A Reflection of Sacrifice

December 4, 2011

He’s always the forgotten one at Christmas.  Oh we remember the Christ child, how could we forget him, even in the shopping malls they sing about the birth of Christ and his name is even included in the very word Christmas.  Without Christ there would be no Christmas and so he’s remembered.  And his mother, you remember “Round yon Virgin.”  After all the virgin birth was pretty spectacular, wasn’t an everyday occurrence.  And we are still talking about it.  And to give Mary her due it took a lot of faith to trust God for the miracle that he had promised.  We even remember the bit players in the drama, we talk about the shepherds and the Wiseman, we cast them in the Christmas pageants and talk about how lucky they were to be a part of the first advent.  The innkeeper even gets a speaking role and he’s basically the villain of the piece.  Who’s forgotten?  Joseph, you know Mary’s husband, the man who would raise Jesus the Son of God as Jesus the Son of Joseph.
We don’t know a whole lot about Joseph; we know that he was a carpenter, that he lived in Nazareth and that his family was originally from Bethlehem.  We know that his father’s name was Jacob, that he was a descendant of David.  We know that it was Joseph that the Angels came to in a dream to warn about King Herod looking for Jesus, and he took his family to Egypt. We know that when Jesus was 12 years old that Joseph took him to Jerusalem for the Passover feast and we know that Joseph taught Jesus his trade.  But then we don’t hear any more from or about Joseph after that.  We presume that because at his crucifixion Jesus asked John to care for his mother that Joseph died before Christ was crucified.  In Mark 6:3 he is identified as Mary’s son and his brothers are named but there is no mention of Joseph so it’s not that much of a stretch to presume that Joseph died before Christ began his ministry.  And we know that Joseph was considered to be the Father of Christ.
You know the story; Joseph was engaged to a young girl from Nazareth named Mary.  Historically and culturally we can almost assume that they had been engaged from Childhood, although we don’t know that, and you know what happens when you assume right, yeah sometimes you’re wrong.  And so we don’t know how long they had been engaged but we do know that they had entered into the last stage of their engagement, which was known as the Betrothal.  Now Betrothal was much more serious than our engagement.  It lasted for about a year and was a legally binding contract, which could only be broken by death or by divorce. 
I’m sure that the couple was doing all the things that couples do to get ready for weddings.  You know the bride is rushing hither thither and yon, and she keeps asking the groom, so what do you think honey, is this right, should we do that, what about flowers, and the reception.  And Joseph being the good groom is nodding and smiling and saying “whatever you think dear.”  And I don’t know exactly how she broke the news to him, but at some point in all of the wedding arrangements she must have done a “I’m so excited about this, and what with Rachel coming for the wedding, and Martha, and Elizabeth, did I tell you that Elizabeth was pregnant?  I did, that is such a neat thing, you know I’m pregnant too, maybe the boys will play together when they grow up, do you think we ought to have fish at the reception as well as the beef?”
And Joseph does a “whoa, what did you say?” and Mary would respond and say “Do you think we ought to have fish at the reception as well as beef, you know in case there are vegetarians there?”   “No not that, the other part.”
“Oh, you mean about Rachel coming down, didn’t I tell you?”  Seriously I don’t know how Mary did it, how do you tell you fiancé that you’re pregnant and it had nothing to do with him.  Maybe she read him the Christmas story out of Luke.  However she did it though it must have left him completely stunned, how could she possibly have betrayed him, and then expected him to believe that entire line about her still being a virgin.  The father was the Holy Spirit, right, like what turnip wagon did she think he fell off of?
And the conversation must have ended with Joseph feeling betrayed and Mary feeling hurt because he didn’t believe her and he doubted her integrity.  But what could he do, he had trusted her, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, but for her to go and . . . it just wasn’t right.  So what was he to do?  Well there were a couple of options, he could have her stoned to death, according to the law that was the punishment for Adultery and during the betrothal period it would be considered adultery.  The other option of course was to simply break off the engagement, but remember that by this time it could only be done with a formal divorce. 
