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Earlier this week as I was driving around, I started to count how many nativity scenes I saw at various churches and homes. Within just a few miles of driving I was over a dozen! As these nativity scenes help to tell the story of Christmas, I am struck by how often we overlook one figure. While Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, many of those people gathered for his birth are still recognized. Sometimes we recognize them by their unique speaking parts in those Christmas programs that take place throughout the month. For example, we often notice Mary, the mother of Jesus. Many among us can remember the sight of their child portraying one of the angels as they take center stage to announce the birth of Jesus. We love to recall the shepherds entering in from the fields and the three wise men traveling from a great distance to bring their gifts. And yes, even the animals have speaking roles at times. Often in these programs there is one character that remains silent throughout those reenactments. In one particular nativity sighting the other day I saw a figure standing in the background, looking on while everyone else gathered around the manger. This figure was Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
What do we really know about Joseph? In one of my resources, the New International Version of the Dictionary of the Biblethe life of Joseph is shared in just a few paragraphs that include the following information. Joseph was the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23). He was a carpenter (Matt 13:55) living in Nazareth (Luke 2:4). He was a descendant of the House of David (Matt 1:20; Luke 2:4). Joseph undoubtedly taught Jesus the carpentry trade (Mark 6:3). He was thought by many to be the actual father of Jesus. It is likely that he was alive after the ministry of Jesus had well begun (Matt 13:55), but as we do not hear of him in connection with the Crucifixion, and as Jesus commended Mary to John at the Crucifixion (John 19:26-27), it is assumed that he had died prior to that event. Because Scripture contains so little information about his life, Joseph has become the forgotten figure of Christmas. However, he is irreplaceable in the story of Jesus’ birth.
Our gospel lesson from Matthew reminds us that Joseph was a central and essential person in the Christmas drama. Despite the fact we know so little about his life, Joseph in his actions reveal three characteristics that we should try to follow in our lives.
The first characteristic Joseph revealed was mercy. Joseph extended to Mary mercy when the culture and society of his day presented him another option. Having become engaged to Mary, we can assume that Joseph worked hard to establish an income to support his soon to be new bride and one day to have a family. Filled with the expectations of youth and a deep love for Mary he had so much to look forward to in their life together. During their courtship Mary became pregnant and Joseph knew that this was not his child. Feeling betrayed, Joseph had to decide how to respond. Should he publicly shame her and serve her with a certificate of divorce or surrender her to authorities to be put to death by public stoning? Each of these punishments was permissible under the law of the day. Her explanation of the pregnancy for most people would seem to be unbelievable, and did nothing to ease Joseph’s emotional pain. In a difficult time like this one would think that perhaps a bitter exchange of words might take place between Joseph and Mary. But no such words are recorded and we see that Joseph responded by choosing the path of mercy. As we speak of the subject of mercy, I came across a story about Napoleon who once showed mercy to another individual which was something he was not often know for doing. In the book Experiencing God’s Forgiveness it is shared that a woman once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and that justice demanded he be put to death. The mother said, “But I don’t ask for justice, rather I plead for mercy.” Napoleon responded by saying, “But your son does not deserve mercy.” The mother responded with these powerful words, “Sir, it would not be mercy if he deserved it and mercy is all that I ask for.” At those words Napoleon spared the life of her son. Joseph we see spared Mary’s life as he chose a path of mercy and planned to leave Mary alone with the task of raising a child as a single mother. His love for her meant he did not want to expose her to public shame and disgrace so he decided that he would divorce her quietly. This is a response of a person who extended mercy. While Joseph might have become the subject of gossip in Nazareth, while friends might have distanced themselves, he would not hurt Mary.
The second characteristic we see from Joseph is the characteristic of faithfulness. Our Scripture passage this morning in the gospel of Matthew begins with an introduction to Joseph who is in the middle of an unwelcome dream. Yet it is because of this dream we see the faithfulness of Joseph in action. During this dream an angel of the Lord appears before Joseph and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. He was also told that this child was indeed conceived by the Holy Spirit and he was to name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Joseph realized that this child who Mary was to give birth to would serve a greater purpose for God than he could ever imagine. An angel of God, a heavenly messenger, suddenly appearing to tell him that Mary had been truthful and faithful to him. What was happening in their lives was in fact to help fulfill God’s promise. Sometimes in this story of faith we often applaud the faithfulness of Mary in answering this call from God, but we need to remember that God called Mary and Joseph as a couple. God also placed his trust in Joseph to help raise Jesus on earth. Rather than question God, Joseph faithfully accepted this challenge. The late philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote:
It’s not what men eat, but what they digest that makes them strong; Not what we gain, but what we save that makes us rich; Not what we read, but what we remember that makes us learned; Not by what we preach or pray, but what we practice and believe that makes us faithful.
In addition to extending mercy and being faithful the final characteristic Joseph demonstrated was obedience towards God. Joseph’s obedience did not waver even when taken away from his homeland of Nazareth for the census. By traveling to Bethlehem Joseph knew that Mary would not give birth to this child in the comforts of their home, rather in an unfamiliar place that ended up being a lowly manger. Shortly after His birth, Joseph and Mary and the newborn Jesus became refugees to Egypt fleeing from the wrath of Herod because God told him to leave in another dream. This unexpected journey to Egypt must have exposed Joseph and family to many obstacles as they traveled among strangers and through a desert. We also learn that Joseph through the years brought Jesus up in a Godly home. How do we know this? In the Gospel of Luke we learn that every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. While it was the desire of every Jewish person to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem it was not an easy trip; yet being obedient to God he made the sacrifice by taking his family on these travels.
Sometimes I like to read between the lines and often I have found myself doing this when thinking of the life of Joseph. I look at the earthly life of Jesus and begin to wonder whether Jesus learned to respect and honor women in his ministry because he saw how Joseph treated his mother Mary and his sisters? As Jesus taught in the temple and quoted from the prophets I wonder whether this was a result of growing up in a home where Joseph taught the law of the prophets to his family. Did Jesus learn the importance of honesty and hard work as he worked alongside Joseph in a carpenter’s shop? Some things for us to ponder I imagine.
As Christians we must draw Joseph more into the Christmas story. The Christmas story is most importantly about the birth of Jesus, but it is also a story about real life and real choices. Difficult choices were made. Among the most difficult was Joseph agreeing to follow God’s will and accept Mary as his wife and to help raise a child who was not his own. Joseph in his mercy, faithfulness and obedience served God with great unselfishness. Through Joseph, God protected the unborn life of Jesus and preserved human life for our Savior. In the Catholic Church Joseph has a very special rank among the saints of the Kingdom of God. Bernadine of Siena, a Catholic priest who lived in the 15th century once said in a sermon about Joseph,
“He was chosen by the eternal Father as the trustworthy guardian and protector of his greatest treasures, namely, his divine Son…”
Should we see a Nativity scene later today, remember to look for that forgotten figure and remember his important part in the Christmas story.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
December 23, 2018