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SCRIPTURE LESSON Matthew 1:18-25, CEB
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
THE JESSE TREE An Angel and A Carpenter
We don’t often take time to consider Joseph’s role in the Christmas story, but that is where we are going to focus today. We heard his brief narrative in Matthew 1, but those few verses have a lot to say.
Joseph was a righteous man, and in the context of his faith and time that means he did his best to stay in a right relationship with God and with others by living according to the laws of Moses. He was a Jew living under foreign domination, the Roman Empire. He was a carpenter by trade. His age has been the subject of speculation. Some traditions or art show him as an older man, maybe even a widower who took young Mary for a second wife. Most Protestant traditions picture him as young, maybe a few years older than Mary. She had just entered womanhood; I see him as a man in his young adult years.
They were betrothed, which is so much more than what engaged means in our Western mindset. It was a binding agreement between the families and extended for about a year. During that time they prepared for their life together, though they did not yet live together. But during this time Mary became pregnant, and that complicated everything. Even in our era some fully believe that she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and others are skeptics. That diverse response would have been no different when it happened. Mary believed. I’m sure Elizabeth and Zechariah believed, because their own son would also be a miraculous birth. But we don’t know about Mary’s parents let alone Joseph’s family, and we can imagine the rumors going around town. What about Joseph?
The angel said, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 1:20) Would Joseph even believe it when he awoke? Joseph had already decided to divorce her quietly. It wasn’t easy to break a betrothal, but that seemed to him the best thing to do for Mary as well as for himself. But now the angel said to go ahead and marry her.
Ann Voskamp’s wrote in The Greatest Gift a devotion for this scripture. She imagines Joseph’s possible reaction to the startling situation, “When a carpenter dreams about the birth of God…
Mary has her angelic visitation to hear of the Incarnation weeks ago. Joseph gets only the stinging betrayal of her swelling abdomen. He gets one painfully awkward conversation. He gets to lie awake at night wondering what a nice guy like him is doing in a mess like this. No unassuming angel shows up for him until he’s already made up his mind and heart to mercifully let her go.” (p. 233)
It hurts. Joseph’s own hopes and dreams for his life with Mary are gone. Or so he thinks. God looked at the decision Joseph made and sent an angel to declare that Joseph still has options. God recommends sticking with Mary to help raise this very special child. It’s not an easy prospect to contemplate.
I’ve been thinking this year about what Joseph in the Old Testament might have in common with his namesake in the New Testament. God obviously had an eye on each them as they grew up with a plan in mind that would change the world. They both received dreams from God to guide them. Joseph of the Old Testament liked the images in his dreams of eleven bowing to one and rightly assumed that one day his brothers would bow to him though he was not the oldest. He might have been wiser to keep those dreams to himself. His brothers did not appreciate the telling.
Joseph was daddy’s favorite and expected to enjoy a good life. Our New Testament Joseph also had reason to expect a good though simple life. That expectation did not hold true for either of them. Old Testament Joseph experienced many ups and downs riding high on favoritism one minute and literally thrown in a pit to die the next. The brothers compromised by selling him into slavery, not exactly the prince of the tribe then, was he? He landed a good job and was trusted with lots of responsibility, until Potiphar’s wife engaged in sexual harassment and then got Joseph thrown in jail with a false accusation. He was favored by the warden and interpreted the dreams of his cohorts, but was forgotten in prison for years until Pharaoh had troubling dreams. Then Joseph was released to bring the interpretation and was made steward in charge of Egypt’s resources to see them through the difficult years that would come. His highs were high, and his lows were low. But he got through them trusting in God and doing what was right.
Our New Testament Joseph also had dreams, the first as we read was to take Mary as his wife. From there their journey begins. The census takes them to Bethlehem to be registered in their family’s town of origin. The baby is born there in circumstances less than perfect. Then after a time Joseph is visited by an angel again in his dreams. The baby is not safe here any longer. Herod’s eye has turned to Bethlehem to find a baby born to be king. Herod killed his own sons to prevent them from taking his throne. No baby boy is safe from his cruel ambition.
Matthew tells us, “13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.’ 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt. (Matthew 2:13-15)
Imagine that, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus back to the country where Joseph of the Old Testament had landed. For all that Egypt has been a land of slavery for our biblical ancestors, sometimes it has also been a land of safety in difficult times.
Toward the end of Joseph’s story in the Old Testament, his brothers came to Egypt for food. The famine was widespread, and Joseph’s homeland and family were also suffering, but by listening to God’s dreams and wisdom, Joseph made sure Egypt had enough for its own people and to trade with others. Eventually Joseph revealed his identity and there was an emotional reconciliation as he forgave his brothers and reunited with his family. Joseph had learned to trust that in spite of all that went wrong, God had a plan, and God used what had happened to save many people.
Our New Testament Joseph, in agreeing to participate in God’s plan, became the earthly family protector for the One God sent to reconcile all humankind, to forgive all our sin, to reunite us with God as one family. In spite of all that seemed to go wrong in Joseph’s own plan, when he chose to trust God’s plan, then through that baby, Jesus, God saved many more people.
