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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life of St. Joseph, the Husband of Mary and the Guardian of Jesus.
It was the Sunday before Christmas, and the Sunday School was preparing for the annual Christmas program. Everyone was excited and happy – except for the one little boy who had been assigned to play the least desired role, the part of the Inn Keeper. He had hoped to play Joseph, so he decided secretly to rewrite a few lines to put his character into a better construct. When Mary, who was heavy with child, and Joseph, came to the Inn, the Inn Keeper, threw the door open and said, “Come on in – we have plenty of room.” The properly assigned Joseph, however, knowing the story, gazed beyond the open door and then, looking at the Inn Keeper straight in the eye, said, “No wife of mine is going to stay in a dump like this. We’d rather take the stable.” And the story quickly returned to the traditional ending. Of course, the Inn Keeper is always perceived as cruel and heartless, but it is Joseph who is the forgotten character.
As an adoptive father, I feel a certain kinship with St. Joseph. You know that you play an important role in the nurture versus nature debate of a child’s development, but you’re just not sure what it is. Even the gospel writers can’t seem to agree on St. Joseph’s role. The oldest gospel, written by the Evangelist St. Mark, never mentions Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem or his father. Nor is he mentioned in St. John’s gospel. It is always Mary. Joseph’s name only appears in two of the four gospels, the gospel of St. Matthew and St. Luke. The two, however, even differ on how Jesus is a descendent of the House of David. The gospel of St. Matthew follows Jesus’ genealogy from David through his son Solomon to Joseph, while St. Luke traces Jesus’ lineage from Nathan, another son of David and Bathsheba, to Mary.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any idea of St. Joseph’s age when he was engaged and married to Mary. Some Christian traditions state that his marriage to the Virgin Mary was his second after the death of his first wife. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Joseph’s first wife is named Salome. This argument is used to explain why scripture says that Jesus had brothers and sisters. St. James the Lesser, the author of the Book of James, and the first bishop of Jerusalem, whom St. Paul himself refers to as Jesus’ brother, may actually have been an older step-brother. That certainly makes for quite a different scene at Christmas if we imagine a whole family travelling with Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth. What a horrific road trip that would be. The last time Joseph appears in person in any gospel is in the story of the Passover visit to the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old. It was the moment when as an adoptive parent, that Joseph painfully knew his work was done. You remember how Jesus had stayed behind in Jerusalem, and that after three days of searching for the boy, Mary and Joseph found him in the Temple. To which Jesus answered, “I was in my Father’s house.” It must have seemed so cruel to Joseph, just as when the adopted child says, “You’re not me real parents.”
None of the gospels mentions Joseph at any event during Jesus’ adult ministry. Instead, Mary is always represented as a widow. She attends the Wedding at Cana at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry alone. If Joseph had been alive or present at the crucifixion, he would have under Jewish custom been expected to take charge of Jesus’ body, but this role is instead performed by another Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea. Nor at his death would Jesus have entrusted his mother to the care of the beloved apostle John.
So what do we know about St. Joseph, the Husband of Mary and Guardian of Jesus? Our most important resource for the life of Joseph is the gospel of St. Matthew. It is here that we read of his righteousness and of his dreams.
Besides the Old Testament figures Joseph and Daniel, I know of no one else in Scripture having so many dreams recorded in Scripture than Joseph. Joseph is introduced to us in a dream. We read that an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him that he was to marry Mary. Second, he had a dream in Bethlehem when God warned him to take Mary and the child Jesus and flee to Egypt. Third, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream while in Egypt telling him to return to Israel, following the death of Herod. And finally, when the holy family was on its way back from Egypt, Joseph was concerned about returning to Bethlehem in Judah, because Herod’s son Archelaus had taken over power, so the angel directed him to move his family to the Galilee.
Now why did God choose Joseph out of all the potential fathers in Israel to mentor Jesus and to serve as Mary’s husband? I would like to meditate on this this question from St. Matthew’s perspective, for it actually teaches us something of how we are to live in human families.
