HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Jeremiah 33:14-16
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 1:18-25
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas - Joseph”
My friend Pat, whom many of you have met, and who currently serves the Presbyterian Church in Buchanan, is a collector of nativity sets. I have one – a “Precious Moments” nativity – well actually I have two of them, one large and one small because about fifteen years ago both of my children heard me say that was something I would like, and they each got the pieces for me for Christmas. One is the large set and one is the smaller piece set, and I honestly don’t recall which child got which set for me. But my friend Pat has more nativity sets than I can count.
Pat is amazing at decorating her home for the various seasons. I usually spend part of the Christmas holiday with her, and so I get to see her nativities. She has a Fontanini collectors set, which is good for me when I go Christmas shopping for her because there seems to be no end to the Fontanini figurines. Three or four sets are displayed in her living room, one or two in the first floor bedroom, two or three downstairs in her family room and – yes – at least two in her guest bathroom. And yet she is still looking for a particular nativity. If one of you should find it I authorize you to purchase it on the spot. I will pay for it and it will be my gift to her. What is she looking for? She is looking for a nativity set in which Joseph is holding the baby.
Poor Joseph. He seems to get short shrift. Mark hardly mentions him at all. John refers to him only in terms of Jesus, the son of Joseph, and Luke gives but a mention of Joseph as the man to whom Mary was engaged to be married, and then mentions that at the time of the birth they traveled to Bethlehem for the required census. So we turn to Matthew to learn a bit about Joseph. Mary, we know, lived in Nazareth, a tiny town, almost unknown. Joseph’s family likely lived in Bethlehem, and his engagement to Mary was probably a long-distance one, arranged by their parents. Bethlehem, about six miles from Jerusalem, was a considerably larger town than Nazareth, population somewhere between 500 and 1,000. In Hebrew “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” and there were likely bakers there who sold their bread in Jerusalem.
(You may be asking if Joseph and his family lived in Bethlehem, why they needed a room in an Inn, and end up having their baby in a stable. You’ll have to come back for the fourth Sunday in Advent to learn why that was true.)
So, what do we learn from Matthew’s narrative concerning Joseph. First of all, we learn that he was both faithful to the law and unwilling to submit Mary to public disgrace. The Law commanded that a woman found to be guilty of adultery be put to death. Joseph must have been devastated when he learned that his betrothed was already pregnant. He certainly knew that he was not the father. If you were in his sandals, how likely do you think you would be to believe her story that she was with child by the Holy Spirit? I mean, really, how often does that happen? We know that Joseph was someone raised to be obedient to the Law, and yet we see that he is also a compassionate person. Somewhere on his walk back to Bethlehem from Nazareth, allowing his emotions to settle down, he resolves to “divorce” her quietly. Joseph – a man who lives by the Law is moved by compassion to save a life. There’s a little mini-gospel here.
Proceeding with his marriage to Mary was an act of compassion. Family and friends would tend to assume that Joseph was the baby’s father. It was not uncommon for couples who were betrothed to consummate the marriage prior to the wedding ceremony. An engagement was a legally binding contract and considered by most to be as good as a done deal.
And who would be a better earthly father for Jesus than a man who knew and lived by the law and yet was also loving and compassionate? Joseph would be a great adoptive father for this baby. Considering the fact that about 1% of the U.S. population is adoptees, we have in this congregation a very high number of adoptive families and children, including my own. Some of you have heard me say that as my children became adults, and particularly as my son Paul reconnected with his birth family I have gained new respect for the “nature” part in the “nature vs. nurture” debate. There are several ways in which Paul is so much like his bio-family. But I also learned in conversations last spring with Carrie as we planned their wedding how much influence I have had on my son. “Oh,” she said to me one afternoon, “you have no idea! All the time, it’s ‘my mom says this’ and ‘my mom taught me that.’” Truly we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and shares God’s nature, but most certainly Joseph said to Jesus ‘this’ and taught Jesus ‘that.’
Now and then we get some theological questions asking why the Bible talks to us about Jesus, the Son of God, and also as Joseph’s son. Let me tell you about that from the perspective of an adoptive parent. When Paul came into our lives, there were people who actually asked me if I wouldn’t miss having a child of my own. I don’t think they meant to be unkind, just curious. At the time I tended to answer, rather flippantly, “No. I watched my cat have kittens. I don’t need to have that particular experience.” But as Paul and then Kathryn grew up, I realized that they are my own children. Not because of the circumstances of their birth, but because I fed and clothed the, changed their diapers, wiped up their messes, played with them, read to them, prayed with them and tucked them into bed at night. They are my children because I walked them to school, went to their parent-teacher conferences, T-ball games and graduations. Joseph was Jesus’ father because he helped Mary take care of him, took him to the Temple and taught him how to do the work of a carpenter.
Walking that long walk home from Nazareth to Bethlehem, having heard the news that his betrothed was already with child, knowing he was not the father, Joseph must have been devastated. His hopes and dreams for the future with her and the family he hoped for were dashed. How many of you have had moments like that in your life? Times when you made plans for your life and some tragedy of gigantic proportions totally demolished your plans. The death of a loved one or the death of a relationship can do that to you. You get turned down for a promotion, or for a job, or your job is terminated. You or your loved one gets a scary diagnosis, or an apparently insurmountable legal problem appears. If you were a character on a soap opera, the writers would have written your line. . . “My life is over!”
But in the middle of Joseph’s worst nightmare, an angel comes to him; a messenger from God appears. In the midst of this disaster, God is working. Adam Hamilton writes, “At that very moment when Joseph felt at his lowest, God was at work in Mary’s womb, doing the greatest thing God had done since the creation of the human race. God was orchestrating the birth of the Savior. God was also inviting Joseph to play a critical part in this plan. Something amazing was about to happen, but Joseph could not see this yet.” Doesn’t that happen to us when we are in our own dark moments. God is at work, doing something amazing. We just don’t always see it, at least not at first.
I have lost count of the number of ways God has taken dark, difficult moments in my life and in the lives of others and done something amazing. All you cancer survivors in the room know what I’m talking about. There is an instant connect between survivors. As soon as we learn that another person is a survivor we are part of something larger than we are, and our stories help others to survive with hope. Our treatments help doctors and researchers develop better treatments. Every time I look back at a difficult time, I discover that God was working in the circumstances. Every time I look back at a difficult time, I am reminded that the Apostle Paul – who endured more than his share of hardship – Paul wrote “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28). Whenever you face trouble, keep Joseph in mind. At the lowest moment of his life God was working to bring about the greatest good, not only for Joseph, but for all humankind.
That messenger that came to Joseph in his dream gave him an instruction that the baby was to be named, “Immanuel,” which means God is with us. This is what we celebrate at Christmas – that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, lived with us, loved with us, laughed with us, cried with us. As the world around us seems to get farther and farther away from faith, as more and more people are not only “unchurched” but “unfaithed,” you and I are called to be “Immanuel” to our families, friends and neighbors. I don’t know who said it first, but it is true that “you are the only Bible some people will ever read.”
When we go out from worship and return to our Monday morning through Saturday night lives, what will the people with whom we interact know about the Lord because of our actions? Our words? Again, it is the Apostle Paul who guides us as we live out our lives in Christ: 19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)
Immanuel: God with us. Revealed in us. How can we ever thank God for what God has done for us? By choosing words and deeds that reveal Christ living in us.