As many of you know, in October I spent some time in Uganda. Whilst I was there, I helped to run two conferences for the local church. At one of these, I was talking to a group of pastors and small group leaders from some of the parishes in the area. We had been talking about some material that they were planning to use in their small groups. One of the men said, “I think that this material is good, and I can see the women in church wanting to come to the group, but we don’t have nearly as many men.” I asked the rest of the group if that was also their experience and without exception they said that it was. The one who had spoken first was encouraged that the church he was part of was not the only one to be short of men, but we were also saddened to learn that throughout that culture, the church was failing to introduce men to Jesus. Not only that, but much of Ugandan society is suffering from a lack of responsible masculinity. Too many men are spending too much time not working, but drinking, and abusing their wives and families.
It seems to me that we face a similar challenge in our church. Men make up about half the population, but only about a third of our regular congregations. This pattern is not just seen here, but research shows that is a pattern that is seen across the country. A lot of is talked about and written about the role of men in society, and particularly about how boys today are growing up, or not growing up, into adult men. I believe that these two things are linked. For any person, man or woman, following Jesus in close relationship with God, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is the best way to become all that they were meant to be. The more people we have living in this way, the more healthy our communities will become.
This really concerns me, and so one of the questions that is really close to my heart at the moment is, “how do we introduce men to Jesus?”
I was drawn into thinking about these things this week as I was pondering on the story of Joseph. This is one of the few times of year that we hear anything about Joseph. By the time that Jesus has grown up, and started his public ministry, Joseph is not around anymore. It is most likely that he died sometime between Jesus’ 12th and 30th birthdays. In the accounts of Jesus teaching and miracles, it is Mary who appears. When we get to Easter, we see Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary in the garden coming to the tomb to anoint the body, Mary with the disciples. Joseph is not there.
In our church calendars and church buildings we can often find reminders of Mary’s role in Jesus’ life. We celebrate her mothering care and obedient nature. There are far fewer reminders of Joseph’s role.
It seems to me, that in some ways, Joseph might be a symbol for us of the missing men.
If you had never heard the story of Jesus’ conception before, I wonder what you would really think of Joseph when you heard today’s reading. I wonder how the story would be retold down the pub. “You’ll never believe what this bloke told me today. The girl that he was meant to be marrying got pregnant. He says that he’d not touched her, but she told him that God had given her the baby! Now, he’s a decent sort is Joseph, so he was going to break it off, nice and quiet like, but then he said he had a dream about an angel, who told him to marry her anyway! And rumour has it that even though she’s moved in with him, he’s sleeping on the sofa, if you know what I mean.”
What kind of bloke is Joseph? A good guy, but a bit of a soft touch. A bit soft in the head too, if he’s been dreaming about angels talking to him. How do we tell Joseph’s story in a way that brings out the hero, the man who stands up for his love, despite all the gossip and the backbiting and his mates thinking he must be losing the plot.
But more than this, I wonder if the way that we talk about Jesus himself doesn’t help. I wonder if the absence of Joseph, and the repeated appearance of Mary makes Jesus come across as a Mummy’s boy, someone who had to prompted by his mum to do his first miracle.
I also wonder if the story of baby Jesus, important though that is, stops men hearing the story of the man Jesus. Whether sweet and innocent and helpless are the words that get linked to Jesus, so that men are unable to hear the anger, the sweat, the blood, and the power in the rest of the story.
I don’t believe that Joseph was absent from Jesus’ adult life. Joseph was chosen by God to be Jesus’ earthly father. God chose Joseph, because God knew Joseph. God knew what kind of man Joseph was. God knew that Joseph was the kind of man to bring up Jesus to be the kind of man that he would need to be. The kind of man who would stand up to the religious leaders who were failing. The kind of man who would break their religious laws so that people could be healed and freed from the chains that were holding them down. The kind of man who would be strong enough to take a beating on someone else’s behalf. The kind of man who would drive out the cheats and the thieves from the house of God. I believe that in all that Jesus did and said, Joseph is there in the upbringing that he gave him.
Joseph was not absent from Jesus’ life. And so, there is no good reason why men should be absent from this church. And not just there in the background, but here, part of the community, taking up their God given part in bringing God’s Kingdom in Shelton and Etruria.
Now, I want to be heard very clearly here. I know that there are those of you here whose fathers, husbands, partners, and sons are not here this morning. I do not want you to think that I am putting you, or them, down. I do not want you to think that I am having a go at you. I believe that the challenge of introducing men to Jesus and calling them to follow Him is one that the church has to face together.
Together we have to think about what it is that we do that puts men off, or isn’t scratching where the men that we know are itching. Together we have to work out what we are going to do about it. Together we have to pray for the men that we know, as well as the women and young people, that they will catch sight of the vision of the good things that God has for them.
So, I’d really encourage you to think about this over Christmas. As you hear the stories again, as you tell them, think about how they might sound to a man who has never heard them before, or who still hears them as if they were stories for children. Talk to the men you know about what they think about Joseph, and about Jesus. Listen to them talk about Christmas. My challenge to you is to come back in the New Year and tell me, and each other, what you have found out.