Getting a Bad Rep
December 16, 2007
Last week we say how John was born to be wild. This week as we rediscover Christmas, we are going to examine a crucial figure in the Christmas story: Joseph. I will begin with a story about a woman named Margaret.
Margaret was in her forties and suffered from bouts of depression and despair resulting mainly from an extremely poor self-image. She just couldn’t see herself as a person of worth. Over the years of her adult life, this image steadily grew worse. Finally reaching out in desperation, she sought the help of a counselor. It was here that she revealed what had happened long ago.
When she was a child, she was pretty average. She received decent grades in school. She was fairly happy. She was liked by her fellow students. That was until one soul-scarring day almost forty years ago. From the first day of class, Margaret and Ms. Garner, her bitter and harsh teacher, didn’t get along. They butted heads constantly. The conflict in this one-room schoolhouse escalated over the years until one fateful day when Margaret was nine-years-old.
That day Margaret frantically raced into class after recess, late again. Ms. Garner was furious. “Margaret!” she shouted, “we’ve been waiting for you! Get up here to the front of the class, right now!”
Margaret slowly walked to teacher’s desk and was told to face the class and then the nightmare began.
Ms. Garner ranted, “Boys and girls, Margaret has been a bad girl. I’ve tried to help her to be responsible but she doesn’t want to learn. We have to teach her a lesson. We will force her to see how selfish she is. I want each one of you to come to the board and write something bad about Margaret. May this will motivate her to be a better person!”
Margaret stood frozen as the students, one by one, began a silent procession to the blackboard. One by one they wrote life-smothering words, slowly extinguishing the light in Margaret’s soul. “Margaret is stupid! Margaret is selfish! Margaret is fat! Margaret is a dummy!” On and on they went, until twenty-five scribblings of Margaret’s “badness” screamed from the board.
It was the longest day of her life. The venomous sentences taunted Margaret as each caustic word was written on her soul. When she got home, she crawled into bed, claiming sickness, and tried to cry the pain away, but the pain never left, and forty years later, she was slumped in a chair in the psychologists’s office cringing in the shadow of those twenty-five sentences. Slowly, Margaret became exactly what the students had written.
Margaret’s teacher knew exactly what she was doing. She knew the power of name-calling. She knew that the children’s taunt, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie!! What people think of us does make a difference in how we see ourselves. Joseph also learned this lesson.
Knowing the Difference
Reputation – what others think of us
Identity – who we really are
Margaret slowly let the words of her fellow students tell her who she really was. Joseph had to learn the difference between the two and he had to learn this very important principle:
What God thinks of us is more important than what we think of ourselves or what others think of us.
Repeat that with me. What God thinks of us is more important than what we think of ourselves or what others think of us. Say it again. This might be something you need to repeat to yourself over and over until it becomes permanent. This is why I have these cards that say this phrase. Put it on your mirror or your dresser or on the dashboard of your car. Where ever it takes to remind you of this fact. What God thinks of us is more important than what we think of ourselves or what others think of us.
Joseph had to learn this. So let’s look at who Joseph was.
Who was Joseph?
1. He was a tsadiq.
The scripture says that Joseph was a “righteous” man. Literally the Hebrew word is “tsadiq.” This means that Joseph meticulously observed the Torah. He constantly recited the Shema and lived it. (Love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength). He supported the synagogue, followed the food laws, and celebrated the high holy feast days in Jerusalem. He was on his way to being a respected leader and elder in his family and in his hometown. He had a great reputation. He couldn’t be any better unless he had been a priest, a prophet or a messiah.
2. His reputation was challenged.
Joseph is engaged to be married to Mary. Mary is an Am ha-aretz. This is the group of people that John had preached to. They don’t follow the Torah scrupulously. The eat ham sandwiches, pass on tithing, and hang out sometimes with Gentiles. In fact they experiment with sex before they are married just like what people think Mary has done.
How can Joseph marry such a woman? He will be ruined. His reputation will be destroyed. So he does what any good-standing Tsadiq would do, he checks out his options in the Torah. This begins a wrestling match with God.
