There are approximately 40 hymns or carols in our current Book of Praise in the
section called, “Christmas”, of that 40 about 25 are fairly well known and we sing them nearly
every year. Eighteen of those carols reference Mary, seventeen reference the angels, fifteen
reference the Shepherds, ten reference the animals in the stable, nine reference Bethlehem,
seven reference the manger and five reference the star. Do you know how many of the carols in
our hymn book reference Joseph? Two. One is an obscure hymn that I have never sung called,
“The Snow Lay On the Ground” and the other is “Angels we have heard on high.” Now, I like to
think of myself as a bit of a feminist, and therefore I am aware that most of the other stories in
Scripture are male dominated, so it is time that a woman is the centre of a story. However, I am
also a bit of an equal opportunist and I have started to feel a bit sorry for Joseph, sure Mary
does most of the work and faces incredible challenges head on, sure the Angels are the ones
who announce the birth to the Shepherds, sure the animals and manger are fun to sing about
because it makes it such an extraordinary story but Joseph may just be the most relate-able
character in this story. Matthew is the only Gospel writer who really gives Joseph any depth but
Joseph’s behaviour and example gives us some clarity on how incredible this whole narrative is
and how it relates to our own lives.
First a word about his name, because throughout the stories of the people of God,
names are important. The name Joseph comes from the Hebrew name Yosef which finds its
root from the Hebrew verb “yasaf” which means “to add” or “to increase”. This makes sense as
we think of the other Josephs who find themselves within Scripture. The first time we hear the
name Joseph is within the story of Jacob, Joseph is the 11th
son and but first son with Jacob’s fourth and favourite wife Rachel. This Joseph increased not only the family of Jacob but adds to the story of the Israelites in general as it is through him that they eventually find themselves in Egypt. The Joseph from this morning, Joseph, the husband of Mary also adds to story of God’s people. Matthew’s version of Joseph is unique to not only all the Gospels but unique to the rest of Matthew. Nowhere else are Joseph’s traits described or does he take such an active role in the birth of Jesus. Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man, the only descriptor in all the gospels about Joseph’s personality and given Joseph’s behaviour it is almost redundant to say he is righteous because we find out how righteous within the same sentence. If an unwed young woman, who was betrothed or promised in marriage, was found pregnant it was not only grounds for a dismissal or divorce but according to Deuteronomy 22, could lead to her being put to death. Joseph plans to dismiss her quietly, saving the family from shame and saving Mary’s and the unborn child’s life. The very fact that he does not want to expose her publicly to save her from disgrace demonstrates his righteousness. Its important that we don’t romanticize this story too much. Joseph wasn’t doing this because he was heartbroken, he decided to dismiss her quietly because it was the right thing to do. However, Joseph’s plans are abruptly changed following a message in a dream. So
often our plans can change in an instant.
The Angel’s first words to Joseph can help us too when change seizes us. This angel of the Lord gives the command, “do not be afraid,” we too should not fear change. The angel continues with some very interesting and counter-cultural instructions. Joseph is not only to take Mary as his wife, something that would have been unheard of at the time, but he is also the one who is to name the child. Culturally the naming was usually a prerogative of the mother. As mentioned in the introduction, this naming is vital to the relationship between Joseph and Jesus. By naming Jesus, Joseph performs the official act of adoption and as a result, due to Joseph’s obedience and naming, Jesus is linked to the historic royal genealogy of Israel. Think about this for a moment, according to Matthew, because of Joseph’s obedience, Jesus becomes the Son of David- and therefore the Messiah. Without Joseph’s role Jesus would not have been able to claim his royal lineage. And the symbolism of Joseph’s adoption of Jesus should not be lost on us. Just as Joseph names and therefore claims Jesus as his own, Jesus adopts and claims us as his own.
It is Joseph’s obedience that can make him relate-able. Joseph was going to quietly
dismiss Mary- one could say he had given up on her as his wife. But God tells Joseph not only
to not give up but to demonstrate love by faithfully supporting her. Both Mary and Joseph take
all of this in stride but Joseph’s role in this nativity narrative opens up the possibilities for us to
explore the faith filled contributions we make when we do not give up on others but rather
demonstrate love, particularly within those situations that are not necessarily of our making or
even those in which we do not play a central role. The Rev. Dr. Grant Barclay frames it this way,
“If faith is understood as the choices we make and things we are determine to do, this passage
suggests faith may also be about the responses we make to the situations in which we find
ourselves. We are faithful not only in those ways we take the initiative, but also in how we
respond.” Joseph responds with faith and love to a very challenging situation.
In fairness, I think most of us would find it easier to respond to unpredictable situations
if we too had dreams in which angels gave us instruction and made the outcomes very clear.
However, at this time of year I also think about how our best laid plans can be derailed. Instead
of responding with anger or even dismissal perhaps we need to respond in faith and love.
Joseph has doubts and concerns but they are answered by divine confirmation. We don’t
always have that luxury however, this story declares that God reaches into the context of human existence in an unprecedented way- Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves. Through this extraordinary story we discover that we do have the ability to respond to extraordinary situations as Joseph does- with faith and love, and we can always turn to Scripture for reassurance. The angel in Joseph’s dream not only tells Joseph to name the child Jesus but then quotes directly from the passage we heard in Isaiah. This might seem a bit confusing because the angel also tells Joseph that the child’s name will be Emmanuel. So, what happened to the name Jesus? Well, in short, Matthew is saying that Jesus saves his people by being God with us- something that will become vital in understanding the person and work of Jesus. When Isaiah wrote his prophecy the Southern Kingdom had just been attacked and therefore his words are about divine signs of salvation during a siege. The countdown to Christmas can sometimes feel like a siege- but the power of the name Emmanuel for us at Advent is that it calls us to live faithfully in God’s promise to be with us and indeed even to have the courage of faith to test that promise when we feel under siege. And I’m not talking about some false war on Christmas- I’m talking about all of those situations in which we, loose faith, in which we no longer believe that God is able to reverse threatening situations that confront us or the world.
We don’t know how Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant but it certainly was a
threatening situation for her and for their betrothal but God intervened and reversed the
situation, transformed it in such a way that this child became the Messiah. It may appear that
Joseph just went along for the ride but in truth his willingness to follow in faith, and not give up
on Mary or the relationship, is what changes the situation. Think of all the opportunities you
have in the coming week to be like Joseph. Do not give up, respond in faith, act in love. Amen