Matthew 1:18 – 25
Our theme during Advent is People Who Waited for Jesus and this morning we are remembering Joseph, Mary’s husband.
Now when we think about Joseph we need to say this first and often: There is a great deal we don’t know for sure about Joseph. We don’t know when he was born or where he died or how old he was when he died. We do have one little clue about when he may have died. His name is not mentioned in the stories of Jesus as an adult. Jesus’ mother is mentioned, and his sisters and brothers are mentioned, but Joseph is not mentioned. So we guess that may have died before Jesus reached the age of 30. But the Bible says very little about him, and we have to read between the lines carefully if we want to know much about him at all.
Now if you happened to be in the city of Nazareth about two thousand years ago and if you asked somebody standing on the street next to you, “Who is Joseph?” They would have told you that he was a woodworker in that town, and that his wife’s name was Mary and that he had several sons and some daughters and that his sons’ names were Jesus, and James and Joseph and Simon and Judas. And maybe they wouldn’t remember the names of his daughters. And that’s probably what the people in Nazareth would say about their neighbor Joseph.
But now let me tell you the rest of the story of Joseph. He was a woodworker, all right, and he probably made things like wagon wheels and farm wagons and chairs and tables and benches. And if he wanted to deliver those items in the village of Nazareth, that was all well and good. But if he wanted to deliver a wagon wheel to a farmer out in the country, he’d have to get on the road going out of town, and he would have to pay a high tax to the Roman government – 2,500 miles all the way away in Rome - just to use the road. Now the problem was that there was no sign on the toll booth saying how much you had to pay, so the tax taker in the toll booth could charge you whatever he felt like charging you that day. And if he liked you, he’d charge you less, but if he didn’t like you, or if he didn’t like your brother, or if he had a headache that day or if he was in a lousy mood, he would charge you a whole lot more. And of course he would know what the rate was to use the road, and he would pocket the difference for himself. It was a very common practice. And there wasn’t a thing in the world Joseph could have done about that. Except pay the very high tax to use the road.
And may I tell you that in those days it was no great honor to be a woodworker. They were among the very lowest class of people – just above the beggars and the day laborers and the slaves. So paying a high tax just to use the road would have made a big difference to Joseph and his family.
Joseph was engaged to a young woman named Mary, and he had every intention of marrying her. But one day she turned up pregnant, and Joseph was very sure he wasn’t the father. Now Joseph was a decent man, and he didn’t really want to bring any more shame or harm to Mary, but he also didn’t feel like marrying her under those circumstances, so he planned to end the engagement very quietly and let both of them go on with their lives with some dignity. But he had a dream, Joseph did. An angel (who he knew was God) came to him and spoke to him and told him that Mary wasn’t pregnant by another man at all, that her baby was the child of the Holy Spirit. Of all amazing, unbelievable things. And Joseph believed what the angel told him.
And the next we know of Joseph is that he and Mary are traveling some 100 miles south, walking of course, for days on end, with their bedrolls and their pots and pans and food to eat along the way - to get to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem. So that he could register there. So he could be taxed even more than he was already being taxed – by the Roman government. And while they were there, as you remember so well, Mary’s baby was born – in the cow barn they were staying in.
And Joseph stood by and watched while a group of scientists from hundreds and hundreds of miles away came to see his newborn baby. (Those Magi we talked about last week.) And brought him gifts worth a royal fortune. And pretty soon a bunch of shepherds showed up from the neighboring fields to see the baby. And before he could soak that all in, the midnight sky was as bright as day from one end of the sky to the other, and angels were singing from one end of the sky to the other – about the birth of his baby. Which was quite a lot for a simple woodworker from Nazareth to take in. (Now when I talk about Joseph’s baby, you realize that he wasn’t really Joseph’s baby – Jesus was the son of God.)
