(a sermon for December 22, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent; 3rd in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25)
If it could ever be said that there’s a “forgotten” cast member of the story of Christmas, I think that it would also have to be said that that role easily belongs to Joseph.
Not long ago I came across the work of a clergy colleague on-line who did a survey of all the words contained within the Advent and Christmas hymns included in his congregation’s hymnal. And what he discovered is that in those songs there were, as one might expect, 309 references made to the Christ Child; also 48 mentions of angels, 31 references to Mary and 23 words about shepherds. But quite interestingly, he found that in this particular hymnal was no reference at all made to Joseph; not a one! Well, of course, that piqued my curiosity, so I did a very quick search of our “Chalice Hymnal” and found… only one mention of Joseph (it’s from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” by the way: “See within a manger laid, Christ whom choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, while our hearts in love we raise.”); and even there, Joseph’s sort of an “add on” to the larger story!
Now, granted, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of Christian hymnody there’s some wonderful music to be found in which Joseph figures prominently – “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” for instance – and there’s also some wonderful contemporary music out there (“Joseph’s Lullaby” comes to mind) that beautifully seeks to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective. But by and large, the music of this season tends to cast Joseph in much the same way we see him in the crèche: as a quiet, ever stalwart presence kneeling at the manger even as he’s overshadowed by the likes of shepherds, wise men and farm animals; just another supporting player in the nativity drama dwelling in the shadows of holy light.
And yet… I would submit to you that despite this, shall we say, subdued presence in the Christmas story, it is Joseph, this adoptive father of Jesus, who not only brings Mary and by extension, us, to the manger, but who also by his very example leads us “yonder” to what is beautifully sung in “O Holy Night” as “a new and glorious morn.” Joseph, you see, is perhaps the singular figure within the nativity story who quite literally takes us to Bethlehem… and beyond!
Now, to understand this, we need to remember that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, from which our text this morning is drawn, in terms of both narrative and tone, is most definitely different from that of Luke. Luke’s story is filled with singing angels, adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus born in a stable. Matthew’s version of events, however, is much more cut and dried, remarkably brief and arguably a far more somber account of things: to wit, after an entire first chapter listing off a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus, Matthew begins by simply saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” No shepherds or angels on high, no “no room in the inn,” no manger, no swaddling clothes – in fact, the wise men don’t even show up until the second chapter – but what follows is, in fact, one of the most essential parts of the story and isn’t it interesting; it’s told from Joseph’s perspective. And as such, if I might quote pastor and biblical scholar David Lose here, it’s not so much “a story of wonder [as it is] as story of heartache.”
Now, I know that to suggest such a thing runs headlong up against just about every image we’ve ever had about Christmas; make no mistake, there’s heartache in abundance here! Because as Lose also reminds us, Mary and Joseph were real people – very young people, in fact, not to mention impoverished and without any semblance of earthly privilege or power. “In our imagination,” Lose writes, “Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal.” And yes, that’s how we might prefer this story to go but in fact, as Matthew begins his version of the story, the whole event is bathed in… scandal.
To begin with, we’re immediately told by Matthew that “when [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Understand that in first century Palestine, engagement was not viewed as it is today – as a romantic declaration of marital intent – but rather, engagement was considered to be “a legal contract, binding in every respect… [it] was essentially to be married with having consummated that marriage or even living together.” So for Mary to be “with child” now would have been seen as sure and certain evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; and, in full accordance with Jewish law, would have been punishable by Mary being dragged out to her father’s house to be publically disgraced and to face death by stoning. And that, in and of itself, is about as disturbing a possibility as we can imagine; remember this is Mary, the mother of Jesus (!) we’re talking about here! But even that very real and, yes, very legal possibility aside, imagine the kind of pain and anguish Joseph must certainly have felt at learning this news… once again, Mary and Joseph were real people with real feelings living in a real, not to mention harsh and judgmental world. Mary already understood what was happening to her, that’s true; and yes, Mary must have worried about how this claim about the Holy Spirit was going to be received in and around the village of Nazareth. But Joseph… we’ve got to imagine he’s devastated by this turn of events.