As we said, this trust in God’s plan and the choice to participate can’t have been easy for Joseph. Max Lucado does the best job of getting inside Joseph’s circumstances and imagining what might have good through his mind, the night of Jesus’ birth. He had done everything he could to help Mary, tried to make a comfortable spot for her, but then as the birthing process took time, he had lots of time to think.
Lucado writes, ‘I don’t see him silent; I see Joseph animated, pacing. Head shaking one minute, fist shaking the next. This isn’t what he had in mind.” (Lucado, “Joseph’s Prayer” in On This Holy Night, p. 49) He goes on to suggest all the ways this was not how Joseph had pictured the birth of his son, and then imagines Joseph remembering that this was God’s Son, God’s plan, not his own. That must have continued to be a humbling struggle for him.
If things had gone as Joseph once supposed they would have been in Nazareth in a home Joseph had built for them. The baby would have come after the wedding, and the couple would have been surrounded by family and friends, neighbors and grandmothers, and there would have been a midwife. Mary at least deserved a midwife! Stranded in Bethlehem where there wasn’t enough room, giving birth alone surrounded by animals was NOT what Joseph wanted for his beloved bride. He felt that he had let her down, that he hadn’t provided adequately for her. That again hurt. It hurt not just his pride, it hurt his heart.
When I realize how accurate that picture drawn by Max Lucado’s words might be, then I see how easy it is to relate to Joseph. We have our dreams and expectations. We want to do our best, especially for those we love. But things don’t always work out the way we imagined, the way we planned, and when we see our loved ones in difficult circumstances, it hurts. It hurts a lot.
Lucado imagines Joseph saying something like this, “I’m unaccustomed to such strangeness, God. I’m a carpenter. I make things fit. I square off the edges. I follow the plumb line. I measure twice before I cut once. Surprises are not the friend of a builder. I like to know the plan. I like to see the plan before I begin…
“But this time I’m not the builder, am I? This time I’m a tool. A hammer in Your grip. A nail between Your fingers. A chisel in Your hands. This project is Yours, not mine.” (pp. 47-48)
I can picture Dick Sykes working around here with assorted tools on his many projects. I remember his plumb line and his square. I see him leaving a hammer or a level somewhere. I hear him with a drill or on a ladder. He could see in his mind how it should all work out. That’s how I picture Joseph as a carpenter. But there is a big difference between using these things and becoming something useful in God’s hands. That requires trust.
Lucado goes on imagining Joseph’s prayer, “Forgive my struggling. Trust doesn’t come easy to me, God. But You never said it would be easy, did You?” (p.48)
Trust doesn’t come easy to us either. Lucado says that like Joseph we are often “Caught between what God says and what makes sense…
“We’ve asked our questions. We question God’s plan. And we’ve wondered why God does what He does.” (p. 49) I can relate to all that questioning, can’t you?
As Lucado ponders Joseph pondering these things while staring at the night sky, he suggests Joseph was not the first to do so, nor would he be the last. I remember Old Testament stories of those who might have done the same, from Abraham to Jacob and Joseph, from Moses to Joshua and later David, from Elijah to Jeremiah and many more. I’m sure in all the years since we aren’t the only ones who have wondered just what God is up to sometimes. Maybe there is always someone trying to figure out and struggling to trust God’s plan. God doesn’t always answer those questions. God wants us to trust, and God wants one more thing from us as God wanted from Joseph.
Here is perhaps the most important verse in today’s reading from Matthew, perhaps the most important words regarding Joseph. It’s certainly the significant example Joseph set for us though we might easily have missed it. Matthew 1:24, “Joseph… did what the angel told him to do.” Joseph obeyed. Joseph obeyed not because he could see the whole picture, not because he agreed wholeheartedly with God’s big plan. He couldn’t see more than a tiny glimpse of one little corner of the blueprint. But Joseph trusted that the rest of the plan was indeed God’s, so Joseph chose to do his part. He chose to take Mary as his wife. He chose to raise Jesus as his earthly father. He chose to leave everything for the safety of Egypt, until God said it was time to come home and reopen his carpentry shop in Nazareth. Joseph trusted God, and therefore Joseph chose to obey God even though he could not see the whole plan.
That is what God asks us to do. As we head into 2020, not just a new year but a new decade, you can’t see all that lies ahead. You may be uncertain of some things in your personal life or for your family or your work. You may be concerned about something in your health or your pension plan. We can’t see what lies ahead for our community or our congregation or our nation. We may have a lot of concerns about what we can’t see even in our fairly immediate future let alone the rest of the decade. God doesn’t invite us to see the whole picture, though he may give us a dream or a glimpse once in awhile on a need to know basis. What God asks of us is that we trust; God asks us to believe there is a plan, and that it is a good plan. What God wants of us is obedience, to do our part when we are asked. That is what God is looking for from us in 2020 and beyond.
As Lucado writes, “God still looks for Josephs today. Men and women who believe that God is not through with this world. Common people who serve an uncommon God.” (p. 48)
The one thing God did promise to Joseph through the angel’s message was that this child, this Jesus who would save his people, would also be called Immanuel, God with us. Through all the ups and downs and unanswered questions, God remained with Joseph always. That is the promise God keeps with us as well. As you go into 2020 may you remember that Jesus is still our Immanuel, God with us!