Years ago, Al Riberdy told me that Joseph is one of his favorite saints. In his good-spirited way, Al complained on Joseph’s behalf that we spend too little time acknowledging Joseph’s role in the Christmas story, and that we give Joseph too little credit as an example of faithful Christian living.
Al is right. The most familiar parts of this most familiar story come from the Gospel of Luke, which focuses on the Virgin Mary.
So, for example, the most famous scene in the lead-up to Christmas is the annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will bear God’s Son. The young virgin responds to that frightening news with this: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Preachers ever since have praised Mary for being open to the will of God in her life, no matter the consequences.
But this morning we have Matthew’s account of the Christmas story, with its emphasis on Joseph. So today I plan to do my small part to make up for our usual neglect of Joseph. And it turns out that Joseph is almost as impressive as Mary in his openness to God.
As our passage begins, Joseph learns that his fiancée is pregnant, and not by him. Joseph assumed, naturally enough, that Mary had been unfaithful.
A fiancée’s infidelity would be upsetting in any time and place, but it was upsetting for slightly different reasons in ancient Israel than it would be today. Ancient Israel was an honor/shame culture, and men’s honor was tied to women’s chastity. Mary’s apparent indiscretion may well have hurt Joseph’s feelings, but it also shamed Joseph.
According to the law, Joseph could have had Mary stoned. The idea was that stoning the unfaithful woman somehow restored the honor of the man she had shamed.
To his great credit, Joseph was more compassionate than that. Joseph didn’t want to marry a woman he thought he couldn’t trust. But Joseph also didn’t want to harm Mary, even though his leniency might make him look bad in the eyes of his contemporaries by leaving him shamed. Compassion was more important to Joseph than rigorously enforcing the law or even than his own honor. In that, Joseph anticipates Jesus’ own compassion and so already serves as a model for us.
But what impresses me most comes next. An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and explains that Mary’s child is from God, that Joseph should marry her after all, name the child Jesus, and raise the child as his own.
In Joseph’s circumstances, I would have needed more than a dream to convince me of Mary’s integrity. I would have needed an angel to appear to me while I was awake so that I could ask the angel a few questions, and get a little extra reassurance. Joseph had more faith in dreams than I do, so he took the angel’s message as coming straight from God.
Even so, Joseph had a choice about how he would respond. Joseph had the same choice that Zechariah had when the angel announced to him that his wife would give birth to John the Baptist, the same choice that Mary had when the angel announced to her that she would give birth to the Christ. Zechariah doubted the angel’s message. But Joseph didn’t doubt, didn’t even hesitate as best we can tell. Like Mary, Joseph said yes to God. Joseph agreed to follow God’s plan rather than his own, no matter the consequences for his reputation.
Saying yes must have been hard for Joseph.
Mary was almost certainly a teenager when the angel appeared to her. For Mary, the stakes were high, higher than they were for Joseph. But think of the young people you know. Young people tend to be flexible, spontaneous, and also poor at assessing risks. I don’t want to downplay Mary’s faithfulness, courage, or her really impressive maturity. Mary is arguably the greatest of all Christian saints. But it must have helped that Mary was young when the angel came to her.
Joseph did not have the advantage of youth. Joseph was a mature man, a widower who seems already to have had children of his own. I picture Joseph as in his forties or low fifties, and that’s probably not far off. That would put Joseph maybe ten years younger than I am at a time when people wore out faster than we do today.
In our passage, God asks a mature man, arguably an old man, to give up his own plans, which were already weirdly and compromisingly compassionate, accept his young fiancée and her divine child on faith, and protect them even when protecting them meant things like fleeing to Egypt to avoid a murderous king on the hunt for the child.
Even for a young person, that would be a lot to take on, and Joseph wasn’t young. Still, Joseph said yes. Joseph said yes, and let go of his own agenda and his ego. Joseph said yes, and did what he had to do to raise Jesus. Joseph said yes, and played his essential part in God’s plan of salvation.
How about us? We are mostly not teenagers. We are mostly older folks who have well-established habits. How would we respond if God came to us with a calling as challenging as God’s calling to Joseph?
I am hoping I will never find out how I would do! I’m hoping God will let me stay in my nice comfortable routine. And the fact is, God probably won’t call many of us to suddenly upend our lives, as God did to Joseph.
But our task as Christian people is to cultivate the kind of faith that Joseph had so that we, too, can be as responsive to God’s call in our own ways.
And one of the ways to cultivate that faith is to practice the kind of compassion Joseph planned to show Mary, before he was called to do even more.
As we go about our routines, we have nearly constant opportunities to practice compassion, to respond to people as we believe Jesus would do. If we can practice that kind of compassion, in conscious imitation of Christ, we will get better at setting aside our egos, at holding our plans loosely, at being open to the needs of others and so open to the call of God on us.
We can learn one more lesson from Joseph, although this one requires us to pay attention to what is not said in Scripture. With only a single brief exception, the Gospels tell us nothing about Jesus’ childhood. We don’t have stories about Joseph interacting with his adopted son. And the Gospel writers don’t say anything at all about Joseph after the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Presumably Joseph had died by then.
Joseph was part of the holy family. Every Christian knows Joseph’s name. But Joseph’s service to God, Joseph’s relationship to Christ, mostly goes undescribed.
That, too, is true of us. We are not likely to make headlines or have stories told about us long after we are gone. But like Joseph, we can strive to be faithful in our time. We can show compassion to our neighbors as our own small part in God’s plan of salvation. And that is cause for gratitude as well as humility.
My prayer for us, as we come ever closer to Christmas, is that God will help us to hear and to respond to God’s call, following Joseph’s example. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan