With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday, 2023 started with a worship service, sermon and all. The message for the First Sunday after Christmas looked at Joseph’s story in Matthew 2:13-23. In a commentary on the text, Diane G. Chen, Professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, points out Joseph’s absolute obedience to God: taking the child and his wife and fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod (Matthew 2:13-14), and taking his family and returning to the land of Israel (2:20-21). Joseph’s actions matched each instruction given to him from God word for word. Professor Chen suggests that “in order to be saved, God’s people must follow Joseph’s example in being absolutely obedient.”
In that context, yes. But without that sacred context, absolute obedience is more oppressive than liberating, more bondage than salvation.
In the New Year’s Day sermon, I shared how Joseph’s exemplary obedience reminded me of a hymn we often sang in Baptist churches: “Trust and Obey.” I recalled one Sunday in particular at a church I served where the pipe organ sounded, calling us to stand and sing that stalwart hymn. The picture remains clear in my mind of when I looked up and saw people I know to be joyful and full of life standing with their hymnal open, eyes looking down, singing that hymn: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” And I thought, “Y’all don’t look so happy.”
I kept thinking about the words—“trust and obey, for there’s no other way”—and I heard them out of context, which made them sound sadly absolutist.
The church has used its authority to demand absolute obedience from women stuck in abusive marriages, from enslaved human beings in relation to their masters, from women holding unwanted pregnancies—pregnancies that could kill them, from LGBTQ+ people who are told to pray the gay away, “for there’s no other way.” That’s dangerous. That’s blasphemous.
For Joseph there really was no other way but to trust and obey, but context is everything. Joseph was a righteous man, and God called him to a higher righteousness: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Do not be afraid to legally adopt her child by naming him Jesus. And do not be afraid to do all you can to protect them.” Righteousness discerns the will of God by always protecting as Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8). Indeed, love always trusts, but it also always protects, always hopes, always perseveres; and, by doing so, it never fails.
Love is not only trust, but also protection. To love is not only to trust and obey but also to protect; because to trust God without regard for protecting God’s people is to place blind trust in something that is more manmade than God-willed. Love that never fails is love that always trusts AND always protects AND always hopes AND always perseveres. That is the unfailing love of the Christ Child. That is the love of God made flesh that could not be snuffed out by the terror of Herod or even the terror of a cross.
Prayer: God of steadfast love, in this New Year, turn my attention toward Joseph and Mary and Jesus and those prophets of old who trusted and obeyed you with no ifs, ands, or buts. Help me to obey you absolutely, and to rely on your unfailing love as my discernment in that absolute obedience so that my words and actions in witness to you would always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere in loving you and my neighbor as myself. Amen.