I’d like us to start our time together at the creche, or the nativity scene, and ask you a question. Now, I’m not going to allow you to answer Jesus, even though you grew up being told the answer to every church question was either Jesus, God, or the Bible. But I want to know is, who is your favorite character in the story? Let’s start with the angels. Anyone here an angel fan? Wise Men?Shepherds? Mary? Now, how about Joseph? Why?
Now, I saved Joseph for last for a couple reasons. I think he is an unsung hero from the Christmas story, and scripture in general. We don’t hear about Joseph much. We learn most about him here in the Gospel of Matthew, where Luke’s Gospel is more focused on Mary with only three lines where Joseph is specifically named. We find him there to explain how Mary ended up in Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. Joseph was engaged to Mary because of the Emperor’s decree that they all go to their “town” to be registered for tax purposes. And since Joseph (and Mary) were of the house of David, they were to go to the city of David, Bethlehem. The other time Joseph shows up in Luke is when the Shepherds seek out Mary and Joseph after their nighttime visit from the heavenly hosts. Luke also listed Joseph in Jesus’ genealogy as Jesus’ father, but with the caveat that people just thought he was Jesus’ father.
So, can anyone quote from scripture a line that Joseph said? Because of the numerous Christmas pageants and programs that many of you have seen, you can almost hear him knocking on the door of the inn, asking for a room, and being told that there were no rooms left, but space was available in the stable. But Joseph never says anything in scripture. Mary has her wonderful line after being told the Holy Spirit would come upon her, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” and her Magnificat, the song she sang glorifying God. In fact she is quoted in scripture 7 times. The angels proclaim to the shepherds the night Jesus is born, “Do not be afraid! For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” We hear the shepherds proclaim after this incredible visit, “Let us go to now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” As the wise men stand before King Herod, they demand to know, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star.” Old king Herod even trumps Joseph when it comes to quotes in scripture when he tells the wise men to search diligently to find the child so he, too can worship him, when in truth Herod wants to find the child to eliminate the competition.
Because we don’t hear Joseph speaking it’s easy to assume that he is unimportant to the plot of the story. In fact, at the men’s group this past week, someone said they felt Joseph had been pushed to the margins of the story. But I think that because he doesn’t have a speaking part, we should pay attention to him. In fact, I think he has one of the biggest lessons to teach us. By focusing on Mary, Luke emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Now, that’s important, but by making Joseph his main character in the birth narrative, Matthew stresses the active component in the human response. Three times Joseph has a dream where he is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something.
The first time is in this passage we read. Joseph is betrothed to Mary and she tells him she is with child. Now there is a lot historical research that says in this time and place Mary and Joseph could have lived together before they were married. But from the passage, Joseph knows the child is not his. He considered divorcing Mary when he learned of her pregnancy, but wanted to do so without calling attention to the reason, whereas he could have had her publicly disgraced or even stoned to death for adultery based upon the law of Moses. In a dream, he is told whose the child is, and he did what he was commanded, took Mary as his wife.
The second time is when King Herod goes on his killing spree of the innocents and Joseph is told in a dream to flee to Egypt. He does what he is commanded. But I think he does even more than that. He has claimed this child he is raising as his own and will do anything to protect him as if he is his own child. They spend several years in Egypt, and it isn’t until the angel appears again to Joseph to advise him that Herod is dead and tells Joseph to return back to the land of Israel and is directed to live in Nazareth, where Jesus will be raised. And it is in Nazareth that Joseph teaches Jesus the family business, how to work with wood and work with his hands.
For Matthew, Joseph becomes the first example in his gospel of what it means to live in the light of the salvation of God, what it means to be a disciple. For Matthew, God is the supreme actor in the drama of salvation. We see in his gospel that God’s grace and love is always the first thing that is offered up to humanity. But for Matthew, the human response to that love must always be active and not merely passive. We see this through Jesus’ teachings in Matthew, especially in the climax of the sermon of the mount. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (7:21) Joseph is the first example of that doing and living out of the will of God.
Friends, in just a couple of days, we will celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. God has acted in love for our good, for our salvation, for our healing in the giving of his Son. And it is Emmanuel who goes with us as we respond to the love and salvation that God has freely given us. As you wait for his coming, I’d invite you to not to forget quiet Joseph. Remember him. But most importantly, follow his example.