And while all that was soaking in, Joseph got word (from an angel again - who he knew was God) that the Roman King Herod was searching for the baby to kill him. Which was entirely believable because Herod was well-known to be a madman who had even murdered members of his own family. So Joseph and Mary bundled up their baby Jesus and took off in the middle of the night – to Egypt. Which was another four or five hundred miles, depending on where in Egypt they went. Which meant weeks on the road again, without any source of income that I can imagine. And who knows how they would have had anything to eat or drink or where they would have spent the nights. And I can tell you that the route they would have taken was a dangerous one – used by bandits waiting to rob helpless travelers, and the only way they could have been reasonably safe at all was to attach themselves to a camel caravan heading that way.
Then we are told - and you probably remember – that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus spent about two years in Egypt. I am wondering to myself where they lived and whether Joseph could find work there as a woodworker, or how in the world they managed to survive as refugees in a foreign country. And I wonder if they knew the language there at all and how they could communicate. And all the while, you remember, that back up north in Bethlehem that evil King Herod is searching out and killing all the children under two years of age. In a futile attempt to make sure he got the one he was looking for.
But after two years in Egypt, Joseph and Mary got the word that King Herod had died, and another angel (who he knew was God) came to tell Joseph that it would be safe to take his wife and baby back to Bethlehem once again. So they traveled another four or five hundred miles back, on the same very dangerous highway, for another who knows how many weeks or months. Until they got back to Bethlehem. But then it turned out that Herod’s son was king in his father’s place. And in this case the son was no better than his father. And so for fear of their lives, they went another hundred miles further north, back to Nazareth where they had come from in the first place. Are you keeping track of all these miles Joseph and his family are traveling through all those dangerous places? And Joseph set up shop again there, making wagon wheels and farm wagons and plows and chairs and tables.
Joseph and Mary had other children and they raised their children to know the scriptures and to love God. Every year the entire family trekked the hundred or so miles back down to Jerusalem to worship God in the golden temple at Passover time. They joined hundreds of other good Jewish families from all over the country on the trip south – all laughing and talking and camping out and eating together and singing some of the Psalms we know.
And there was that time that we know about, and that we just read about, when Jesus stayed behind in the temple, having an animated conversation back and forth with the rabbis there. Joseph and Mary searched high and low all over the city for him for three whole days and when they found him they were beside themselves and relieved and furious. And they must have had some sense, then, of the fact that their son Jesus was not your normal young Jewish boy.
So that’s the life of Joseph as we are able to reconstruct it from the Biblical story and from what we know about those times. It’s the story of a man who trusted God, and listened to God, and rearranged his life entirely from what it might have been, and followed God into some pretty amazing places.
But if you were to ask any of his neighbors in Nazareth who he was, they would have recited for you the names of his wife and his children and they would have told you that he was a very lowly woodworker and that he made wheels and wagons and plows and tables and chairs.
So now. If someone were to come along and ask who you were, what would they learn about you? They might learn who your spouse was and the names of your children, and maybe what sort of work you do or did. But that’s not nearly the whole story about you. That’s not the story of the dangers you faced, or the hard decisions you had to make, or the anguish you felt over your children. That doesn’t tell the story of how you faced hard financial times, or moved from one place to another when things were very bad. And how God led you safely through it all. That doesn’t begin to tell of how you heard God speaking to you very clearly in ways you could not possibly misunderstand. Or how you followed God into some pretty amazing places yourself. Or what great surprising joy you have witnessed with your own two eyes.
That doesn’t begin to tell the story of how God has used you to be a blessing to many, many unseen people.
So this week, as you are beginning to wait for Jesus, think back on the story of your life. And this time when you tell the story to yourself you can leave out who your spouse is and your kids are and what kind of work you do or did. This time tell the story of you who are with God. And who God is with you. And remember to yourself that in those times when you were hurt, or afraid, or very unsure of yourself, there was God. Or remember the times when you didn’t know where to turn next, or when all you could see around you was ugliness and violence and pain. Then remember how you were held in the big warm loving hands of God through it all. Think back on the places and people and the years and the experiences of your life. And count all the times when God was there in your life to be trusted, whether you knew it or not.
As you are waiting for Jesus to come this year, re-call and re-write the story of your life – the real story of your life – your life with God.