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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Who Is This Joseph - 12/22/2019

Let’s talk about Joseph.

It is only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth that we get a few more details about who Joseph, the very human carpenter of Nazareth, was. It’s kind of odd when you think about it. He is parent of Jesus, after all.

And yet we know so little about who he was – details about him come up so infrequently in our lectionary – he can seem as mysterious as King David’s confidant Nathan, or Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross for a while. Nathan, Simon, Joseph – they all play critical roles in our stories and then seem to vanish from them as quickly as they appeared.

So I thought it might be fruitful for us to take a closer look at Joseph in this Advent Season of waiting; on this weekend we welcome Dawn Marie Syers through the waters of baptism and then at the Lord’s Table; and as we peer ahead just a little more to the night we celebrate the birth of Immanuel – God with us!

The latest mention we have of Joseph in any of the gospels comes from the second chapter of Luke. Jesus was 12 and the whole family traveled up to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. They were in a caravan from Nazareth that likely linked in with many more caravans as they got closer to the city. While there, Jesus got caught up in conversation at the temple. And so the family didn’t realize Jesus was not with them as the caravan made its way back to Nazareth. Three days passed before they found Jesus, still at the temple, still asking questions and still stunning the teachers with his observations.

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  (Luke 2:48)

And that is the latest time we hear about Joseph in our stories of Jesus.

We will also see Joseph in Luke’s birth narrative that we hear in just a few days on the Nativity of Our Lord. In that account, he is mostly in the background and open to interpretation.

In Matthew, we get a picture of Joseph that is little more nuanced.

Our text for today gives us some of that nuance.

Before I get to it though, and for the sake of memory, I’ll mention that Matthew also gives us the Herod part of the story, in which a King overtaken by the evil of his greed and insecurity becomes very threatened at the news of a child lauded as King of the Jews. He tries to employ three kings from far off lands to find out for him where this threatening infant King was and when that failed, he lashed out horrifically at the people he was supposed to be protecting. He had every child under two slaughtered.

But Joseph kept dreaming dreams and obeying what the angel of the Lord told him. He spirited his little family away to Egypt in the night, out of Herod’s reach. And when the tyrant finally died, Joseph dreamed again and knew it was time to return to Nazareth.

Based on that and what we hear in our text today …

 …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’ … When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him …” (1:20,24, para)

… based on all of that, I think we can surmise that Joseph was a very spiritual man, that he prayed and listened for God’s guidance in his life. I wonder if he learned how to listen for and trust in God’s guidance through his carpentry?

People who work with wood often talk about listening to the wood and letting it lead their hands and tools to what that piece of wood is best suited to be. It’s a different way of listening, much deeper and often subdued, I would say. It requires patience and practice and quiet. A carpenter learns to listen to the wood like this and it seems very similar to what it is like to practice the quiet and patience we need to listen for God’s much deeper and often subdued guidance for us.

Our text today also says Joseph was a righteous man, which tells us he was a Jew committed to keeping the Law of Moses. This was not a given in this time, as it is not a given in ours. Biblical scholars say it was not uncommon for the Jewish people Jesus was born into, to be living very secular lives, just as today there are many people who identify as Christian, but are not engaged with a Christian community. It’s not surprising. The Romans wanted the Jewish people to worship the emperor above God. Often Jews had to pay special taxes in order to continue practicing their religion. It was not a world that encouraged or supported the faith at all and it suffered under that oppression and neglect.

So Joseph appears to be both spiritual and religious. I think that’s a healthy model for us who live in a world that seems to tell us we need to choose one or the other rather than seeing them as parts of a much larger relationship with God.

And being a righteous and religious Jewish man makes his choice of what to do about Mary quite revealing too. Joseph follows the law of the life-giving God his trust and faith rests in, but he drew a line here. It is not surprising to hear that Joseph considered breaking his engagement. I think many of us can relate to or imagine what Joseph must have felt to discover Mary was pregnant. The only other thing he did know was that it wasn’t his child. That’s a complicated situation, to be sure.

So it is interesting that Joseph intends to do this very quietly. He didn’t have to. Many other men would have wanted to publically humiliate her – to act out in their anger. To put her in her place. I would have been a ding to their honor too, so maybe judgment and revenge took the sting out a little.

I think this shows a great depth of kindness and composure on Joseph’s part. If Mary’s pregnancy circumstances were made public, that humiliation would likely have ended in her being stoned to death. Even before the angel of the Lord came to him in a dream to quell his fears and proclaim what God was doing through them, Joseph chose a more compassionate route that specifically benefited Mary and the child she was carrying. Maybe it was Joseph’s faith that helped him see the fullness of his life-giving God – this was everyone’s life-giving God, even his fiancé carrying someone else’s child.

And so what fruit does our Joseph study bear for us so far?

We find a Joseph we can relate to, for one thing – a reluctant-at-first, but ultimately committed parent who does his best and suffers for it at times. Because as any parent or guardian will attest, the moment you begin caring for a child is the moment you begin wearing your heart on the outside of your body. You become subject to great joy and great anxiety in a whole new way.

We find a faithful man, both spiritual and religious in his relationship with God. He listens for God’s guidance and acts courageously in his faith and obedience. He fully submits himself to God’s live-giving law, AND he questions and even challenges that law when human interpretation means it is not life-giving for all God’s people. He models the difference between righteous and self-righteous for us well.

And so we see, that even though Joseph doesn’t speak a word in our Gospels, he speaks volumes in his actions in Matthew, doesn’t he? He is a fruitful study indeed. He is like an under sung signpost leading us to Jesus. He is not boisterous like John or perhaps as compelling as our beloved Mary, but he is still a wonderfully inspiring model of what it means to live in relation to God. He is a courageous model who shows us how to welcome this child who is coming in most unusual circumstances.

And, I would lift up one more detail of this Joseph we meet in Matthew.

“She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,” the angel of the Lord said to Joseph in his dream.  … “and you are to name him Jesus.”

There is so much hope and Good News for us here in just a few words. First, God commands Joseph to name this child – which is equivalent to how we might understand adoption. As soon as Joseph is obedient to this command, any doubt about Mary’s mysterious circumstance; and worry about public opinion in the matter was left behind for good. Joseph would be Jesus’ earthly father and all that came with that relation.

Again, Joseph models a faithful, compassionate and brave man of God for us here … AND … through Joseph, God shows us what happens to us in baptism – in Dawn’s baptism today and to each of us when we remember our own baptisms. This is the moment when God names us “child of God,” and adopts us into this Jesus-following Way. It is the moment all the doubt and worry about our brokenness is left behind for good. We are God’s and all that comes with that relation.

And finally, one more thing about what the angel of the Lord commands Joseph. “Name him Jesus,” the angel says, which Joseph does. It is a very common name – Joshua in Hebrew. It is common like the names John or William or James to us. But in that very common name is the nugget of what we have been waiting for in our time of Advent, it is what Dawn experiences in rising from death in the waters of the font, it is the miracle we will again remember in just a few days … it is a tiny little, unassuming verb with the power to change the world. Jesus … Joshua, it means “to save.” And it is coming among us again. Immanuel – God with us – Jesus, our Savior. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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