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What about Joseph?

December 13, 2009
Sermon:  What about Joseph?
Text:  Matthew 1:18-21

You will not be at all surprised when I tell you that our eleven-month-old grandson, Ben, is reading now.  He reads what Clare calls board books, those hard books containing mostly pictures and a few words.  Of course, I read the words; and he reads the pictures.  We enjoy reading together. 

Ben and I were reading a special board book he had gotten for Christmas called The Manger Story.  We saw an ox, a lamb, a donkey, and a dove near the stable.  The shepherds were there, as were the wise men.  Mary and the baby Jesus were also there, but not one mumbling word was included about Joseph.  He had been completely omitted. 

 I started thinking about why Joseph was not included in The Manger Story.  Maybe it did not work out for the publisher to put in a page about Joseph.  Maybe the publisher thought that the ox, lamb, donkey, and dove were more important than this man. 

 Then it occurred to me that this omission is not too different from the way Joseph is treated in most presentations of the Christmas story.  In fact, it is not so very different from the way Joseph is presented even in the Gospel accounts.  He is not mentioned by name at all in the Gospel of Mark.  He is only indirectly mentioned as a carpenter.  The Gospel of Luke identifies him as a descendant of David and as the man to whom Mary was engaged.  Luke 2 also names him as the father, as was supposed, of Jesus and offers some accounts of his role as husband and father.  The fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, refers to Joseph twice, both times referring to Jesus as the son of Joseph.  No direct information is provided in this Gospel, either. 

We have the most complete account of Joseph here in the Gospel of Matthew.  Who is this man?  Why do we need to consider him?  Why is he important?  

One fact that we know about Joseph is that he was a common man, a common laborer.  We ordinarily think of him as a carpenter.  William Barkley describes him as a man who had a carpenter shop.  Barkley even speculates that perhaps the hallmark of Joseph was making yokes for oxen, yokes that were tailored to fit well.  A carpenter, before making a yoke for an ox, would measure the animal.  Only then could the yoke be carved and shaped to fit those specific animals exactly.  Barkley speculates that perhaps Jesus got the expression found in Matthew 11:30, “Take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy.  My yoke is well fitting,” directly from his father, Joseph the carpenter.  Jesus used carpenter-shop imagery in other expressions as well.  In Matthew 7:3, he asked the question, “Why do you try to take a speck of sawdust out of another person’s eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own eye?” 

Some scholars have now said that the Greek word translated carpenter perhaps has a second meaning, one that is perhaps more accurate.  The word carpenter can also be translated “stone mason.”  In the ancient Near East, most houses were built out of stones.  We find connections between this second meaning and Jesus, too, throughout the New Testament.  In Matthew 7:25 and Luke 6:49, for example, Jesus used stone imagery in contrasting strong foundations built on stone with foundations built on sand.  He speaks about a stone that builders had rejected but had now become the cornerstone of the entire building.  Ephesians 2:20 speaks of Jesus being the cornerstone.  Other references in the letters of Peter, for example, speak of the whole church being built of “living stones” (I Peter 2:5).  This image of Jesus growing up as the child of a brick mason, a stone mason, should not surprise us at all.  If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know that most of the structures were made out of stone.  Stone masons were highly valued as tradesmen. 

Some speculate that Joseph perhaps worked at an important place called Sephoris, the next town over from Nazareth.   Sephoris was said to be the hometown of Mary.  It was also a Roman cultural center, filled with Roman architecture.  It is known that the Romans brought in Jewish tradesmen to do much of the stonework in that city. 

Joseph may have made his livelihood in Sephoris, but he lived in nearby Nazareth, a town not mentioned in the Old Testament.  Nazareth was relatively new.  It sprang up sometime between the two testaments in that 400-year period known as the inter-testamental period. 

Why would Joseph and Mary make their home in Nazareth?  Nothing indicates it was a major town.  No important trade route crossed through Nazareth, and it had no significant water supply.  Why should Nazareth be a new settlement?  Speculation suggests that it is connected to the idea that Joseph was from the house and lineage of David, that Joseph was from the tribe of Judah.  Why would a man from the tribe of Judah move all the way to Galilee and live there when he had every right to live in his own country? 

In that inter-testamental period during an event called the Hasmonean Revolt, the priesthood in Israel was completely overthrown.  Most of those priests, who were descended from David, were cast out of the area.  They had to find some place to go.  Perhaps those men from the priesthood moved their families – their wives and children, even their aging parents – to the north to Galilee.  There they established a new community of Nazareth with a name that means Watchtower.  This place was designed simply as a place of safety for these displaced refugees from the Davidic line, the line of David. 

