Monday, November 21, 2016

Joseph of Nazareth and the Global Orphan Crisis

Yesterday, our church family observed "Orphan Sunday" two weeks late.  We didn't wait because the issue was unimportant.  We waited, not only to finish a prior series I had started on marriage, but also because we wanted to do this right.

The more than 150 million orphans deserve at least that much.

What does this crisis have to do with the church?  It would take a book rather than a blog post to answer that question (and if you want to read a good one you can find it here!) Our Gospel is itself a story of "alien children" formerly cut off from a God who through Christ welcomes us into His family as His own.  But yesterday, we spent a Sunday looking at the story of Joseph--the adoptive father of Jesus.

Most of the time when we speak of Joseph, its in terms of what he didn't do.  That's not bad.  The Scriptures teach, and we believe, that Jesus had no earthly biological father.  But often in the midst of rightly affirming Mary's virginity and thus Jesus' uniqueness within the human race, we forget that Joseph was his father.

As Matthew opens the narrative part of his Gospel, Mary and Joseph are already engaged to be married.  In the 1st century, engagement didn't look like it does today and involved far more than a diamond ring.  With Jewish engagement came all the expectations of a marriage except for living together and sex.  Legally speaking, your union at engagement required something very similar to a divorce to be broken.  And it is within that relationship that Matthew tells us "before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit."

So Joseph now finds himself in a highly controversial, scandalous mess that is not of his own making.  The law actually required a man to divorce his wife for adultery, and a wife who did this to her husband could be stoned to death.  From every vantagepoint of 1st century Jewish society Mary had brought shame on her family, on Joseph, and on Joseph's family.  And Joseph has a decision to make in reaction to all of this.  Because he is an honorable man, he is not vindictive.  He has no desire to bring greater injury to Mary and her family, so he seeks a "quiet" separation.

But the other side of this is that because he didn't believe his fiance, he had no real desire to remedy the situation.  His actions--at least initially--indicate an attitude that says "I didn't cause this, so I'm just backing away because I don't need this kind of trouble."

Way too many Christians look at the global orphan crisis in exactly the same way.

Thankfully, an angelic visit convinces Joseph to get involved, and as a result, our Lord and Savior grew up with a father.  Aside from not sharing his son's DNA, Joseph was in every other sense, "Father."  It was Joseph that Jesus would have called "Abba" as a child--the nearest word we have to "Daddy."  And it was Jesus' identity as Messiah that is tied to the crucial decision that Joseph makes to adopt a child who is not his own flesh and blood.  From this story, we learn many things about the orphan care mandate.

Orphan care is often done in obscurity.  Joseph doesn't get a lot of recognition for this.  And in all likelihood, the recognition he does receive for this decision isn't good.  Claiming this child as his own probably did great damage to his personal reputation.  For the rest of their marriage I can imagine the whispers from the neighbors.  "Poor Joseph; hoodwinked by that whore Mary."  Or perhaps it sounded like this. "How irresponsible for Joseph to get himself into trouble with that girl!"

Doing the right thing, more often than not, will go unnoticed.  And sometimes it will even draw negative attention.   Most truly life-changing, world-altering work is like that.  It won't be covered on CNN.

Orphan care is costly.  It cost Joseph his reputation, and probably cost him business as well.  Later in the story, it will even cost him his home.  A genocidal crisis erupts under King Herod and Joseph now has to escape with his adopted son and wife to Egypt.  2000 years later, caring for the most vulnerable in the world still carries a high price tag.

When the church says "yes" to God's call to orphan care, it will involve standing with families, loving their children from another culture who in their adaptation to a new environment will often make a mess and disrupt order.  It will involve surrounding ourselves with he trauma of past abuse as we welcome children who have been subjected to it.  And it will involve creating a culture in which when you hear the word "orphan" at Covenant, you no longer think of an unfamiliar face on TV, but the names of kids you know.

Orphan care will wreck your life.  But in a good way.

Orphan care is spiritual warfare.  The story of Joseph involves a paranoid king who slaughters the most vulnerable for his own empowerment.  Herod orders all male children under the age of 2 to be executed.  Bethlehem is soaked in the blood of its most innocent.

And standing in between this bloodthirsty tyrant and the newborn Messiah is a lower-middle class, blue collar carpenter from Nazareth.

Wherever in the world that children are abused--be it in the home of a drug addict, in a war zone, or a Planned Parenthood clinic--there are bloodthirsty, profit-greedy tyrants involved who are enabled by Satan himself.  And right in the middle of it all, just like that carpenter from Nazareth, stands you and me.  When the church stands with orphans and their adoptive families we are running toward and not away from crises.  And when we do, we are engaging in a battle for the lives and souls of children that Jesus died to save.

Orphan care is the essence of the Gospel.  Eventually, the comparison between Joseph and any of us is going to break down.  There will never be another virgin birth, because there is no need for another one.  None of us is going to be the adoptive father of God incarnate.  Joseph is unique in that respect.

But the faith Joseph exercises is not unique.  It is the same faith Joseph's son James--the half-brother of Jesus--will later describe by saying "religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep yourself unstained from the world."

Bottom line: if our religious practice, no matter how pious, doesn't lead to holy living AND care for the most needy, it is empty and meaningless.

The half-brother of an adopted sibling wrote this!  I wonder what stories he heard growing up about his father's decision to treat his half-brother Jesus as if Jesus were his own?  Whatever he heard and experienced growing up in that home obviously had a profound effect on him.

Orphan care isn't just about "rescuing a child."  Its about growing in our own faith as well.  I want that to be the story of our church.  And there is a way we can make this our story.  Take the adoptive families we already have been blessed to have in our faith community, and make their stories normal.  If you were here yesterday and listened, you know God is already moving mightily in this area among many families, and we are almost doing this by accident.  Imagine the level of damage we could do to the kingdom of darkness, if we became intentional?

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