Isaiah 7.10-16 / Matthew 1.18-25
Our Gospel passage today is one of my favourites because it highlight’s in my view the often overlooked and perhaps unsung hero of the Christmas Nativity story and that is Joseph. Now of course you may say to me Stephen how can you possibly say that? After all everybody knows that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with Mary sitting on the back of a donkey so that she could give birth to the baby Jesus in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. So how can you possibly say that he is overlooked? That’s Christmas as depicted on many a Christmas Card and performed by so many little children up-and-down the land in school Nativity plays – and it wouldn’t be the same without him, and of course that’s true! Of course he’s there! I don’t deny it – but his role is so easily and swiftly overshadowed by the more incredible, significant and dramatic part played by Mary – after all she’s the one who saw the angel; the Angel Gabriel actually appeared to her in person to tell her the ‘good news’ that she is going to have a baby. She is the one to whom it all happens, she is the one who is touched by the Holy Spirit, blessed by the Holy Spirit and will give birth to a child, the long awaited Messiah through the power of the Holy Spirit. The hope of the nation (and indeed the world) is conceived within her through the power of the Holy Spirit. She is the one who is young, excited and vibrant, and who is full of awe, incredulity and wonder that this should be happening to her, she is the one who’s meek submission and obedience is always praised and counted to her credit, and who is for ever lauded in the wonderful words of The Magnificat, that great hymn of praise:
46 “My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name. Luke 1.46–49 (NIV)
And what does ‘poor old’ Joseph get? Nothing! In fact throughout the Gospels, there is not one single word that is ever depicted or recorded as coming from his lips. Mary does all the talking, whereas Joseph says nothing (Who knows – perhaps he can’t get a word in edgeways!!!)
In fact, it could be said that if it wasn’t for his association with Mary, she could have things an awful lot easier, because it wasn’t for him and his ancestral ties to King David and Bethlehem, Mary wouldn’t have had to travel the 80-90 odd miles in an advanced stage of pregnancy on the back of a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to meet the demands of the census.
So what do we know about Joseph?
Well we are told that Joseph was pledged to be married to Mary and that he was a righteous man. Now we tend to assume that Joseph was a good man who loved Mary greatly – and I’m sure he did, in fact I have no doubt about it – but that’s not actually what the Bible says – the Bible says he was a righteous man, a man who was righteous according to his faith, and his religion and the law. And what did the law say? Well I’ll get to that in just a moment, but first of all we need to appreciate that he was pledged to be married to Mary, and although we might like to think that this is similar to an engagement, in terms of the law it was much more formal than our modern day understanding of such things – young girls or women would have been betrothed or pledged to their husbands around 14 or 15, sometimes younger and as such there would have already been a contract and Mary would have already been considered to be Joseph’s wife even though they had not as yet reached their actual wedding day or consummated their marriage – and it could only be ended by divorce.
Now Joseph loved Mary, but she had suddenly come to him, partly in fear and partly in excitement to explain that she was pregnant, she was going to have a baby – and no doubt Joseph was devastated – heart broken, shocked and extremely disappointed! How could this be? Had she been unfaithful? Had she been with someone else? Was she lying? How could she possibly be telling the truth? Could he trust her? Did he still love her? Does she love him? Her story sounded incredible! What should he do? Whatever the truth of the matter or the situation – people in general just wouldn’t understand! There would always be people who would point the finger and assume that Mary was adulterous, that she had gone off with someone else. And as long as he was with her, his own reputation would have been sullied too – people would assume that he too had been at fault, that they had together broken the strict religious and cultural conventions of their day – and been together before they were married. Perhaps for his own sake it would be better if they were apart, he might be able to whether the storm and salvage something of his reputation, but for Mary the implications were deadly serious, because if Mary’s disgrace became public she could be stoned to death – that’s what the law required – and the one thing that the Bible does tell us about Joseph is that he was a righteous man – a righteous man according to the Law. And yet Joseph still loves Mary and he still cares for her, in fact, in many ways which we might find hard to comprehend, he’s caught on the horns of a dilemma – his love for Mary on the one hand and his love for God on the other – and so he makes a decision!
19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. Matthew 1.19 (NIV)
Quietly! In fact everything Joseph does – he tends to do quietly!
And then an angel appears to Joseph, not in reality or in person like Mary’s encounter, but in a dream – Joseph received a dream – now where have we heard that before. There are echo’s here of the Old Testament, when Joseph the son of Jacob, the ‘famous’ Joseph, the Joseph of the coat of many colours’ receives divine visions from God which ultimately lead to the salvation of his family – and people. And now many years later, another Joseph receives a divine encounter in a dream, of an angel who reassures him and tells him not to be afraid (just like the Angel Gabriel had told Mary ‘not to be afraid) and provides him with what? – a message of reassurance yes, but it’s a chiefly a message of salvation!