Caesar Augustus issued his decree that everyone return to their home country to be counted like cattle and to pay exorbitant tax.  Thus Joseph traveled from Nazareth with Mary all the way back to Bethlehem, which was far to the south, even south of Jerusalem.

Joseph was an interesting man.  When we read Matthew’s Gospel, we might be tempted to say that Matthew was leaning toward a paternalistic attitude because he focused on Joseph.  Luke, who focused on Mary, presented more of a maternalistic approach.  If you read carefully the genealogy of Jesus, you will see that Matthew mentioned no fewer than five women.  Matthew held no punches among those women that included Rahab, the mother of Boaz and a prostitute; Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite and a woman with whom King David had an affair; Ruth, the mother of Solomon and a Moabite, not a Jew.  Matthew, though intent on tracing the line of Jesus through David all the way back to Abraham, mentioned these women as an important part of his genealogy.  Matthew believed that Joseph was important, not so much because he connected Jesus to the line of David, though that is certainly important.  Matthew often referred to Jesus with the Messianic description “Son of David.” 

Joseph, a man betrothed to Mary, was a very responsible man.  He assumed the role of father, but he played no part in the conception of her child.  Call him a foster father.  Call him an adoptive father.  Call him a surrogate.  Whatever you want to call him, he assumed and carried out that role of father beautifully.  It was Joseph who saw to the safety of Mary and Jesus by taking them to Egypt, away from the infanticide of Herod who wanted to kill all the infants in Bethlehem.  It was Joseph who returned with Mary and Jesus to Nazareth.  It was Joseph who took Mary and Jesus to Jerusalem for the rite of purification.  It was Joseph who took Jesus, at the age of twelve, to Jerusalem to observe the Passover.  There we learn so much about Jesus as he talked with the elders in the temple.  I can imagine Jesus growing up in that home, looking to Joseph who served as a good model.

After the story of Jesus in the temple, references to Joseph disappear.  The Gospel accounts no longer mention him except in reference to Jesus.  We see one reference to Joseph only when Jesus is referred to being the carpenter’s son.  Some speculate that Joseph died, leaving Mary a widow.  If that is the case, Jesus, the oldest son in the family, took care of his mother until he reached the age of thirty.  At that point, the younger brothers would have been able to care for her.  Jesus, then, could have started his earthly ministry.

Joseph assumed the role of legal fatherhood.  So often, the names people have reflect the identity of their father.  David Ben-Gurion means “David, son of Gurion.”  O’Reilly means “son of Reilly.”  McNeil means “son of Neil.”  Consider the name Johnson, which means “John’s son.”  So often, our proper names reflect our lineage.  A close connection exists between Joseph of the Old Testament and Joseph of the New Testament.  Both men can each be identified as being chaste, kind and forgiving.  Both Josephs reflected those virtues. 

According to the Scriptures, Joseph and Jesus could have no DNA connection.  A very strong connection between father and son does exist, however, though not biologically.  Certainly Joseph assumed such responsibility because he was a legal guardian of Jesus.  Matthew used the word righteous to describe Joseph.  He said that Joseph was a righteous man, a man who wanted to do what was right. 

Joseph was a good Jew, but he had a real quandary.  He certainly knew that Mary’s child was not his own.  He knew that according to Jewish law, a woman who had committed adultery, a woman who was pregnant out of wedlock, would certainly have been considered an outcast and could possibly be put to death by stoning.  He could have put Mary aside when he found out that she was pregnant.  Doing so would ruin her reputation.  He could have put her aside publicly, but doing so would have ruined his own reputation.  By the first century, she may not have been put to death by stoning, but he did not want to be responsible for that fate. 

Joseph had a greater dilemma, one that we see often in the ministry of Jesus.  Remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus often started phrases with “You have heard it said…, but I say unto you…”  Jesus was taking the old law and reinterpreting it.  As Joseph considered his predicament concerning Mary, God sent the angel Gabriel to speak to Joseph in a dream.  God told Joseph that the right thing to do was not what the Jewish law required.  Making the right decision meant that Joseph had consider the heart of the law, not the letter of the law.  Because he loved her, Joseph did nothing to harm Mary’s reputation or her life.  He decided to deal with Mary kindly. 

With his decision to take Mary as his wife, Joseph took an important step.  He assumed the responsibility of caring for her and the responsibility of caring for Jesus.  His decision was a leap of faith.  Joseph was a man of faith. 

Martin Luther said that we find three important miracles at Christmastime.  First, God comes to us in human form with the incarnation; God becomes a baby in a manger.  Second, a virgin conceived and birthed this child.  The third miracle, Luther said, is just as important as the first two; it may be the most astounding of all.  Joseph believed.  He believed that the angel told him the truth, that this child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. 