But we’re also told that Joseph is a “righteous” man. In the Greek, the word is dikaios, which means “upright,” “virtuous,” or “just in the eyes of God;” and as such, one who sought to live wholly in accordance with the law set forth in the Torah. In other words, once Joseph had received this news, according to the letter of the law, there could well have been a rush to judgment for Mary. But “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph chose the second option, “to dismiss her quietly,” quickly and quietly breaking the marriage contract; in essence granting her a divorce without any public fuss. So right away we have this new perspective on Joseph, as a man who despite what must certainly have been a deep sense of betrayal and suffering, immediately looks to what’s best for Mary… and that’s just the beginning.
Because just when Joseph is about to bring some closure to this situation, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” She’s going to have a baby boy, Joseph, and you’re to give him the name of Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins; and the reason this is all happening this way is because of Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” The upshot of all of this is that as soon as Joseph awakes from this strange yet familiar dream, he’s calmed down and we’re left to assume that he’s got some deeper sense of God’s intention with all of this. And thanks be to God that he did: in the words of Leonard Sweet, at the moment the angel of the Lord appeared “the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah.” The good news is that like Mary before him, Joseph said yes, and “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
And a few months later, there’s that so-called registration in Bethlehem, which also not by coincidence was happening just about the same time as the baby was due; which meant that the city was crowded, the inns were full but maybe there’d be a stable out back… well, you know the story. But first, to quote David Lose once more, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion..” actually not unlike the kinds of struggle we all face, baby or no, along the journey of life.
Actually, given all of this backstory, I’d like to think that Joseph spent those months getting ready. It’s been said, you know, that when a woman is expecting (or for that matter, as we’ve seen in our own extended family this year, in the process of preparing for an adoption) her maternal instincts kick in immediately; but for the father, it sometimes takes that singular moment of holding that child in his arms that he becomes a father! But not so with Joseph: I have a sense that in those days leading up to manger of Bethlehem Joseph was likely spending every moment surveying the landscape, so to speak, getting ready for this momentous, life-changing, world-shifting act of God, all the while trying somehow to comprehend what being the earthly father of the Son of God would actually be for him!
There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it. And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.” That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; and yet, as this incredible story begins to unfold what we discover is that not only was Joseph prepared for the day of his birth he was ready for the next day as well.
In fact, I have to say that these days, when I think of Joseph, it’s not so much the “silent, holy night” in the manger that I envision… in truth, I’m thinking about the next morning as the sun is rising. I mean, in those moments after the birth itself, after the infant Jesus was wrapped in those swaddling clothes and lying asleep in the manger; when the shepherds had come and gone and Mary was silently pondering in her heart all that happened that night; and when the animals had grown weary of all the excitement and had opted to get some sleep themselves. I like to think that in those moments after the bright star of that holy night had begun to fade and a new day was beginning, there was Joseph, standing at the gateway of the stable and watching the sun rise over the streets of Bethlehem; just the same way it had done on countless days before, but now in a way unlike ever before in the history of God’s creation.
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
There would be more to come: the arrival, at some point soon, of magi from the East bringing expensive and very prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the news that Herod wanted to “pay homage” to the new born king even as his minions were seeking to slaughter any and all newborns that might fit the profile and provide a threat to his power; and then, yes, another angel’s message in a dream telling Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt to keep them safe.
In other words, the story was just beginning; but in these wee hours of the morning, Joseph was ready for what was to come.
You see, that’s the thing about Christmas: so often, especially given that it comes at the end of a long Advent season of waiting and watch, we assume that the manger of Bethlehem represents the end of the story, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the story of Christ’s coming into the world… the story of light piercing through the darkness of life… of redeeming hope in a culture that seemingly thrives on the threat of hopelessness… of joy unending and triumphant… and of our lives, yours and mine, beloved, changing forever because of this one holy child who grew up to save us all from our sin.
So Merry Christmas, friends… and I hope and pray that it’s everything it should be for you and yours. But remember this… after it’s all done, our time at the manger, that’s when the work of Christmas and faith really begins: to, like Joseph before us, walk into the new and glorious morn of Jesus’ birth, and by his counsel start to change this world for the better, making our fervent hope of peace on earth and goodwill a reality for our lives and living here and now.
And in doing so, making sure that…
…our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry