The other father of Jesus teaches us a great deal about Christian mission in the 21st century.
Jesus' earthly father is introduced to us against the backdrop of King Herod's murderous tantrum. The Gospel tells us that Herod learns from some travelling stargazers that the foreseen birth of the royal son of David is here; the end of the ages has touched down in Bethlehem of Judea. Herod outsources scholars to pore over ancient scrolls, not in order to submit to them in faith, but to see how to circumvent the new king.
Herod is troubled — and all Jerusalem with him — and this trouble enacts itself in murderous rage. What Herod does not know, however, is that as he fumes before his consultants and commands that all the male children be executed, he is actually playing a role that has already been played.
Herod is a new Pharaoh.
When Pharaoh saw the people of Israel being fruitful and multiplying — experiencing exactly what God promised, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring" (Gen 22:17) — he sees it as a curse. Why? Because Pharaoh sees himself as god and the expansion of the people of God is a threat to his own kingship. This expansion threatens Pharaoh's plans, and he murders infants to stop it. Herod does the same thing.
Herod comes face to face with Jesus, and his response is murder. The presence of Jesus brings about the kind of rage among those who are threatened by Jesus' kingship.
Herod and Pharaoh rage against Jesus in particular, but babies in general. Throughout the whole panorama of Scripture, when it is the Christ versus the self, babies are always caught in the crossfire. The Egyptian Nile heaves with infant corpses, as do the garbage heaps of Judea. Moses warns against the giving of infants to Molech (Lev 18:21). The Prophets speak against those who come against the people with babies in their wombs (Hos 13:16). History is riddled with the corpses of babies, again and again and again.
As Herod rages against the babies, he is not the central actor in this drama. Years later, Jesus will show his disciple John a picture of a woman giving birth to "a male child, one who will rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev 12:5). Crouching before the woman's birth canal is a dragon — the Serpent of old — who seeks to "devour" the baby (Rev 12:4). Ever since, Jesus shows us, the dragon is furiously making war on the woman and her offspring (Rev 12:17). The ancient beast wants that baby.
Isn't this obvious, not only in Scripture and in the tradition of the church, but in the history of the world around us? Isn't there a persistent hostility towards life, and particularly towards children? This is not accidental.
In the warfare of the Nativity narrative, the Bible gives us an unlikely demon-wrestler: a day-laborer from the hick town of Galilee of Nazareth. Joseph doesn't see the full scope of the cosmic import of what's happening: One rarely does. He simply does what he's told. He stands against the dark rage against life. He cares for his child.
This is not incidental. It is part of a strategy from before recorded history began. It's about God's purposes in Christ.
The last presidential election uncovered just how flimsily some American evangelicals and Catholics hold to our advocacy for the life of infants. I left the room, nauseous, when I heard a major evangelical biblical scholar telling an audience that abortion is "not a transcendent issue," the same day he announced he was endorsing the candidacy of an abortion-rights supporter for President of the United States. The same week I was told of several evangelical churches sponsoring a forum on Christian political ethics, assuring their hearers that they weren't "single issue evangelicals," that political decisions could be made apart from whether the candidate is "pro-life" or "pro-choice."
These evangelicals — and their Roman Catholic colleagues — tell us we ought to be willing to support and vote for candidates who will support legalized abortion because we resonate with them on other issues. "After all, abortion has been going on so long, and it still hasn't been stopped."
Some believe it evangelistic to speak to people while silencing or blunting a witness about the life of children so that they can reach them with the gospel and bring them in line with all these other issues later. We've heard this before, in the late 1960s and early 1970s from a pastor with (then) cool hair in a powder-blue leisure suit. Just replace the word "abortion" with the word "divorce." And how did that work out?
The stakes here are quite high, and the stakes are not, at root, political. The sword given to the state in Romans 13 is to be wielded, to be sure, but wielded against "evildoers." What are we doing when we vote to wield that sword, as many did in the last election, through the taxpayer-funded assault on the innocent?
The Walk of Faith Images a Father's Care
Joseph is the first human face to which our Lord would have said, "Abba." In the Nativity narrative, God shows us in Joseph what it means to image the Fatherhood of God. Through divine revelation, Joseph is called to provide for and protect Mary and the child, by taking them for a while into Egypt, away from Herod's sword. Once again, Joseph steps into a story that has played out before.
Matthew says that as Joseph's flight to Egypt it is to fulfill the ancient word, "Out of Egypt I have called my son" (Matt 2:15; Hos 11:1). Some have noted with puzzlement that the text referenced from Hosea is not about a future event at all, but about something lost past. It speaks of Israel being brought to Egypt and then being delivered from there during the Exodus.
