This week’s sermon comes from the story of Joseph, Herod, and the flight to Egypt. Take a look at Matthew 1:18-2:23 to read the whole story.
Joseph the Step-Father
I want to spent this Sunday talking about Joseph, for two reasons. The first is that this is probably the last time we will hear about Joseph for a while, at least until we get around to Christmas again. He is hardly mentioned in Luke, never in Mark and just briefly John, and he is spoken of in just this one story in Matthew. He never shows up in any account of Jesus’ adult life. By the time Jesus dies, Joseph is largely a memory, even as Mary weeps at the foot of the cross. Was Joseph there on that day? Did he weep too? We’ll never know.
The second reason, and perhaps the more important one, is that Joseph is one of the most underappreciated figures of the New Testament. He only really shows up in the story of Jesus’ birth, and even then there are so many more interesting things going on, shepherds and angels and wise men. Joseph just seems to fade into the background. Luke’s long telling of the birth of Christ prioritizes Mary, but hardly mentions Joseph at all. But Joseph is worth mentioning, because he has important things to show us, about what it means to obey, what it means to love, and how much it can hurt to be a follower of God.
Joseph was a dreamer. In a sense, he’s a little bit like the other Joseph, the more famous one who wore the coat of many colors. Both were gifted with heavenly dreams, and both ended up in Egypt for a while as a result of those dreams. God speaks to Joseph in a dream 4 times in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ infancy, and each time God seems to ask a little bit more of Joseph.
The first dream comes to Joseph as he’s deciding what to do about his pregnant fiancée Mary. Joseph knew the child wasn’t his. And he had plans for his life, hopes and dreams, of a family of his own, of being a respectable and righteous man. He didn’t yet know how rarely those two go together. He planned to protect his reputation and salvage Mary’s by letting the whole thing go quietly. But his plans are ruined when the angels tells him to take Mary as his wife. But he obeys. He doesn’t argue, he doesn’t ask for a second opinion, he obeys. What an example for us to follow.
“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.” (Matthew 1:25). My Dad always had a soft spot for expectant fathers. “Dealing with a pregnant lady is a labor all its own,” he says. And Joseph took on that labor without any benefit to himself, and at the end of it he named him Jesus.
The modern reader tends to focus on the name Jesus, but the key to the story isn’t the name Jesus, but the phrase that comes just before. “And he named him.” In the tradition of that time, the father gave the child his name, and to name the child was to legally claim him or her as your own. Joseph named the boy Jesus, and now Jesus, son of Mary but not his seed, was his firstborn son, who would inherit from him. I mentioned before the Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ ancestry through his father. In this moment, Joseph has adopted Jesus into that legacy. Joseph looked in his heart and found that there was room for one more. And in that way, he is an inspiration to all of us, especially those every day heroes, step fathers and step mothers and adoptive parents and grandparents, who choose to love unconditionally when just kindness would do. In taking Mary as his wife, Joseph had to sacrifice his own desires to obey God. But he does so because he is brave enough and wise enough to open his heart to more than just his blood. In doing so he reminds all of us that any child of God is a child of our own, and should be loved like that, no matter the circumstances.
The circumstances for this child were particularly bad. No sooner did Joseph name and claim the child as his own that he’s warned in a dream that the child’s very existence (and perhaps his) is in danger. Here we are shown Joseph’s faithfulness again, and bravery. Joseph is warned in a dream of Herod’s plots against the child and they flee to Egypt. It’s interesting that God chose to share this dream with Joseph, and not Mary, the safer choice. Was Joseph tempted to keep the dream to himself? The child would die with so many other victims of Herod’s rule, no one would be the wiser, and slowly the scandal and danger that this baby had brought onto Joseph would pass, and his life would return to normal.
It’s terrible to think about, that in keeping silent Joseph could have condemned the child to death. And in that choice Joseph once again teaches us what it means to love the Lord. How many times have we stayed silent and allowed someone else to hurt so that things would just be normal? How many times have we chosen to let someone else suffer instead of facing an uncomfortable truth? But not Joseph. Joseph isn’t afraid to put himself in danger for Mary’s child, and he’ll live through the fear and the scandal if it means the boy will too. Joseph tells Mary, and they pack up their life and move away to Egypt to hide their boy from Herod. Joseph knows that to love this child is to let go of whatever else you wanted, to leave comfort and normalcy behind in favor of a new life.
Eventually Joseph is sent two more dreams, one to tell him that it’s safe to return, another to send him to Nazareth, in Galilee. From this point forward you might think it became easier for Joseph, but I’m not sure. It’s a sort of theological question, what do you think the Son of God was like as a teenager? Personally I suspect that Jesus went through all of the usual phases of teenage frustration. He knows too much of human nature not to have gone through the hardest years.
But imagine what it was like for Joseph, who knew all too well what it was like to be brought into God’s plans. Imagine a young Jesus storming out of the workshop, screaming, “You’re not my real Dad, don’t tell me what to do!” How much did that hurt Joseph, knowing first hand that no matter how tough a father he might be, he would never ask so much as Jesus’ heavenly father. It makes you wonder if Joseph didn’t just give Jesus his legacy as a son of David, but that maybe Joseph taught Jesus more, about how to define your family, how far you can expand the limits of your love.
There’s a moment in the Gospels, when Jesus’ family goes to see Jesus while he’s preaching, and they send someone to let Jesus know they are there. I wonder what it was like for Joseph, standing outside with others of Jesus’ family, when Jesus says, “What family? Anyone who does the will of God is my family.”
It probably stung a bit, after loving the child as his own for so many years, to hear how easy it was to become Jesus’ family. Maybe Jesus learned from Joseph that family isn’t about biology but about learning to love bigger and more than you thought you could. But then again, for the man who sacrificed his hopes and dreams to God’s will, only to be heartbroken over and over again by a child that wasn’t even his, maybe he understood better than we do how hard it is too.