The Bible tells us that Joseph was a just man, and so he decided to simply go through with a quiet divorce so Mary wouldn’t be disgraced publicly and get on with his life.  But life is never that simple is it?  That night as he tumbled into a trouble sleep, something remarkable happened.  An Angel appeared to Joseph, I wonder if Joe’s first thought was “I knew I should have skipped the chilli and ice cream before I went to bed.”  Well the angel had a message and it was “trust her, Joseph, trust her.”  The angel explained how the child that Mary was carrying was indeed the Son of God and that Joseph needed to go ahead with the wedding.
It’s kind of interesting what happened here.  Perhaps you’ve never noticed it, or if you have then perhaps it didn’t bother you.  In  the scripture that was read this morning it says Matthew 1:24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.
You say, “Ok, what’s the problem?”  Well no problem really but In Luke Chapter 2 we are told how Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to take part in the Census listen to what it says in Luke 2:5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.
Kind of beat that one around for a while, Matthew says Joseph took Mary home as his wife, but Luke calls Mary, Joseph’s fiancée.  I wonder, and I realize that I’m speculating but I wonder if Mary had to live with Joseph and his family until the wedding because her parents wouldn’t let her stay when they found out she was pregnant?   
I wonder if the wedding was perceived to be a shotgun wedding?  What type of wedding would it have been?  After all they didn’t have shotguns back then.  I remember a friend calling me and telling me that he and his girlfriend were getting married and it was going to be a formal wedding, that her father had painted the shotgun white.  We really don’t know much other than they were married and the scriptures tell us that she remained a virgin until Jesus was born.  The children she had after Jesus belonged to Joseph.  If you know the Christmas story you know that the Roman Authorities called for a census and that everyone had to return to the town of origin and for Joseph that meant taking his pregnant wife, probably by donkey from Nazareth here in the south, 75 miles to Bethlehem where the child would be born.  Not the type of trip recommended for someone who was 9 months pregnant.  When Angela was 8 1/2 months pregnant we moved back from New York, but she got to drive a brand new Plymouth, my dad would say she would have better off with a donkey but he’s a Ford man.
33 years down the road another Joseph appears in the story of Jesus.  This one is more obscure, if that’s possible than Mary’s husband was and instead of being at the beginning of the story we find him at the end of the story. 
It is after Jesus has been betrayed by Judas, after Jesus has been arrested by the Romans, after Jesus has been tried by Pilate, after Jesus has been beaten and crucified, after Jesus had died.  You ever wonder what  was going through Mary’s mind at the point? It wasn’t enough that she had to watch the torture and death of her first born son, the child who had been conceived in such a miraculous way but I’m sure the practical implications were weighing heavy on her mind.  She was far from home, it was the beginning of the holiday weekend, what was she going to do with the body of her son? 
Maybe the practical questions hadn’t even started being asked yet, perhaps they hadn’t even crossed her mind with all she was going through, and really who would blame her if she hadn’t thought that far ahead?  But it had crossed the mind of someone because we read in Matthew 27:57-58 As evening approached, Joseph, a rich man from Arimathea who had become a follower of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. And Pilate issued an order to release it to him.
We don’t know a lot about this man called Joseph.  We know from this account that he was from the town of Arimathea, which was a suburb North West of Jerusalem. We know that he was wealthy, and from reading Mark 15:43 . . ,Joseph was an honored member of the high council, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.   We know that he was part of the Sanhedrin and he that was Kingdom minded.  Luke tells us in Luke 23:50-51 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph. He was a member of the Jewish high council, but he had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other religious leaders.  And from John 19:38 we discover Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body.   And from that tradition and legend has added some details.
Tradition tells us that Joseph was Mary’s uncle and that he was a tin merchant.  Because of his business legend says that had travelled to the mining community of Cornwall England which was renowned for its tin. As a matter of fact some legends even say that he took his Great Nephew Jesus to Cornwall when he was still a child.    And that’s why William Blake’s poem says:  And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
Legend continues to say that because of that connection and history that Joseph was later recruited by the apostles to take the gospel to England and that on the journey he took the cup that Jesus had used at the last supper, which of course began the legend of the Holy Grail.  But all of that is just legend.  But what is it that we actually learn from this story?