Some of you have heard me say in the past that people have questioned me about the virgin birth.  They would ask, “How can you believe that?  The earliest accounts in the Gospels do not even mention the virgin birth.  It is not mentioned in Mark or in the writings of Paul.  How can you believe this?” 

My best answer is, “I believe it because Joseph believed it.”  This was not theological doctrine for Joseph.  This was the woman he loved.  This was his wife.  This was a part of the fabric of his whole life.  He believed, and he accepted.  He acted in faith.

In a sense, we can point to Mary and Joseph as the first Christians.  They are the first who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was the Son of God, sent by God through this miraculous birth into the world.

We do not have a lot of information about Joseph, but I know another characteristic about Joseph from experience. 

As a child, I was in a Christmas pageant every year.  I was always asked to be a shepherd.  Being a shepherd was not hard.  We were told to come barefooted and to wear our father’s bathrobe, an old towel on our head, and an old necktie to keep it in place. 

The only problem with being a shepherd was the shepherd’s crook.  One year when they were made out of cardboard, it rained.  Those crooks became limp and just flopped around.  Another year, the crooks were made out of broomsticks with a coat hanger on the end.  Those crooks worked just fine as crooks and as lethal weapons.  Finally, my dad cut some crooks out of ¼ inch plywood.  They sure made a lot of racket during a sword fight, and those shepherds always tended to have a sword fight or two with those crooks. 

When I was ten years old, the main characters in the Christmas pageant at Camp Croft were again Mary, Joseph, three wise men, and one angel of the Lord.  Everybody else was either a shepherd or an angel.  Girls were angels, and boys were shepherds. That year when the boy who had always played the part of Joseph got the flu, the pastor’s wife called my mother and said that they needed me to play that part. 

This new role was quite a promotion for me, but I still did not have any lines to speak.  The only one who spoke was Mary, the angel of the Lord.  This girl thought she was hot stuff because she had the only speaking part in the play.  Do you know what she had to say?  “Behold I bring you good news of great joy.”  She did not even get to quote the entire Scripture.  That girl also thought she was hot stuff because her position was in the baptistry, making her in a spot higher than anyone else. 

The best-looking girl in the church had the part of Mary.  She was only two years older than I was, but she looked like a grown woman to me.  She had started filling out in all the right places, and she looked about twenty-one years old.  I was pretty scared of girls anyway, and I was scared to death of her.  The thought of my standing beside her, while wearing a bathrobe, was pretty intimidating. 

The night after the rehearsal, George called me and said, “I’m better now.  I don’t have the flu anymore, so I can be Joseph.” 

I told him, “George, I’ve rehearsed this part.  I’ve got it down, and I’m going to be Joseph.” 

George was really sweet on this girl, and he did not want me standing next to her, especially while I was wearing a bathrobe.  He said, “Kirk, you know how much I care about ‘Mary.’  You know how much I love her.” 

I really did not want to stand beside this girl, but I told George that I had decided I was going to go through it.

When I had played the part of a shepherd in previous pageants, I had worn my mother’s red quilted bathrobe because my dad did not wear a bathrobe.  The pastor’s wife had told me during rehearsal, “That just will not do.  You cannot be Joseph wearing your mother’s bathrobe.” 

The night of the play came, and my costume was something else.  The pastor’s wife dressed me up in her husband’s bathrobe, which was way too big for me.  She had to roll it up at the bottom and pin up the sleeves.  It was the most garish-looking robe imaginable.  I felt as though I was wearing a coat of many colors.  Of course, a regular towel would not do for my head.  She had found a special towel.  I guess she thought it looked like it had come from the Near East.  The necktie was special, too.  Yes, I was all gussied up for this part.

The piano player, who really directed the play, had arranged for big spotlights in the balcony to focus on this little stage.  She planned to play different songs that signaled when we were supposed to enter.  Mary and I were to walk down the aisle with baby Jesus when we heard “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  “Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” marked the entrance of the shepherds, and the angels came in on “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  With the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” the wise men were to walk down the aisle.   

Just before the pageant was to begin, everyone was standing at the back of the Sanctuary ready to go through the door.  Mary opened the door and peeked out into the audience.  She said, “Ya’ll, there are people in there!  I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”  She tossed baby Jesus to me and took off running to the restroom.  I was standing there holding the doll when the pianist started playing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Remember now, that I was the oldest of eight children.  I had held babies before.  Carrying baby Jesus was no problem, but walking down the aisle without Mary was.  Playing the role of Joseph was a big deal for me, and I did not want to mess it up for everyone. 

