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December 17, 2017

“Joseph Steps Out of The Shadows”

Matthew 1:18-25


 A little over 10 years ago when both Sam and Abby were younger, I remember watching Abby at the age of about 5 playing with our manger scene. She was holding Joseph, pretending to be him. At one point, Joseph told Mary, “Now you stay here with baby Jesus. I’ll be right back.” Perhaps Joseph was going out to get a pizza or some diapers.  I’m not sure. Abby wouldn’t say when I asked her. But it was interesting to see her give Joseph an active role in the manger.


Just a couple of nights later, I was reading to Abby and Sam a book about the manger, and about the birth of Jesus. Each character in the manger had something to say. For example, “I am Mary. I’m about to have a baby”. Each character in the scene got his or her due- even the ox and donkey got their say. Everyone had something to say that is, except for Joseph- no “I am Joseph” page to be seen anywhere. Sam asked, “Dad, where’s Joseph?”


We might ask the same question. Joseph is the quiet figure in the background, with not much to do. Mary has the baby. The shepherds see the angel and come to see the baby. The wise men guided by the star, bring presents. But Joseph has no active role. Christmas cards don’t show Joseph holding Jesus. Very few Carols or hymns are written about him. Joseph just stands there, back in the shadows of the manger, stoic and silent.


What do we know about Joseph? We know that he never spoke in any account of the gospels. We know that he was a descendant of David, the son of Jacob. We know that he was a carpenter/handyman- The word translated as carpenter, Tecton, really means “jack of all trades”, with an emphasis on being a mechanic. We think he was much older than Mary. There are legends surrounding Joseph that he was a widower, had at least three children including James the brother of Jesus, and had been married for almost 40 years before losing his wife. Most early paintings of Joseph show him as an older man with grey or white hair. We also believe that Joseph died before Jesus’ earthly ministry began. Jesus never referred to his earthly father Joseph, but spoke often about his mother, sisters, and brothers. Also, if Joseph had been alive during Jesus’ crucifixion, he likely would’ve been the one whom Jesus entrusted to care for Mary, rather than Peter.


Yet today’s passage suggests a bit more to Joseph. He indeed did have a role in the life of Jesus.

First came this account that Joseph was engaged to be married to a young girl, Mary. We believe Mary was no more than 13 or 14. Now in those days, the legal age for marrying was 12 for a girl, and 13 for a boy. Marriages were often arranged, so perhaps Joseph had some connection with Mary’s family. Joseph became betrothed to Mary-this means a contract was made in front of two other witnesses. Sometimes the couple gave each other rings or bracelets. This time of waiting before the wedding was considered to be as binding as marriage. Joseph and Mary had taken all the steps toward their wedding day.



Then came the shocker. Mary was already pregnant, and Joseph had nothing to do with it. According to Deuteronomic law, Deut. 22:23,“If a virgin is betrothed and a man sleeps with her in a city or town, you shall take them both out to the gate of the town and stone them to death.”

Joseph could’ve done just as the law suggested, and had Mary stoned to death in Bethlehem-barbaric as that sounds. Instead, he decided to quietly divorce her, saving her from any public disgrace. Theologian Dale Brunner says, “Joseph was prepared to take some of the social shame and personal guilt of a failed betrothal upon himself, without complaint.” It is here in this decision that we begin to understand who Joseph was. He was a righteous man. Yet his sense of righteousness was tempered by mercy.  He knew he had to follow the law in order to show his love for God, yet he also cared for Mary, and so he desired to do things quietly and discreetly. Joseph had a vertical connection in his relationship with God, and he expressed this relationship in a horizontal sensitivity to another human being in Mary. This means he was obedient to God, and lived his life in a right way before God- in righteousness, tempered with mercy.


As I said earlier, Joseph never said a word in the Bible, but he did what God asked of him. First came this dream. An angel came to him in the dream, and told him that he should still marry Mary, that she conceived this child by the Spirit of God. Furthermore, the angel told him to call the child’s name Jesus, for he would be the one to save people from their sins.


Now I don’t know about you, but I have had some pretty bizarre dreams in my time, and I tend to shy away from finding any significance in them- I tend to blame dreams like Joseph had on too much spicy food- perhaps a visit to Great American Pizza Co. or Taqueria Picarro. Yet Joseph had faith- he must’ve had incredibly strong faith in God, for he believed in the dream and in what the angel said. He allowed for potential embarrassment and shame from his family and friends, and did as God asked him to. He went the difficult road of marrying his fiancée, who was pregnant by someone else. Furthermore, he did something else that was very difficult to do- He took this young child as his own, who was not his son by birth, and he did as God had asked, naming him Jesus. This was an interesting twist, in that typically it was the woman who named the child. Perhaps Joseph made a public display of naming this child, and therefore claimed him as his own, and dedicated himself to be Jesus’ father.  Theologian Matthew Hare tells us, “Joseph’s naming of Mary’s baby showed an acknowledgment that by God’s will and act, the boy was authentically his son.”


Years ago I saw something that illustrated this point well. I was at a Catholic retreat center up in Portland. The sanctuary was full of images of Mary, both in statue and stained glass. Yet in the front of the sanctuary, there was a statue of Joseph, and in his arms was the baby Jesus.  Here was an image of Joseph as a loving father. It reminded me that Joseph was more than just a silent partner in all these cosmic events. Joseph loved Jesus as a father loves a son, and helped raise Jesus.  His actions spoke louder than his words. He lived his life in faith and devotion to God. What a challenge it must’ve been to help raise the son of God! Yet apparently he took the challenge and did so in faith and obedience.



Joseph is our model of faith for today- one we can emulate- He was a righteous man, tempered with mercy, who obeyed God and helped raise the most precious treasure for the world.  His obedience and trust in God continued in the gospel stories. Later in another dream, he was commanded by God to flee to Egypt with his family, escaping Herod’s rage. Then again at a later date, Joseph was commanded once again by God to return to Israel and settle with his family in Nazareth. In every instance, Joseph acted without questioning. He did the will of God.


Now is a time for self-examination in regards to our faith.  Are we righteous? That is doing what is right, justice, the act of doing what is in agreement with God’s standards, the state of being in proper relationship with God, or are there some changes which need to be made? Are we so righteous that we have left mercy far behind, looking forward to those opportunities to judge others, that is, self-righteous? When we read the Bible, listen to a sermon, or have time in prayer do we listen to God’s word and follow, or turn a deaf ear? These are the questions we can ask ourselves today as we look to Joseph.


The great poet Anne Weems speaks of Joseph in her poem, “Getting to the Front of the Stable,”

“Who put Joseph in the back of the stable? Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand, and told him to stand in the back of the crèche, background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?


God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful in spite of the gossip in Nazareth, in spite of the danger from Herod. This man, Joseph, listened to angels and it was he who named the child, Jesus.

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries in the back of a stable?


Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway guarding mother and child, or greeting shepherds and kings. When he wasn’t in the doorway, he was probably urging Mary to get some rest, gently covering her with his cloak, assuring her that he would watch the child. Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms and walked him in the night, patting him lovingly until he closed his eyes.”



This Christmas, let us give thanks to God for this man of incredible faith, into whose care God placed the Christ Child. As a gesture of gratitude, let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable, where he can guard and greet, and cast an occasional loving glance at this Child who brought us life.


May we go from this place today, living our lives in faithful obedience to God, being like Joseph, a man whose actions spoke louder than his words. Amen.

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