Two Josephs one at the beginning of Jesus’ life and one at the end, linked together by the love they had for Jesus, but did they share more in common than their names?
They Saw a Need. There were two things that were very apparent at each point in the story, in the beginning Jesus needed a father and at the end Jesus needed a grave.  It was as simple as that.  Recent statistics are telling us that more and more children are being born out of wedlock and to single moms, either by choice or by oops.  And it really isn’t that big of a deal in today’s society.  Although it still presents all kinds of challenges.  But there is certainly less stigma than it was a generation ago, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen a generation but there was more stigma attached to it.
If we could step back in time 2000 years we would discover that regardless of the circumstances surrounding the conception of Jesus his life would have been exponentially more difficult had Mary not had a husband.  She would have no income, no support system.  Instead of being Jesus the son of the Carpenter he would have been Jesus the son of that woman.  Life would have been hard for Mary and hard for Jesus without a Joseph in the picture. 
It was Gloria Steinem who famously said “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”   Maybe in Gloria’s world but certainly not in Mary’s world.  God knew that there would need to be a father in Jesus’ life and a husband in Mary’s life, and it was Joseph who was asked to fill those roles.
So when Jesus was born he needed a father, and thirty three years later Jesus needed something that was a little more practical, and that was a grave.  Jerusalem was 70 km as the crow flies from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth, I’m not sure how far it would be if the crow had to walk and carry a body. You see there were no hearses to take a body from point “a” to point “b” and so there was a very practical question about what would happen to the body of Jesus when he was removed from the cross.
Historians tell us the drama of Jesus death could have ended three ways.   Three things could have happened.  1)  The Romans were notorious for simply leaving the body of executed criminals on the cross as an example for others.  Birds of prey would feed upon them and eventually they would decay and fall off the cross to be picked at by animals.  Some scholars have speculated that the reason Golgotha was called the Place of the Skull had nothing to do with the shape of the hill and everything to do with the skeletal remains left lying about.  2) That didn’t apply if the person who was executed was Jewish.  We read in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 “If someone has committed a crime worthy of death and is executed and hung on a tree, the body must not remain hanging from the tree overnight. You must bury the body that same day, for anyone who is hung is cursed in the sight of God. In this way, you will prevent the defilement of the land the Lord your God is giving you as your special possession.  The Jewish authorities felt that applied as well to those crucified and so the bodies had to be taken down before sunset.  That is why the thieves on either side of Jesus had their legs broken, to speed up their deaths.  But it was already determined that Jesus was already dead.  But if there was nobody to claim the body than it was simply disposed of in the garbage dump.  3) A relative or family member could claim the body. 
So from a practical point of view something had to be done for Jesus burial, his body wasn’t just going to bury itself.
They Made a Decision  God didn’t force either of the Josephs to do something to meet the need that was presented.  God doesn’t force us to do things in this life, that wouldn’t really be fair would it?  I mean after all, Him being God and us not being God that would kind of put us at a disadvantage. 
In the case of Mary’s husband, nobody else knew about the need except Mary.  It wasn’t posted on Craig’s list or Kijjie, “Needed someone to stand if for father for child of the Holy Spirit.” 
We don’t know how Mary told he fiancé that she was expecting but we do know what his immediate response was Matthew 1:19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
And really who could blame him? 
