About Joseph (Beyond Biology)

Matthew 1:18-25

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, and had no marital relations with her until she ad born a son, and he named him Jesus.

Sermon, Preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony, 12/22/19

A Sunday School was putting on a Christmas pageant which included the story of Mary and Joseph coming to the inn. One boy wanted so very much to be Joseph, but when the parts were handed out, a boy he didn’t like was given that part, and he was assigned to be the inn-keeper instead. He was pretty upset about this but he didn’t say anything to the director.  During all the rehearsals, he thought what he might do the night of performance to get even with this rival who got to be Joseph. Finally, the night of the performance, Mary and Joseph came walking across the stage. They knocked on the door of the inn, and the inn-keeper opened the door and asked them gruffly what they wanted.  Joseph answered, “We’d like to have a room for the night.” Suddenly the inn-keeper threw the door open wide and said, “Great, come on in and I’ll give you the best room in the house!”  For a few seconds poor little Joseph didn’t know what to do. Thinking quickly on his feet, he looked inside the door past the inn-keeper then said, “No wife of mine is going to stay in dump like this. Come on, Mary, let’s go to the barn.” -And just like that, the play was back on track!  In all the Christmas pageants performed, Joseph doesn’t get a starring role, but his part is so important. His task is to watch over Mary and the baby Jesus. (Story told by Rev. Robert Leroe, https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/joseph-father-of-jesus-robert-leroe-sermon-on-parenting-48052?page=3). 

Joseph had the important role of caring for the needs of others, needs that had nothing to do with his own progeny or biology—and he did so beautifully, despite that fact that the baby was not his.  And this is the point of today’s sermon: It seems that our human inclination so often is to watch out for foremost for blood—for our biological progeny—to the exclusion of others, but we learn that in God’s kingdom, we have a higher calling upon us, which we learn from Joseph’s good example.  Step-parents, take note, be inspired. 

Here are two interesting facts regarding that story I just told about the Sunday school pageant: One, the Bible never mentions an innkeeper, but we assume that there was one.  In fact, I am going to focus on the presumed innkeeper at our Christmas Eve service, now as I move into the stories of men of the Bible that will take us through Lent.  And the second fact, Joseph, the earthy father of Jesus, doesn’t have a single quote attributed to him in the Bible—not a single word said by Joseph is recorded in our Gospels, so I’m not so sure why that little boy really wanted to play him in the Sunday school pageant.  Oh yes, we can visualize the conversations he must have had with Gabriel and with Mary and with the Innkeeper, and we can imagine him teaching Jesus about carpentry, but then he fades away.  You know, once Jesus begins his public ministry, we continue to hear about Mary, but we hear nothing about Joseph at that point.  Although the Bible never says she is a widow, we can probably figure that Joseph has since died.  It would make sense as scholars believe that Joseph was probably a good bit older than Mary, who would have been a young teenager, somewhere probably between age 12 and 14.  We only know a little bit about the man Joseph, but what we do know about his devotion, actions, and character speak volumes about why God would choose him for the honor of raising Jesus—we will get to that in a minute.

Here’s the thing: We know the basic story of Mary and Joseph.  We are saturated with it this time every year.  Yet, I thought you might like to hear another story that circulated about them—a story from the Apocrypha—which Protestants do not consider authoritative writings, which tweak a few of the details:  According to the Apocrypha, when Joseph was 40 he married a woman called Melcha.  They lived forty-nine years together and had six children, two daughters and four sons.  (This is how some people account for the biblical mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters if their, usually Catholic, tradition maintains the perpetual virginity of Mary.)  Now, according to this apocryphal story, a year after Melcha’s death, the priests announced that they were looking for a respectable man from the tribe of Judah to marry Mary, then 12-14ish years of age.  Joseph, who was at the time 90, went up to Jerusalem to be among the candidates.  He was selected for Mary.

But soon Joseph’s faith in Mary was sorely tried: She was with child and he knew it wasn’t his.  And now here the story once jives again with the one we know and believe:  The discovery must have been painful for Joseph because he was as of yet unaware of the mystery of her pregnancy.  Yet, he must have loved her.  Rather than bringing her to be publicly stoned as was the law, he decided “to dismiss her quietly.” What this meant was to discretely divorce her, which you could do in a betrothal, rather than spurn her and have her stoned.

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep and told him to marry her for the child was of God.  Joseph, rising from his sleep, did as the angel in his dream had commanded him, and he took her to be his wife.

Remember, lots of stories circulated about Jesus and the Holy Family, but not all of them were canonized in the Bible.  I just thought you might like to hear one of the other stories told about Mary and Joseph, since it is that time of year.

Just a quick side note: Luke’s Gospel, which prominently features women, tells the story primarily from Mary’s perspective.  Matthew makes Joseph the primary actor, and much of the story in Matthew is told from Joseph’s point of view.    