And that's exactly right. This, too, is precisely Matthew's point.
Israel's deliverance out of Egypt is a copy in advance of what God is doing with Jesus Christ. Israel is in danger of starving to death. And God provides for Israel by putting them in a sojourn for a time in Egypt where they can be fed and provided for. God puts one of their brothers in a position where he is able to look out for his people, saying that he will care for them and their little ones (Gen 47:23-24).
And this man's name is Joseph.
Hundreds of years later God uses another Joseph to take this child into Egypt until the threat of the sword is over. God then compares Joseph's protection to his own fatherly protection and deliverance of Israel.
Yes, we must insist that a just government recognize the personhood of unborn children, but that is not enough. We must insist that just economic systems not crush abandoned mothers beneath it, but that's not enough. The protection and provision Joseph images is personal and familial.
This is the kind of fatherhood our Father God displays — a fighting Fatherhood. This Fatherhood rips open seas, drowns armies, and feeds children.
When Joseph becomes the father of Jesus, he does so in a counter-cultural act that, again, is easy for us to miss. Joseph must have seemed insane, and must have wondered if he were. When his betrothed comes to him and say, "I am pregnant," Joseph's response is not, "Well, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas." He is humiliated publicly and privately. But he obeys, and believes the incredible.
Had Joseph done what he wanted to do initially, quietly divorce this woman, everything could have been different for him. He could have lived to an old age as a father of his village, revered by everyone. He might have wondered every now and then what happened to the woman he put away. He might have mourned the fact that her baby was executed by Herod's marauders.
He would have lived a good life, died a good death — and he would have gone to hell. We all would have, without the salvation of the world in Christ, a salvation story in which Joseph plays a critical part.
Instead, Joseph probably ended his life with his neighbors saying, "Joseph, he's the one who got into trouble with that young woman way back when. What a shame." But instead of seeking praise at his funeral, Joseph does something unusual: He protects the orphans and the widows; he sees the task of fatherhood as more important than the self.
This is about human parenting, to be sure. Scripture speaks repeatedly to the ways in which human fathers picture — or distort — the image of the Father in the eyes of their children. But this walk of faith is not only for those who are parents. For there must be evident too in all the people of God a demonstration of the same thing that Joseph is asked to do — to walk in the kind of faith that protects and provides, that nourishes and cherishes.
The Walk of Faith Heralds a Kingdom's Dawn
Matthew tells us that the slaughter of the innocents fulfills what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, "a voice was heard in Ramah" (Matt 2:18; Jer 31:15). Ramah was the exit station for the people of Israel as they were being taken out into captivity in Babylon. This imagery text calls forward the sound of the wails of women who have lost their children.
But this is not a word of despair. Even the quoted prophecy from Jeremiah comes from a passage that says, "There is hope for your future," for "the time is coming ... when I will make a new covenant ... not like the covenant I made with your forefathers" (Jer 31:17,31-32).
Even in the midst of all this tragedy and murderous rage, in the midst of all these corpses, there is a light that is coming out of Galilee. Joseph returns home, and God directs him toward Nazareth so that it will be fulfilled that he, Jesus, will be a Nazarene (Matt 2:23). Out of Galilee, a light breaks forth for the nations.
The moaning and anguish present in Ramah is comforted in Nazareth. And life is better than death precisely because we worship a man who is an ex-corpse, a former fetus, who is now standing as the ruler of the entire universe. And he's not dead anymore.
What we must have is a church in which the gospel we give is the kind of gospel that leads people out of death and despair and toward the kind of life that is found in confessing a name — a name that was first spoken with human lips by a day-laborer in Nazareth, "Jesus is Lord."
If we follow this kind of pure and undefiled religion, it doesn't mean we will be shrill. It doesn't mean we will be culture-warriors. It doesn't mean we'll be belligerent. It will mean that we will have churches that are so strikingly different, that maybe in 10 or 15 years the most odd and counter-cultural thing a lost person may hear in your church is not, "Amen," but is instead the sounds of babies crying in the nursery.
And hearing the oddness of that sound, when they look around at the place in which all of the Lord Jesus' brothers and sisters are welcomed, protected, and loved, the place in which the lies of a murderous and appetite-driven dragon are denied, the stranger in our midst might say, "What is the sound of all these cries?"
And maybe we'll be able to say with our forefather Joseph, "That's the sound of life. That's the sound of love. That's the sound of the gospel."