You might be thinking “Well didn’t Joseph trust her?”  It wasn’t a matter of trust it was a matter of common sense.  Mary was pregnant, as far as Joseph knew there was only one way for Mary to get pregnant and he knew that he hadn’t been a part of that equation.  It wasn’t simply that she was pregnant but she had broken his trust she had cheated on him, and there was another man involved somewhere somehow.  There were a pile of things that Joseph could have done other than break off the engagement that would have publically shamed Mary and humiliated her instead he decided to simply break off their engagement.  And that wasn’t even a rash decision.    Matthew 1:20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” 
And the angel talked about prophecies and trust and responsibilities and at the end of the encounter we read Matthew 1:24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.   And maybe you might be thinking, “It wasn’t his choice, God commanded him to do it.”  And I’m sure that you’ve always done what God wants you to do right?  And that includes not lying.  God commanded Joseph but it was still his choice, at the end of the day Joseph could have said no and walked away.  Or he could have said “yes” and resented it, making life unbearable for Mary and her child.  But as far as we can tell he was the husband that Mary needed and the father that Jesus needed. 
As private as the Jesus’ first need was, the need to have a father, his last need the need to have a grave, was just that public.  Perhaps people hadn’t connected the dots that Jesus would have to be buried but the need was there.  And Joseph met that need. 
Matthew 27:57-58 As evening approached, Joseph, a rich man from Arimathea who had become a follower of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. And Pilate issued an order to release it to him.   I don’t know how many people were there that day who could have done something, but Joseph didn’t wait for them to do something he did it.   He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus body.  He didn’t hope that someone else would do it, he didn’t assume one of the apostles or Jesus family would take care of it, he did what had to be done. 
In too many cases “Everyone thought someone would do it and in the end no one ending up doing it.”
But Jesus didn’t just need a tomb to be buried in, he needed a tomb to rise from.  Because the Romans and the Jews knew where Jesus was buried and because it was a tomb carved from rock with a rock that sealed it, because it was in a location that the Romans could post the guards the Jewish religious leaders had demanded, there could be no arguing with the resurrection.  
And in each case They Paid a Price.  Sometimes we think of paying a price as a financial statement, and that is part of the equation.  In the case of Mary’s husband when he choose to accept Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son he was saying that he was prepared to pay the cost associated with that decision.  He would house the Son of God, he would feed him and clothe him and pay for school field trips.  Every parent knows that there is a tangible, financial price that has to be paid for our children. 
And Joseph of Arimathea gave up his tomb, a tomb that the bible tells us had never been used.  So you understand that this wasn’t just a loan this was a gift.  It wasn’t like giving someone a book to read and then getting it back, or letting someone use your car for the afternoon.  When Joseph put Jesus body in the tomb he no longer had the tomb.  He was going to have to go out and buy himself another tomb.  Don’t know what the tomb had cost, but it had cost something and people weren’t lining up offering their tomb.
But the price went beyond dollars and cents.  One of the descriptions that was given of Joseph, the husband of Mary, was that he was a righteous man.  So you probably understand what the scandal would have cost Joseph in the matter of his pride.  2000 years ago people could count the same as they can today.  I remember hearing my father say “The First one can come at any time the next one takes nine months.”  But we all know that for the most part they all take nine months.  And Joseph’s family knew that and Joseph’s friends knew that and Nazareth was a small town so he would have had to put up with the snickers and sideways glances and the damage that happened to his reputation because for some people all they would remember would be that Joseph and Mary had to get married.
But Mary’s husband wasn’t the only Joe who would sacrifice his pride for Jesus. The scripture don’t tell us a lot about Joseph of Arimathea, but they do tell us that he was a rich man and that he was a member of the religious aristocracy. 
The bible doesn’t just tell us that Joseph gave up his grave, he also gave up his pride.  He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus body, that involved acknowledging that Jesus meant something to him, even if it was costly to be associated with someone who had just been crucified as a criminal.  But the story doesn’t stop there.  We are told that this rich religious leader took Jesus’s bloody, broken body down from the cross, that it was Joseph who prepared Jesus’ body for burial and it was Joseph who personally laid the body of Jesus in the tomb. 
Not sure those things fell in the job description of “Rich Religious Leader”  but they had to be done and Joseph was willing to do it.
But theirs weren’t the only sacrifices made listen to the words of Paul in  Philippians 2:5-8 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
So this Christmas take time to think of the sacrifices that were made 2000 years ago and don’t let the next three weeks rush by without at least acknowledging that they were made for you.