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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

What it Means to Say "Yes" to God: Two Josephs and a Mary

This year, the Christmas season coincided with Parashat Vayeshev. This juxtaposition accords us a window into transcendence, and a challenge to aim our day to day lives to a higher level than most of us attain. Our readings for this day concerning Joseph, son of Jacob of the Older Testament, and Joseph and Mary of the Newer Testament challenge us concerning the “Yes’s” and “No’s” of our lives.

In Parashat Vayeshev, we find Joseph, our ancestor, sold into slavery in Egypt as a teen-ager, where he becomes the house slave and steward of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. Joseph is handsome and young, and Potiphar’s wife constantly tries to seduce him. One day she grabs him by his garment, and tells him, “Come, lie with me.” Joseph refuses, saying that to do so would betray both God and her husband who has entrusted so much to him. She is humiliated at the rebuff, and, raising a hue and cry, tells her husband that Joseph had tried to rape her. As a result, Joseph is thrown into prison where he will spend about twenty years.

Here we see Joseph’s “Yes” to God clothed in his “No:” to Potiphar’s wife.

Our Newer Covenant readings concern another righteous Joseph, and his wife, Mary, who was to become the mother of Yeshua, our Messiah. In Matthew’s telling of the good news, Joseph is a righteous man, and betrothed to Mary, when he finds out she is pregnant. He finds out she is pregnant and decides he will terminate their relationship quietly to avoid her public disgrace. He is visited by an angel who tells him:

"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." . . . 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (Matthew 1:20-21, 24-25).

It is interesting to contemplate what Joseph is saying “Yes” to here. People had no less a problem counting in those days than in ours, and surely some would draw the conclusion that Joseph and Mary had been having illicit relations which resulted in the birth of their somewhat early son, Yeshua. Remember, Mary is already pregnant at this time, and they are only engaged, Although engagement was a more formal and committed relationship then than now, sexual relations during the engagement period were strictly forbidden.

What, then is Joseph saying “Yes” to? He is saying "Yes" to likely life-long humiliation and slander pertaining to his relationship with Mary. Also, as a righteous man, one for whom reputations were very important, not only his, but Mary’s, this “Yes” to a besmirched reputation must have been an extreme test for him.

Finally, he is saying “Yes” to raising this holy child, this unique one, with whom he is to have a unique relationship. Joseph is saying “Yes” to being step-father to a son whose uniqueness he has only begun to contemplate.

For this Joseph, no less than for the Joseph of our Torah reading, this “Yes”” is clothed in a powerful "No." Joseph will marry Mary, apparemtly soon after this incident, “25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” For this Joseph, as for his Older Testament namesake, his “Yes” to God involves a “No” in the area of sexuality. We will return to this matter soon.

Of all in this holy trio of people, Mary is perhaps the most impressive. There is an amazing picture of her painted by the American born, but French expatriate, black painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, which all would do well to seek out on line via images.google.com. The painting is called “The Annunciation.”

In it, we see Mary, a young girl of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years, sitting on the corner of a bed, leaning against a wall, her shoulders slightly hunched, her hands folded, her face a study in weighing issues. Before her, in the lower left corner of the room is a brilliant pillar of light—the messenger from God’s throne room, the angel of the Lord. In the painting, we see in her bodily posture her world-shaking “Yes” to the Lord. Everything about her says “humble acquiescence.” Tanner has captured in his portrayal of her body her fully submitted, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

What was it Mary was saying “Yes” to? Certainly, it was a “Yes”” to the pain of having to tell her beloved Joseph that she was pregnant. Even though it was by the Holy Spirit, of course, this pregnancy was unprecedented, and Joseph did not believe her—he had resolved to put her away quietly, and only an angelic dream kept him from doing so.

So she was saying “Yes” to the pain she was to bring to him and to herself in the telling and in the disbelieving that followed. She was saying “Yes” as well to a lifetime of humiliation and smirks from people “in the know.” It would do no good at all to protest that the child was the miraculous conception of God Himself. People were no more prepared to believe that kind of thing then than now.

She was saying “Yes” to having her virginal body used in this unprecedented way. Her “Yes” was a matter of body, soul and spirit. What a magnificent, iconic “Yes.”

What especially impresses me in these accounts is that they all deal with holy “Yes’s” to God in the area of sexuality. To us, and, I assume, for Joseph, Mary and Joseph son of Jacob, sexuality is the most personal of areas. And yet it is here that we find these iconic figures bowing to the will of God, and speaking holy “Yes’s”with body, soul and spirit.

If we would take Scripture and our tradition seriously, it will just not do for us to imagine that our sex life is somehow not quite God’s business. As much as might want to reserve our rights to do as we please in this one area, this will not do. God asks for not only our souls, not only our spirits, but our bodies as well, and this most certainly includes our sex lives. “Present your bodies as living sacrifices, which is your reasonable service of worship.”

To obey God in this area is exceedingly difficult in our day and time. Let no one pretend that this is easy, nor that offering our bodies to God is something we welcome. Let none of us look down our noses at others who struggle in this area. It is exceedingly difficult, and some of us are sorely tried. It is neither easy, nor comfortable. It is difficult, but God is only God to us and for us where and as we, as Mary, are willing to say and mean, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“Yes’s” in the area of sexuality are big “Yes’s” which involve costly “No’s.” For us too, our “Yes’s” to God will be embodied in our “No’s” to attractive options. It has always been like this, and remains this way now.

How then are we to find the strength and the character resources to say such “Yes’s” to God?

First, we must remember who we are. Mary said, “I am the servant of the Lord.” We should be able to say the same thing, meaningfully.” “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in our body” (1 Cor 6:20).

Secondly, we must cultivate the habit of faithfulness in little things. If we do not do that, then it is certain that when the big challenges come, we will not be able to withstand them. In Luke 16:10, this principle is clearly stated: “"Unless you are faithful in small matters, you won't be faithful in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities.” The best preparation for the big challenges is small ones.

Third, we need the help of God in these things. All of these people, the two Josephs and Mary, were people with intimate relationships with the Holy One.. This must also be true of us—it is the Holy Spirit who helps us in these matters. But we must never imagine that his help alone is sufficient if we have not learned to remember who we are, and have not practiced faithfulness in little things. There is nohing magical, and so much that is practical in our life with God.

Fourth, we must always remember that our “Yes’s” to God come wrapped in our No’s” to other things. Every “Yes” entails other “No’s.” We cannot say “Yes” to God and not say other “No’s>

Fifth, these “No’s” and our “Yes’s” to God will, from time to time, and from situation to situation, involve social humiliation for the sake of the Name of God. Although we should not go out seeking such humiliation—to do so would be pathological—it is sure to find us.

Last, we must remember that everything in our life is God’s business. To say anything less is to lose the God of the Bible and install an idol in his place. Even in the most personal of areas, we are obliged to honor the Holy one. Only thus, will we become holy ourselves.

It is not for nothing that Yeshua’s family is called “the Holy Family.” We cannot be holy unless and until we follow their example, and that of our ancestor Joseph. May our “Yes’s” and “No’s” demonstrate whose we are and whom we serve.