I believe that God chose Joseph because he was a godly and obedient man, who preferred grace and mercy to rigid correctness. It is a difficult balance for any parent. Joseph had every right to leave Mary to whom he was engaged when he discovered that she was expecting a child. The village neighbors knew the laws and practices as well. But we read, that Joseph was a righteous man who would not willingly expose her to public disgrace. He preferred grace and mercy to closely defined correctness. So Joseph planned to find a gentle, less public way to dismiss her. Just then an angel appeared to him in a dream. My friends, God desires righteousness, but he himself prefers to show grace and mercy. That is the characteristic he saw in Joseph.
Second, the story of Joseph teaches us that God uses ordinary people like you and me to do extraordinary things. Joseph wasn’t one of the “Good and Great” of his world. He is described in scripture as a “Technon” which is translated from Greek as a carpenter. It is the same word that is used for technician and technical. Unfortunately, we’re not sure of what sort of trade he practiced. St. Jerome wrote that he made ploughs and yokes.
Jesus himself never speaks of carpentry- except perhaps, for this familiar and beloved passage, “Come to me, all you labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.” Scottish theologian William Barclay states there is a cherished tradition that Jesus the carpenter was one of the master yoke-makers in Nazareth. People came from miles around for a yoke, hand carved and crafted by Jesus, son of Joseph. When customers arrived with their team of oxen Jesus would spend considerable time measuring the team, their height, the width, the space between them, and the size of their shoulders. Within a week, the team would be brought back and Jesus would carefully place the newly made yoke over the shoulders, watching for rough places, smoothing out the edges and fitting them perfectly to this particular team of oxen. The Barclay suggests that the sign over the entrance to the workshop may have been a wooden yoke with the imprinted phrase, “My Yokes Fit Well.”
Joseph was not some great intellectual thinker or theologian, yet God used this humble carpenter to teach his son the importance of good work, discipline and care. These skills would shape the life of the incarnate Son of God. They would always color his language and action with everyone he met.
Third, Joseph’s story teaches us that God honors those who listen and obey him. Joseph must have had a deep faith and been a keen disciple of God. Joseph didn’t become the guardian of Jesus, or the husband of Mary by chance. Nor, did he land up in Egypt by “chance.” God spoke to him and he listened. He took Mary as his wife, and he went to Egypt because of God’s clear leading. God spoke to him in a dream. He knew where he was going because he listened to what God told him to do. And it saved his, Mary and Jesus’ lives. If Joseph had hung around Bethlehem wondering if he had heard right, King Herod’s men would have come and killed the whole family. You see, sometimes listening to God and obeying his word is the difference between life and death. Listening to what God has to say means making time to stop and listen. You can rush to action, but it may be better for you to listen and obey what God tell you to do.
Finally, God saw in Joseph the openness to change. Ponder my friends, how Joseph, the adoptive father of our Lord was changed by Jesus. Isn’t that true of all our human relationships? You and I are not simply focused on changing and shaping others. The love and joy of others changes us. Certainly, my sons Vitali and Alexei are different boys because of my love for them. But I hope as well that I am a different person because of their love for me. You too are called, like Joseph, to open your home to the stranger. And how will you be changed by Jesus?
In a poem called His Workmanship, Betty Skold writes.
You taught him workmanship, Joseph. You showed him the importance of driving nails straight, of measuring carefully, of smoothing rough edges.
The boy had a quick mind, good hands. Good help around the shop, I’m sure. But if Jesus was both God and man, then the boy Jesus was both God and child. What did that mean?
As human father you taught that boy workmanship, but on a deeper level weren’t your own skills a gift from him? Weren’t your carpenter’s hands a product of his workmanship?
My friends, in opening your life, your home and your heart to the stranger, you too will be changed and you will be richly blessed. That is what we all need to learn as we dare to follow in the footsteps of St. Joseph, the Husband of Mary and Guardian of Jesus. Amen.
May the peace of Go which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.