Mary is told in her encounter with the Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Messiah, a king whose kingdom would never end – the King of Kings. Whereas the chief significance of Joseph’s angelic encounter is that Mary will give birth to a Saviour – the Saviour of the World.
And this is highlighted for us in what Joseph is asked to do.
20 But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Matthew 1.20–25 (NIV)
Did you notice what Joseph was commanded to do? Firstly he was encouraged to take Mary home as his wife, because actually what she had told him was true, the child within her was indeed conceived by and through the power of the Holy Spirit – and he as a good, kind, loving but righteous man respected that and he had no union with her until she had given birth, but he was also commanded to give the child his name – Jesus! And Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means God saves, the Lord saves, God is salvation. In fact God’s salvation is ringing throughout this passage not just in the act of the giving of the name but in the actual prose itself. Now, you’re not to know this but Matthew the Gospel writer, has used the word ‘Jesus’ like two bookends, starting and closing the passage with it, as well as the Greek language allows. But there is something more extraordinary, because even in English between the command to Joseph to name the child, and the actual doing of it, the child is called something else. He’s called Immanuel, which is the jam in the sandwich at the heart of the passage, which means ‘God with us’. This too is an allusion back to the Old Testament when at a time of trouble in Judah’s history, the prophet Isaiah had predicted that before a certain child called Immanuel had grown up, the nation would be saved, and now that reference is brought forward into Joseph’s story, the child who he is to call Jesus is not only God’s salvation bringing salvation to the world but he is doing so precisely because he is the God of salvation, the God who is with us.
And that’s what Joseph brings to us, he takes the child into his own family, by adopting him as one of his own, he brings him into his own royal Davidic lineage and bloodline, and endorses the fact that Jesus is indeed the ‘Son of David’, the King of Kings and Saviour of the World. The one who ultimately brings about our salvation by dying for us upon the cross, which perhaps finds it’s full and best expression in the words that we associate with Holy Communion – ‘This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. That’s why Christmas is so important because it heralds not just the birth of a child, but the physical birth and manifestation of God Incarnate, the Son of God who is with us – the Saviour of the world.
And Joseph by adopting Mary’s son into his own home as his own, becomes not only a husband to Mary, but the human father of the infant Christ – in fact humanly speaking for a a small measure of time, he becomes the child’s father, protector and guide – and by taking his family into Egypt to flee the wrath and persecution of King Herod who was slaughtering the innocents for a moment he even becomes the child’s saviour – looking after his wife and family when they needed him most.
Mark Green a Bible Commentator sums things up like this:
God did not entrust his son to be fathered by a rabbi or a scribe or a Pharisee or a rich merchant but to Joseph a hard working craftsman. A man who did not need an angel to appear to him to change the direction of his life but only a dream. A man who put God’s agenda for his betrothed before his own hopes. A man who left his home and his business for the sake of the girl he loved and the God he loved. A man who set aside the sexual expression of his love for Mary until after Jesus’ birth, just as his son would later set aside the joys of marriage and sexual love. A man who risked Herod’s murderous intent and was ready to lay down his life for his bride, just as his son would be ready to lay down his life for his bride – the church.
Mary’s realisation that God was going to work through her, inspired her to sing:
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. Luke 1.48-49 (NIV)
and yes indeed the Lord had done great things for her – and one of those things I would like to suggest was the provision of a quiet, faithful, steadfast man like Joseph to be her loving, loyal and faithful husband in difficult times. I suggest it was the help, support and assistance of our unsung hero who enabled Mary to be the mother of our Lord through whom all future generations are richly blessed including ourselves. Now I’m not remotely saying that in our modern day and age every woman needs a man, because that’s not remotely what I’m saying, thinking or mean, and apart from it not always being necessary, wanted or possible (it would upset too many people), but what I am saying is – that in a world which is far from certain, and where truth seems to be pliable, bent in order to suit a whole raft of different agendas and philosophies, what our world needs more than ever is faithful men and women of Christian hope, faith and character. People of steadfast loyalty and love who will not lose heart or their heads when the world seems a mess, because they know where their true hope and salvation lies – it lies in the birth of a small child some 2000 years ago, who grew up to be the means of our salvation and whose life, death and subsequent resurrection proved that he was everything that he ever said he was – the Son of God, the Lord made flesh, the Saviour of the World. The God who not only loves us, reconciles us to himself and forgives us our sin, but who was, is and forever will be Immanuel ‘God with us. If we can personally believe that and hold on to it with all of our hearts – then every day will be Christmas Day.
In Jesus name. Amen.
Preached at All Saints Necton – 22nd December 2019