Sunday, December 18, 2016

Breaking The Tradition of the Patriarchs

The Good News about Jesus Christ According to Matthew:

An Account of the Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
This is how the birth of Jesus came about. When Jesus’ Mother, Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly.
This was Joseph’s intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, heir to the House of David, don’t be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus – ‘Salvation’ – because he will save the people from their sins.” All this happened to fulfill what God has said through the prophet:
          “The virgin will be with child and give birth and the child will be called Immanuel”
A name that means “God is with us.” 
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God had directed, and they went ahead with the marriage. He did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth; she had a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV, The Inclusive Bible)

Think of Five words to Describe Joseph-  Father, carpenter, dreamer, Protector, worshiper of YHWH. I kept going and came up with a few more: 6-refugee, 7- Spiritual, 8-guide, 9-innovator, 10- rebel, 11-righteous, 12-descendent of king David, 13-outcast, 14-Patriarch of the faith. 

Patriarchal society in the ancient Middle East had specific roles and expectations for all members of society. Kinship was central. Gender determined roles and the roles were well ingrained. This society was an Honor-shame society in which public humiliation due to transgressions of the roles would permanently damage ones standing in the community. This fundamental context can never be overlooked when we read scripture today and look for messages of salvation. 

Men especially maintained the order in the public sphere while women of childbearing age and post childbearing age handed down the traditions to the next generation in the home. Patriarchy was the normative mode of society. But throughout the Bible scripture presents many instances where Divine interventions in the form of dreams, visions, and prophecies challenge or directly counter Patriarchy and expect faithful implementation.

The narrative of Jesus as the Messiah which Matthew hands down presents a theme of countering the familial and religious structures which dominated and prescribed behavior. We are invited into this revolutionary new understanding of Justice and Mercy flowing abundantly. We hear visionary words which conceive of a time when equality replaces both patriarchy and the power of emperors and kings. It also challenges the Israelite Yahwism of Roman occupied Judea.

The arch of the universe bends slowly toward justice

As we read scripture we look for genuine good news within this reading. We want to find where God is at work to bring salvation. We are urged by Matthew to observe that the narrative of Jesus is filled with deviations from the patriarchal norms. These deviations set a new precedent. Society organized around the values and teachings of Jesus is fundamentally different from patriarchal society. The community of followers of the way of Jesus, those we think of as early Christians, began to follow new patterns of social interactions which suggest a different kind of righteousness.

Joseph becomes an example of a higher righteousness. That which was handed down generation to generation over the prior three thousand years is directly confronted in the Birth Narrative of Jesus. The trajectory, the path of change is not straight and continuous to the present day. Opposition often arises, as we will see in Matthews account.

Because the pendulum swings back and forth over the centuries following Jesus’ birth, we continue to find ebbs and flows in the flourishing of the kindom of God.
Some claim that Christianity was at its’ best before Emperor Constantine declared it to be the official religion of the Empire. It does seem that whenever religion is determined by the ruler there is more opportunity for oppression to increase. We are fortunate that this nation does not impose any specific religion.

Matthew begins by establishing the normative pattern as well as the exceptions which are already received as Divine interventions in the History of the people of YHWH. It is established that Joseph comes from a lineage of ancestors with rich histories of relationships with YHWH and the people of Judea. Joseph is descended from Abraham the father of Isaac.

How far back can you name your genealogy? How many generations back can you go? In an Oral History Society genealogies are only reliable back three, possibly four generations. The genealogy in the Gospel according to Matthew is a theological construct. This genealogy selects the specific connections to present his case for the claim of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah from the very beginning of the book. Bible scholars spend long hours studying and comparing the genealogies with their claims and note that there are many discrepancies between the chronologies and genealogies throughout the Old Testament. No need for you to point out the inaccuracies, because the purpose is more important that the accuracy of details. Don’t run this through Hardly ever does anyone take the time to read this prologue anyway. I used only the first of sixteen verses of the prologue for that very reason.

Here are the pertinent facts of the matter. Joseph was a good old man. His having dreams are the marker of his age and relationship with YHWH. The prophet Joel plays an important role in this account of the arrival of the Messiah. Matthew tells us that Joseph receives the message of the conception of Jesus from an Angel in a dream. The prophet Joel reports that God declared a time of something new, a promised blessing in the following:
 “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and the female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29).
If this sounds familiar, it should. This same verse is cited by Peter on the day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts. Joseph’s dream reflects a sign of fulfilled promised blessing, the time when God’s Spirit is being poured out.

Now the proper thing for a man to do in Joseph’s situation was one of two choices. The first option was public humiliation, stoning of the woman. The second option, which Joseph was considering, was to “quietly divorce her.” It would be a blemish on her family, but her father would receive the shame and accordingly, could handle the punishment to his daughter. We still hear of this practice outside of Christianity.

Joseph, however, follows neither option. Messages in dreams are to be heeded. A third way, a new command is received by Joseph. Joseph is to keep Mary, and take the baby to be his own son. Following in the tradition of Abraham, Joseph first becomes a Father through Divine intervention.  Joseph, like Abraham, has a unique relationship with YHWH, and according to Matthew, it is most important that Joseph cooperated with the plan, assuming the duties of fatherhood for a child not of his own seed. 

Matthew informs us that these transgressions against the social norms of patriarchy are explained and rooted in theological claims. They were shocking at the time the Gospel was first proclaimed. This text is still able to shock when proclaimed to the people of the Middle East. If there is any question in your mind about that claim, observe the violent attempts to reverse the advances toward equality of women which has sprung up in the past twenty-five years. Look at the targeting of Malala as she spoke out for the education of girls as well as boys. Look at the battle for control of Aleppo, and the misery which results from parties at war over gaining power to control. The people who suffer most are women and children. Patriarchy is a violent system of oppression which does not die quietly or easily, and it doesn’t come in just one variety. 

Now where does this tradition of Joseph lead us today? Men still must choose to surrender power and recognize women as equals. Women around the globe still depend on men to protect them. Women must deal with the trauma that results from sexual assault. Women still are excluded from leadership roles in the church as well as secular society on the basis of claims that God has preordained the situation of women. Women and children are victims in the crosshairs of warring parties. Right now, more than 20 million refugees globally of 14 regional conflicts are reported by the United Nations and the International Rescue Committee. 

What is the word of God to us today?

Recall again the character of Joseph- and ask yourself, how these virtues and attributes can be demonstrated in your life. These will be a mark of the Spirit of God present in your life, a demonstration in action. Action more than words are required to continue spreading the kindom of God. In our helplessness many of us are reduced simply to prayer, and financial support. Financial support being a free giving of resources to support those who are equipped to be present.

For today the Spirit leaves me with a word of caution and feeling of urgent responsibility to acknowledge the millions of victims trapped in circumstances out of their control. What action does God desire from me today, what action do you discern God expects of you? 

Breaking the tradition of patriarchy and retaining the tradition of innovators is the ultimate Advent challenge as we live in the new age heralded by the birth of Jesus.
God grant us courage to live with hope into this challenge.

Preached at First Presbyterian Church, Yuma 12-18-2016

AdventA4 Matthew 1:1,18vf 
“Breaking The Tradition of the Patriarchs”