that from Joseph.
At this Christmas season, let me share with you a thought I keep tucked away in my heart. I sometimes envision myself standing before the throne of God. Before me is a great scale—a balance. On the left side of the balance, the devil has heaped all of my sins. On the right hand side, the angels are desperately looking for something to balance the scale. No use. The scale drops to the left with a thud. All seems lost. Then there is a sound, a small sound, a small metallic sound. A nail is dropped on the side of righteousness. Another nail. And another. I know not whether those nails come from a manger in Bethlehem or from a cross on Calvary, but this much I do know: the balance is tipped. By the grace of Jesus Christ, I am saved.
What was it that King Lear said: “It is the stars, the stars above us, that govern our conditions.” No Lear, you are wrong! It is one star, the star of Christmas, God’s star shining in our storm-tossed world—that is what governs our condition, shapes our life and determines our destiny. For that star speaks to us of God, our loving, saving, heavenly Father. We learn about that Father from Jesus. And Jesus learned about that Father from Joseph.
That’s why I think Joseph needs to be a star on the Christmas stage.