In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some recent commercials for AT&T Wireless assert that “Just OK is not OK” with some scenarios that are quite humorous, and perhaps more memorable in themselves than the product that they’re advertising. In one, the wife of a patient awaiting surgery asks a nurse, “Have you ever worked with Dr. Francis?” The nurse says, “Oh yeah, he’s OK.” “Just OK?” says the patient. The surgeon comes down the hall and into the room, “Guess who just got reinstated—well, not officially. Nervous?” The patient answers, “Yeah,” and Dr. Francis replies, “Yeah, me too. Ah, don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out. I’ll see ya in there.”
You could say that this “doctor” has probably not found his true calling. He evidently lacks the necessary skills for the job, and may lack the talent or dedication. The results for his patients could be quite unpleasant. Clearly, when it comes to having someone provide this or other services to you, you’ll want someone who has the training, talent, and skills required. Do I know how to use a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench, or a wire cutter? Yes; but, do you want me doing some plumbing, auto repair, or electrical work for you? Only if you want your house flooded, your car not running, or your pastor to electrocute himself.
In today’s Epistle, St. Paul is led by the Holy Spirit to describe himself as “called to be an apostle,” an official, authorized emissary and messenger, “set apart for the Gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). He is sent to proclaim this Gospel, this Good News, the Faith of Christ, “among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” and he writes “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (vv. 5b–7a). Having and fulfilling a calling, or vocation, may require possessing particular God-given talents and abilities; but from what the Bible teaches, a calling involves, and indeed is, more than talents, abilities, training, a job, or career.
A true calling is from God, and it is service. Martin Luther referred to our various vocations in life as “masks of God”: they are the everyday means through which God loves and serves us and our neighbor. This understanding led Luther to include a “Table of Duties” in his Small Catechism, which he subtitled, “Certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” These are the “holy orders and positions” he includes: “To Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers,” “What the Hearers Owe Their Pastors,” “Of Civil Government,” “Of Citizens,” “To Husbands,” “To Wives,” “To Parents,” “To Children,” “To Workers of All Kinds,” “To Employers and Supervisors,” “To Youth,” “To Widows,” and “To Everyone.” It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is expansive. Many people might think of “church work” vocations as “holy orders,” holy positions, callings from God. Luther, being the faithful student, the lifelong catechumen, of God’s Word, rightly understood that every true calling, every good and proper vocation, is given by God and is holy. I have sometimes said in funeral sermons, “Whatever good and proper vocations this person had in earthly life, in some way God probably did it first.” Several years ago, I heard the closing speaker at a conference on vocation introduce himself, “I am an ordained plumber.” (He’s the one you want working on your plumbing, not me.)
In today’s Gospel, which also serves as the Holy Gospel for Christmas Eve, we hear about two of Mary’s callings: first, she “had been betrothed to Joseph” (Mt 1:18), that is, she was called to be a wife, and second, “She will bear a son” (v. 21) and thus is called to be a mother. Naturally, by God’s holy order and institution, Joseph is called to be Mary’s husband. He is called “a just man” or “a righteous man”—other translations call him “a good man,” and the Children’s Ensemble Anthem calls him “Kind Joseph”—but what he does next may seem disturbing to us. After Mary “was found to be with child,” Joseph “resolved to divorce her quietly” (v. 19). How is that just or righteous, or good, or kind? Let’s remember who has written this account for us: Matthew, an apostle called by Jesus to be an authoritative witness of Jesus, especially of His death and resurrection. Matthew is called by God the Holy Spirit to be an Evangelist, an authoritative writer and teacher of the Gospel, the Word and work, life and person, of Jesus Christ. From the viewpoint of the Gospel, the word ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ means not a meticulous keeping of the Law, but rather one who is in a right relationship with God, justified by His grace through faith in the Messiah. Just as God has been merciful to the poor sinner that Joseph was, so Joseph is just, righteous, showing kindness and mercy to someone who appears undeserving. According to the Law, he had the right—some would even say he had the duty—to make her apparent shame public, and that she be punished accordingly. In the grace and mercy of the Gospel, he resolved not to humiliate Mary publicly, but to keep the matter private.