3. He wrestled with God.
The law says that if Mary has been raped then the rapist is to be put to death. If no one confesses then Mary would have to drink the “water of bitterness” and if she survives, she is innocent. If she dies, she is guilty. If she was seduced then she and her seducer must be stoned to death. If the leaders of the council find out before Joseph takes care of the problem, then she will die. There is no way out.
He hears Mary’s story that God has done this miracle. What will he do? Will he show that he loves God by doing anything to follow the Torah and thus keep his reputation as a tsadiq? If he agrees with her and marries her, then he loses his reputation. He will be disgraced.
He can’t bear to see her die. He loves her too much. So he decides to show mercy to her and save his reputation by divorcing her quietly before anybody finds out. But what if this baby is a miracle baby?
God intervenes by sending an angel. The angel tells him to not be afraid of taking Mary home as his wife. Why would he be afraid?
He would lose his reputation. He would get a bad rep.
The angel explains everything to him and Joseph learns what it means to love God through loving others. The minute we surrender everything to God we gain a new identity. And that is what happened for Joseph.
4. He gained a new identity.
John Stott, famous missionary, said, “When the Christian loses himself, he finds himself, he discovers his true identity.”
Joseph did what he was told to do. He believed that the child was the Son of God even though everyone else would think that either they were crazy or what was most likely trying to cover up a moment of indiscretion.
At verse 25, Matthew tells us, “And he gave him the name Jesus.” This was huge. Joseph had taken Mary home, which was bad enough for his reputation, but when Joseph named the child, Joseph was legally binding himself not only to Mary, an adulteress (a na’ ap) but also to this illegitimate child, (a mamzer). When Joseph did these two things (married Mary and named the baby), he was deciding that obedience was more important than reputation. It was more important what God thought about him than what others thought about him. He now had a new identity as the husband of Mary and the legal father (though not biological) father of Jesus.
God got a bad rep when He chose for His son to be born to parents with bad reputations. God doesn’t worry about those outward things that our culture obsesses over. Mary was an adulteress and Joseph was a disgraced tsadiq. But God also got a bad rep when His son died the most humiliating death of that day: crucifixion.
Ironically, it is the reputation-losing death of Jesus that provides those that follow Jesus and his ways (his Shema), a new identity based one how God sees us through eyes of grace.
Remember Margaret? After decades of depression and anxiety, she finally got help. It took two years but she was finally at her last session. It had been extremely difficult but she finally was able to extricate herself from her past and smile at her counselor (how long had it been since she smile) and said that she was ready to move on.
“Well, Margaret,” the counselor said softly, “It’s graduation day. How are you?”
After a long silence, Margaret spoke, “I . . . I’m okay.”
The counselor hesitated. “Margaret, this will be difficult but I want you to do one more thing to make sure that you are ready to move on. I want you to go back to your schoolroom and the events of that day. Take your time. Described the details to me as each of the children approach the board. Remember what they wrote and how you felt—all twenty-five students.”
In a way this was easy because Margaret had remembered every detail for every day of the last forty years. Yet, to go through the nightmare one more time took all the strength she had. One by one, she described each of the students vividly, as though she was standing right there again, stopping periodically to regain her composure, forcing herself to face those students one more time.
Finally she was done, and the tears would not stop. Margaret cried for a very long time before she finally heard someone whispering, “Margaret. Margaret. Margaret.” She looked up to see her counselor staring into her eyes, saying her name over and over. Margaret stopped crying for a moment.
“Margaret. You… left out one person.”
“I did not! I have been living with this story for forty years. I know every student by heart.”
“No, Margaret, you forgot someone. See, he’s sitting in the back of the classroom. He’s standing up, walking toward your teacher, Ms. Garner. She’s handing him the piece of chalk and he’s taking it, Margaret, he’s taking it! Now he’s walking to the board and is picking up an eraser. He is erasing every one of the sentences the students wrote. They are gone! Margaret, they are gone! Now he’s turning and looking at you, Margaret. Do you know him yet? Yes, his name is Jesus. Look, he’s writing new sentences on the board. ‘Margaret is loved. Margaret is beautiful. Margaret is gentle and kind. Margaret is strong. Margaret is caring. Margaret has great courage.’”
Margaret began to weep. But very quickly, the weeping turned into a smile, and then into laughter, and then into tears of joy.