While I stood watching for Mary to reappear, the pianist realized that Mary and I were not entering the Sanctuary.  Thinking that we had not heard our song, she started playing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” really loudly.  About that time, Mary showed back up.  I handed her the baby, and we walked down the aisle together. 

When we got down to the front of the Sanctuary, Mary laid the baby doll in the manger, exactly as we had rehearsed.  Just then, the doll cried.  I had not remembered that Betsy-Wetsy doll crying even once during rehearsals.  I got so tickled that I did not know what in the world I was going to do.  Standing there barefooted in the pastor’s gaudy bathrobe next to this girl who looked so good to me, I was trying so hard not to laugh.  After all, this was supposed to be a solemn Christmas scene here, but I was tickled.  By that point, I had broken a sweat.  

When the pianist started playing “Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” the shepherds came through the doors, clacking their staffs together and making quite a racket.  The angels were to come down the aisle next when they heard “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  They had not practiced their parts with their wings attached during rehearsal.  When they tried to step through the door, those wings, which were very wide, caught on the door jam.  A mother backstage realized the problem and rushed to turn all the angels sideways so that she could feed them through the door. 

The angel of the Lord, “Miss Hot Stuff with a Line,” appeared in the balcony.  With another spotlight focused on her, she recited, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.”  She wore braces, and the reflection off those braces looked like “the glory of the Lord shone ’round about her.”  Most of us were “sore afraid.” 

Back in those days, a long time ago, I wore a flat-top haircut.  Some of you remember those cuts.  I used to put a product on my hair called Butch Hair Wax, which was basically petroleum jelly with a little aroma.  I would rub that stuff on my hair and comb it straight up.   I had used some of the wax on my hair that night.

Here I was, standing under hot spotlights in front of the congregation, just about to die.  I was so hot wearing the pastor’s bathrobe, a towel over my head, and a necktie to keep it in place.  I was so hot standing next to somebody who looked as good as Mary did.  I was so hot trying to keep a sober expression on my face when I was actually cracking up.  I was so hot, and about that time I could feel my Butch Hair Wax melting and sliding down my face. 

The pianist started playing “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” signaling to the wise men to enter.  They were to carry gifts to the baby Jesus:  a cigar box wrapped in foil to represent gold, an Old Spice bottle to represent frankincense, and a witch hazel bottle wrapped in tin foil to represent myrrh. 

My friend George had conned his way into being one of the wise men.  He was third in line.  About halfway down the aisle, he realized that he had forgotten the witch hazel bottle and did not have a gift for the baby Jesus.  He kicked up his bathrobe and reached in his blue jean pocket.  When the wise men reached baby Jesus, all three had a gift.  The first one laid down his gold foil cigar box.  The second offered the Old Spice bottle.  George laid down his gift at the feet of baby Jesus, too – his Duncan spinner yoyo.

The Christmas story is depicted in an elaborate way at places like Oberammergau or the Crystal Cathedral in California.  Professional actors put in a considerable amount of time rehearsing; and live animals, including camels, appear on stage.  Angels may fly through the air using zip lines.  Something about my memory of the Christmas pageant at Camp Croft, though, seems to me to be much closer to the way this first Christmas really was.  That scene included shepherds who had been minding their own business and wise men who had made a long, long journey.  The scene included a young woman, Mary, as well as Joseph, this person who so often gets overlooked.  Can you imagine Joseph trying to help Mary with this birth?  Can you imagine a stonemason or a carpenter acting as mid-wife?  Joseph, a righteous man who wanted to do the right thing, had his hands full.  He was a common man; but in many ways, he was uncommon.  He was so responsible.  He was so righteous.  He was a man of faith.

A book in the Bible entitled the Gospel According to Joseph should have been included in the New Testament.  In fact, I think there is one, but you have to search for it.  If you look carefully, you will find in this man a model of what every man should be.  It is a model of what every father and every grandfather should be.  Joseph might play a bit part in most manger scenes.  In the larger picture, however, his role is very important.  You can see in this righteous man his influence on the man named Jesus.  You can see his influence in the way Jesus treated other people.  You can see it in the way Jesus treated a woman who was caught in adultery.  You can see it in the way he refused to go along with Jewish law but said to these arrogant men, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).  When Jesus protected that adulteress, you get that idea that Jesus had seen how Joseph had protected Mary.  Joseph is so important.  Though he said little, he should never be left out of this story.  He set the example for all men and for all Christians of all times.  He set the example for our Lord Jesus Christ.

 Kirk H. Neely
© December 2009


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