In obedience to the revelation given to him, Joseph accepts the other calling which God intends to give to him: to be the adoptive father of Jesus. Traditionally, Joseph is called the “Guardian of Jesus.” It’s accurate, but inadequate, I think. The title ‘guardian’ describes legal responsibilities. The vocation of father, on the other hand, bespeaks something more, a calling, a commitment, a godly service of godly love to your child. We don’t have much at all in our hymns about Joseph. The children sang one song by K. Lee Scott. Christian singer and poet Michael Card wrote a song from Joseph’s view, in which he asks, “How can a man be father to the Son of God? How can I raise a king, how can I raise a king?” This was part of the inspiration for someone else to write another hymn that says, in part:
By dream was Joseph God’s plan shown / From death to save His Israel.
In deepest sleep the man received / From God the woman for his wife.
God Joseph called at this blest birth / To task which had been God’s alone,
A father to God’s Son to be. (“To Joseph That First Adventtide,” from sts. 3, 4.)
God the Father is Father first and foremost by definition as the One who begets God the Son. The Father truly loves His Son, as the Father declares at the Son’s Baptism and again at His Transfiguration: “My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” The Son expresses His love for His Father with His willing obedience to accomplish our salvation, and the Father expresses His love for His Son with His acceptance of His Son’s sacrifice and His glorification of the Son. Knowing the goodness and loving-kindness of God, we would not blame Joseph for being filled with fear and trembling at this calling, “A father to God’s Son to be”! Yet he humbly accepted this calling, as well as the calling to be Mary’s husband.
By his obedience, submitting to the heavenly Father for the sake of Christ, Joseph also accepted another calling, to be an example and teacher to men who would be fathers. Men, man, each man, you know that when you beget a child through the act of procreation, you are a father. The proper place for that activity is marriage, the lifelong bond to your wife. You have a God-given calling to loving service to at least two people outside yourself, to her and to the child. Regarding the mother, you are effectively “one flesh” with her. With the child, you are “one blood,” family. As His redeemed child in Christ, God calls you to holiness and faithfulness—and God calls you family, His relative! When you fall short of His righteousness, and you will, He is kind and merciful to you, and He forgives you for the sake of His Son, and He calls you back to faithfulness, to follow the godly example of Joseph, your brother in the Faith, your fellow redeemed sinner-saint, to be a good father, a good man, in the pattern of our all-good heavenly Father.
In the Incarnation, God Himself took on callings, vocations, to love and serve us. Our Hymn of the Day (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) names several of His prophesied vocations: Desire of nations, Lord of might, Wisdom, Branch of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring or Sunrise. Two callings appear in the Gospel reading: first, by His name Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). The name Yehoshua (Joshua), means “YHWH saves.” A shortened form, Yeshua, means “salvation.” Both of these come to us through the Greek as Jesus. (He is the only one who could fulfill this vocation as our Salvation in the fullest sense.) The second was spoken by the Prophet Isaiah, “they shall call His name Immanuel (which means God with us)” (Isa 7:14; Mt 1:23). This Infant is God. God took on the vocation of baby, and all that comes with that: being weak, helpless, crying in every need, dependent on parents for food, shelter, protection from danger, learning how to walk and talk, changing of diapers, everything! Before that, God took on the vocation of embryo and fetus, earlier stages of babyhood, being human, growing in His mother’s womb for nine months. Later, God would grow into the vocation of toddler, then teenager, even big brother when Joseph and Mary had other children, and then into manhood. Into this ordinary, everyday, holy life of God the Son, you are baptized! Into that holy, innocent life would come rejection, suffering, bloody sweat, false accusations, beatings, insults, show trials at which His death sentence was guaranteed, and being nailed to a cross. Into that life and death under the cross you have also been baptized.
And because you are under the cross, marked by the cross of Jesus, you are forgiven. Because you eat His body and drink His blood given and shed on the cross for you, you are loved and forgiven. That is the calling of your pastors in Christ, to distribute His means of grace to you for the forgiveness of all your sins. Or to put it in shorthand, your pastor’s calling is to forgive sins, that you may know the love and mercy of God for you. Oh, I have known and received the mercy of God many times! God is good. His goodness toward us is His forgiveness. And knowing this, your calling is to come to His liturgy, His public service for you, where He is not ashamed to call Himself your God. Your calling as Christian is be His royal priest, that is, to hear His Word, to receive His Sacraments, to reflect His sure and certain Word back to Him in hymn, chant, prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, to await His coming again in power and glory with patience and trust, longsuffering and hope, and in Your other daily vocations to be a living sacrifice, showing His love and mercy to one another in Spirit and in Truth.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.