Ok, so now let’s get into this issue of why God would choose Joseph for the honor of raising the Savior.  Our text from Matthew today tells us up front that he was a righteous man.  We get a sense of what this means from context: Joseph is ready to do as the law requires, but unlike the legalistic Pharisees who appear later in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is also concerned about being merciful and is open to divine revelation that corrects his traditional way of thinking (Harper Collins Bible Commentary, p. 872).  What we know is that this exemplary man was inclined to mercy.  That is why he did not get disgusted with Mary, expose her to public disgrace, and have her stoned, as would have been the custom back then.  Certainly, that would have protected his own reputation—absolving him, perhaps from any perceived involvement he had in her pregnancy.  But we learn he wanted to spare her and take care of things discretely—his mercy made him righteous. 

We also know that Joseph had an openness about him, which was a part of his righteousness.  Remember, he did not get a direct visitation from the angel; he encountered this angel of the Lord in a dream.  He was open enough to consider the content of his dream as a revelation from God.  The angel tells him not to be afraid to take her as his wife; in fact, the angel tells her the child she conceived was from the Holy Spirit.  Joseph believed this because he was open.  That is why he could change his mind about quietly dismissing her.  His open-spiritedness was a part of his righteousness—he did not rigidly adhere to traditional thinking, ala the Pharisees.  We in the UCC may say that he was not closed off to the still-speaking God.  Thus, Joseph was righteous because he was merciful and open to God’s revelation.  Are we righteous in that sense, or are we sticklers for the law and tradition and closed off to new directions of the Spirit?  Do we revere more the bonds of biology or the whole of the family of God?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all stepfathers (and people) were like Joseph?

We can also infer that Joseph was not afraid to take risks.  He risked being questioned about Mary’s pregnancy and married her anyway.  I told you a few weeks ago that back then, marriages were arranged and that an engaged couple continued to live with their parents until all preparations were made (house and furniture built, linens sewed and so on) and the wedding was celebrated.  I don’t know if you ever lived in a small town or a village, but Prescott is still pretty much that.  It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing someone you know, and word seems to get around pretty quickly, at least in my neighborhood.  Well, the people in Mary and Joseph’s village probably thought that the two of them couldn’t wait until their wedding—you know what I mean.  But Joseph took care of her anyway, and he protected their reputation by moving up the wedding date.  It turns out the Roman census, which we will talk more about next Sunday, Christmas Eve, took them far away—to Bethlehem, in fact—from Nazareth’s gossip and questions—and maybe that was God’s providence too.

We know that one of Joseph’s characteristics was also his trust.  He trusted in God’s providential care, from the time of his dream to his journey to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife.  He trusted in God’s providential care again when the angel came to him in another dream and told him to flee to Egypt during the time of Herod.  He demonstrated his trust in God when he taught Jesus his own profession, that of a carpenter.  Just a side note, aarcheologists have uncovered the ruins of Sapphoris, a thriving city near Nazareth. It is believed that Joseph spent much time there working on carpentry jobs, probably with his son and apprentice, Jesus.  Yes, Joseph was probably looking forward to fathering his own child, but he trusted God to help him be a step-father to a child not his own—and we never see any indignance in him, that Jesus was not his biological child.  He. Being a law-abiding Jew, saw to it that Jesus was raised in Judaism with all of its proper rituals. He named the child Jesus, as the angel in his dream had directed him.  This was the father’s function, naming the child at the circumcision on the eighth day, and he trusted the word from the angel and named the baby Jesus, which means savior.  It is a variant of the name Joshua in the Old Testament, and it was given to Jesus because he saves his people from their sins.  Joseph, charged with naming their son, defines Jesus’ mission by giving him this God-directed name.

Just a few more characteristics we believe about Joseph: The biblical record suggests he was a quiet, unobtrusive, and humble man, even though Matthew’s genealogy says he came from the royal lineage of King David.  We infer that he was willing to endure hardship and disappointment and that he was a good provider and protector of the family. 

In fact, in some even call Joseph the patron saint of real estate because of his protection of the home or structure.  Have you ever had a realtor tell you to bury a statue of Joseph next to a home you were trying to sell—a practice apparently popular since the 1980’s—though its roots go back much further?  Apparently during the Middle Ages, when an order of European nuns was said to have buried a medal of the carpenter-turned-saint on a piece of land they hope to acquire as the site of their new convent.  The nuns asked the saint to intervene, and soon after, they were able to negotiate the purchase of their desired property.  Other stories, associated with Joseph’s characteristic of protection, include German carpenters who would bury a statue of St. Joseph in the foundation of their buildings they constructed, praying that the saint would protect the structure.  It seems as if Catholics and non-Catholics alike credit the sale of their homes to Joseph, protector of the home, also protector of a child not biologically his.  And yes, I’ll admit it, I buried a few Josephs in my day.

Today let us meditate upon Joseph: a man of integrity, the right man who did the right thing: A man who followed God’s instructions, journeying from Nazareth to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, then back to Nazareth, where the people recognized Jesus as the carpenter’s son:  A man who trusted a God, whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, who calls us beyond biology.  God, in the same manner Joseph, adopts us all as sons and daughters.  Will we, as Joseph did, look past biology and protect all who come into our spheres of influence, even those not related to us by blood?  Let us be mindful of the difference a righteous step or adopted father (or mother) can make in this world!  Amen.