Friday, March 19, 2010

2nd Fiddle in a 1st String World

Today is the feast day honoring Joseph, the man who was entrusted to help raise Jesus as a child. I wrote a short sermon about Joseph twenty years ago and I'm reproducing it here....


John Irving is the author of the novel, A Prayer For Owen Meany. Owen Meany is developed in the story as a Christ-figure. Perhaps more interesting to me was the minor development of the story teller (the novel is written in first person) as a Joseph. That one made me think.

Have you thought much about Joseph? The story-teller in John Irving's book was once cast in the church's Christmas drama as Joseph. This was his assessment: "What an uninspiring role it is; to be Joseph –– that hapless follower, that stand-in, that guy along for the ride." Is that a fair judgment on Joseph? Is he only a "filler?" Could anyone have stood in with Mary at the manger?

One line of thought would say yes. I mean, what did Joseph have to do with things? Mary was the one who carried the Child, and it was God himself who was the Father. All Joseph had to do was be a lackey. Isn't that right?

It would seem so according to my wife's response to this subject when I had told her my Christmas message one year would focus on Joseph. She immediately thought of the Old Testament character and assumed I would do some obscure prophetic development. It is easy to overlook Joseph in the Christmas story. Joseph must be a flunky.

That is not right according to Matthew's story. Before everything else, Joseph was "a righteous man." Even in a minor role, Joseph had to be God's man to have a part in the greatest drama of history. Otherwise, the pressures would have been too much.

And what were those pressures? One would have been sexual. It seems most men today cannot even wait until marriage to bed their partners; Joseph went ahead with the marriage, "but he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son" (v25). Joseph was a real husband, and he paid a price to take Mary as his wife. And even though he marries her, the marriage never did consummate in sexual union.

An even greater pressure was the ridicule he must have endured by those who thought Mary's pregnancy was what it naturally seemed. It was as though Joseph was a flunky. In the eyes of those looking on, Joseph was a man who needed to settle for "used goods." Today’s Christians are so caught up in the glory of the Christmas story that it is easy to forget Jesus was born under the cloud of a scandal.

So what kind of person does it take to be a Joseph? It takes someone who is so committed to God and His ways that it does not matter if his or her lot in life is in some non-glorious role. There is a story that someone once asked a famous conductor what the most difficult instrument in the orchestra was. His answer said more about human nature than musical instruments; his answer was, "Second fiddle, because everyone always wants the solo.... to be first chair.... to carry the melody."

If you think about that, it's true. We live in a "first-string" world. Dads want their sons to be on the starting line-up in little league. We want our children to be in the top ten per cent academically. The culture sends the clear message that success comes to the most beautiful and well-dressed.

But when you think it through, beyond the ten per cent of the people who get the glory, there is another ninety per cent of people who will never be in the elite group. What is there for them (or should I not say "us")? What does God have for second string people in a first string world? One answer to that question comes when we look to Joseph.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Common-looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them." That obviously is not an authority equal to the Scriptures, but if you are feeling that you are only ordinary, then consider what God did with a man who was willing to play a role even less than ordinary to all onlookers.

And how did Joseph handle this seemingly inglorious task? What does it take to be a Joseph? Well, it takes more than John Irving puts into his character's understanding. It takes far more than being a hapless follower, a stand-in, a guy along for the ride. That is because no one needs to be second string on God's team.

All it takes to be a player in God's drama.... a starter on His team, is the key thing we find in Joseph: "he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded" (v24). There is a simple word for that –– obedience. Obedience is what God is looking for in those who would be His people; He wants a heart that will say second string in the world's eyes is fine if that is where His plans and pleasure can be done.

For Joseph, obedience meant God had the right man to be the support for bringing His Son into the world. For you and me, obedience can mean God has someone to be a loving care-giver, to teach a class, to serve in the nursery, to be a witness at work or in our neighborhoods.

All it takes for you and me to be a Joseph is to have that same heart of obedience. It may look "second-string" to a watching world, but God does things His own way. And one of the great truths in Christian history is that God needs and uses people like Joseph –– people like you and me.

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