Joseph Before the Manger

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Matthew 1:18-25

Now 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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This fall, an alumnus from my seminary, who now teaches art history at a small liberal arts college, published his second book. This one is titled “The Other Guy in the Picture.”

That “other guy” is, of course, Joseph, and while I don’t think Joseph’s situation in popular imagination is quite that dire, it is certainly true that he has never been quite as popular as his wife. There are zero hymns in our hymnal that focus entirely on Joseph’s experience of becoming Jesus’ earthly father, while Mary gets several. He didn’t even get his own feast day in the Catholic church until the 1500s, and doesn’t appear in artwork much until the renaissance—except when he hovers in the background of the nativity, as, indeed, “that other guy.”

Last week, I told you all about my dismay that Mary, mother of Jesus, was so often a silent character in the pageants of my childhood, despite having real, written dialogue in the Gospel of Luke. Joseph is twisted the alternate way. In pageants, I remember Joseph complaining about the census, urging along the donkey, bartering with the innkeeper—and yet, in the Bible, he never says a word. 

He is a man of great action—but not, apparently, speech.

It’s not that we know nothing about Joseph—but he is sketched so quickly that it can be hard to make a connection. 

The first and most important thing we know about Joseph, across gospels, is that he is descended from David. The David. King David, a shepherd plucked from obscurity to reign over Israel’s golden age. But in the twenty-eight generations that have passed, David’s scattered descendants have come down a bit. Or at least Joseph has—there’s nothing to suggest that anyone treats him like royalty. From a few details scattered here and there in the gospels, we can gather that he was working class, a skilled laborer in wood or stone or both. 

Yet, like Mary, our gospel writers are less interested in what Joseph is than who Joseph is—righteous. Not self-righteous—not a pious preener eager to punish others for stepping out of line, but truly righteous—someone who oriented their actions towards God’s justice. Someone who tried to do the right thing, even when it was hard.

And boy, does God’s call sometimes make it hard. 

Mary is pregnant. His fiancé. His promised. The one he has committed his life to. And he knows for sure he is not the baby’s father. 

Anyone who has experienced that kind of betrayal in a relationship knows the bitterness it leaves, the anger—sometimes, paradoxically, even guilt. Was there something else I could have done to keep this from happening? we ask ourselves. 

Scripture doesn’t give us Joseph’s emotional reaction; it does, however, lay his character bare. He wants to do the right thing, and he also wants to do it the right way. He can’t marry Mary, but he doesn’t have to ruin her life on his way out of it. You can almost hear him swallow down his pride, and his rage, and all his right to revenge. He will let her go quietly. Try to get them both out of this mess with as few scars as possible. 

Joseph’s righteousness comes directly from his faith. He knows his scriptures, and he knows the law. He knows how God wants God’s people to behave. He tries to follow. 

Yet Joseph knows one other thing from the stories of his faith—that he should pay attention to his dreams, because sometimes, God pulls a surprise. And Joseph, like his 41st great-uncle, that other Joseph with the coat of many colors, is a dreamer. So when the angel of the Lord appears to him and informs him that Mary’s pregnancy is not a betrayal but a new beginning for the whole of humanity, Joseph listens. He believes. He does not wave a list of the old rules in the angel’s face. He does not protest that Mary should have gotten his permission first. He does not explain that God simply doesn’t do things like this. When he wakes up, he pivots to a new way of being righteous, a new right path for him and Mary, one he could never have imagined. 

Theologian Debbie Thomas writes that “In choosing Joseph to be Jesus’s earthly father, God led a “righteous” man with an impeccable reputation straight into doubt, shame, scandal, and controversy.  God’s call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness, and purity.  It required him to become the talk of the town — and not in a good way.  It required him to embrace a mess he had not created.  To love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son. In other words, God’s messy plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most.  The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable.  So much for living a well-ordered life. [1]

Few of us, I think, pray for God to make our lives more complicated. Yet as I look out on the faces in this congregation, I have seen you rise to “complicated” time and time and time again. I have seen you face down situations where none of the answers seemed quite right. I have watched you listen for the voice of God when none of the old rules applied neatly anymore. I have watched you get up and face the messy, mysterious world with the quiet faith and quiet courage of Joseph. 

Because it does take courage, immense courage, to leave the directions behind and strike out into uncharted territory. “No wonder,” Debbie Thomas concludes, “that the angel Gabriel’s first words to Joseph were, “Do not be afraid.”  If we want to enter into God’s messy story, then perhaps these are the first words we need to hear, too.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid when God’s work in your life looks alarmingly different than you thought it would.  Do not be afraid when God upends your cherished assumptions about righteousness.  Do not be afraid when God asks you to stand alongside the scandalous, the defiled, the suspected, and the shamed.  Do not be afraid when God asks you to love something or someone more than your own spotless reputation.  Do not be afraid of the precarious, the fragile, the vulnerable, the impossible.  

Do not be afraid of the mess.  The mess is the place where God is born.[2]

I don’t think Joseph fully understood all that would happen, when the angel told him in his dreams that he was to become part of this unconventional family. Like Mary, he really only knew one fundamental truth: that this was God’s doing, and that he was about to get a front row seat. That was enough for him, to take the next right step. 

Joseph, I said, was a man of action. But perhaps that is an overstatement, because he was not a planner, not a schemer, not a strategist. Here at the beginning, and again in Bethlehem, and again when Herod’s troops are closing in, and again in the return to Nazareth, Joseph listens to God and takes simply the next right step. He does not try to outplan God, or get out in front of the mess God is making. He waits until God shows him one next right thing, and he does it, over and over and over. 

Christmas still comes messy, each year. No matter how much we try to cover the cracks with wrapping paper and tie the tensions up with ribbons and bows, Christmas still comes with war, and fear, and scandal, and heartbreak. Sometimes it feels like there are no good options, even when scripture makes doing the right thing look so clear-cut. 

Yet, like Joseph, we can narrow our focus to the essentials: listen to God’s voice, love the people we are given, and take the next right step. We may not see the whole plan. We may not have the right thing to say. But we can be faithful, and we can be courageous, and we can love even in the midst of the mess, and that, my friends, is all the righteousness we need. 




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