“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25
There’s a thing in classical music called ‘songs without words’. Composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn – who were wonderful songwriters – now and then wanted to write for violin or piano instead of voice. And sometimes they would write something that could have been sung because it was very sing-able, but it was played instead, and they called this ‘songs without words’.
This Advent we’ve been talking about the “Songs of Christmas” – Mary’s Song, Zechariah’s Song, Isaiah’s Song – and this week, we have Joseph’s Song. The thing is, in all of scripture nobody ever wrote down anything Joseph said. So Joseph’s song today is going to be like a ‘song without words’.
If songs without words are unusual, it’s even more unusual back in Bible times to have an important story – like the coming of the Messiah – where men do not have leading roles. Both ancient Israel and the Roman Empire, with few exceptions, were very male-dominated societies. But when we look at the key players in the story of Jesus’ birth, we see right away that God is “lifting up the humble and putting down the mighty” (as Mary said in her song, the Magnificat, which we heard a few weeks ago).
The people who have had something to say in Jesus’ story so far include an unmarried peasant girl (Mary), and a childless elderly couple (Zechariah and Elizabeth). Soon to come will be an elderly man named Simeon and a poor widow named Anna.
Conspicuous by their absence are the rich, the powerful, and men in the prime of their lives. The cast of characters in Jesus’ story tells us this story is going to turn human priorities upside down. And that’s no accident.
So Joseph is the first career-aged male we meet in Jesus’ story, and none of his words are recorded: not in Matthew, and not in any of the other gospels. I would love to have heard what Joseph had to say. He seems to have been a wise and kind man. But his silence speaks very clearly, and very powerfully.
Joseph was a man whose actions told everyone around him what he thought and what he believed. Unlike many people who say one thing and do another, or who claim to believe in one thing but then act a different way – Joseph’s life is consistent with what he believes in. He is a man of faith, and he lives his faith. Joseph reminds me of the words of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” For those of us, like myself, who have often wondered how to go about preaching without words – because actions truly are a more powerful witness – Joseph is a wonderful role model.
Where it comes to getting to know Joseph the man, we really don’t have that much information about him. We know that he was a member of the tribe of Judah: Matthew’s genealogy at the beginning of the gospel tells us that. We also know he was descended from King David and King Solomon. Of course, for Joseph that was 1000 years in the past, and that and a buck would get him a cup of coffee. Nonetheless Joseph had royal blood in him. And that’s why, when the Romans call for a census, Joseph and Mary travel from Galilee to Bethlehem: because Bethlehem is the City of David, Joseph’s ancestor.
These details are important because the Old Testament prophets, when they talk about the Messiah, give us clues to watch for. The prophets said the Messiah would be called “the lion of the tribe of Judah”. He would be called the “Son of David”. The Messiah would be from “Galilee of the Gentiles”… but at the same time the prophet Micah said “[from] you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth [the] one who is to rule in Israel….” (Micah 5:2)
In Joseph all of these prophecies come together in one place in one time, in God’s timing, as God planned.
There’s just one problem from Joseph’s point of view: Mary is pregnant with a baby that’s not his! Joseph is betrothed to Mary, which in those days was more than engaged but less than married. Mary turned up one day pregnant and claiming God was the father.
Joseph was no fool. He knew the facts of life, and he wasn’t buying Mary’s story. As we watch Joseph’s song playing out, the first thing we see is how a man of God responds to personal crisis. Matthew says Joseph was ‘a righteous man’ who did not want to publicly disgrace Mary. Joseph would have been within his rights to accuse her publicly and to see her stoned to death. Joseph chose not to exercise his rights. He chose to let Mary go quietly without making a scene. It was going to be hard enough for Mary and her family, who would be shamed by the arrival of a fatherless baby. He chose to have mercy and not to add to the family’s difficulties.
In Joseph we see that a righteous man is a man of compassion: a man who chooses to do no harm, when he has the choice, who chooses not to take revenge.
And having made this choice, Matthew says Joseph was still mulling over the situation, as if he was still not quite at peace with it. There was something not quite right but he couldn’t put a finger on it. As he slept an angel from God came to Joseph in a dream and said “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife – the Holy Spirit is the father of this baby. She’s going to have a boy, and you will name him Jesus (which means ‘God saves’) because he will save his people from their sins. This is in fulfillment of the prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (‘God with us’).”
And Joseph woke up, and immediately did what the angel said, and married Mary.
In these events we hear three more melodies in Joseph’s song: the melody of thoughtfulness and reflection, the melody of trusting God, and the melody of doing God’s will. Joseph was not someone who made decisions in a hurry. He thought about things. He mulled them over. He looked at things from more than one point of view. And he had good instincts.
And when he heard God’s word, Joseph understood. He trusted God, even though he knew he was now being called to share in Mary’s predicament. Now there would be two of them saying “God is the Father of this baby” while everybody else said ‘yeah right’. Joseph believed the angel’s word, and trusted God. And he lost no time doing what God said to do. He married Mary, took on the role of stepfather, and when the baby came, Joseph named him “Jesus” – which was his job as head of the household (as well as being what the angel told him to do).
Matthew tells us one other thing about Joseph, and that was he waited until after Jesus was born to consummate the marriage. The prophecy was that a virgin was to give birth to a son – and Joseph did his part to assure the prophecy came true. He was a man of self-control. He didn’t complain, he didn’t talk about his ‘rights’ as a husband, he was not driven by his passions. He was willing and able to do everything in the proper time.
By the way, Matthew says Mary was “a virgin until she gave birth” – which implies after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary had a normal everyday marriage. And the Bible talks about Jesus having younger brothers.
And that’s all our reading for today tells us about Joseph. Later on in Matthew’s gospel Joseph talks with the angel a couple more times: once when Joseph and his family have to flee to Egypt because Herod wants to kill Jesus, and a second time when Herod dies to let them know it’s safe to go back to Israel.
The only other time the Bible mentions Joseph is Luke chapter 2, when Jesus is twelve years old and he stays behind in the temple after the Passover. You recall the story: his family was on the way back to Galilee when they realized Jesus was missing, and it took them almost a week to find him. You can imagine how torn apart Mary and Joseph were! (You can also almost hear God saying “I gave you ONE job…”) When they finally find Jesus in the temple, Mary says “why have you done this to us? We’ve been agonizing over you!” The word she uses here is a word used to describe the fear of never seeing a loved one’s face again. Joseph and Mary were people of great love.
And that’s all we have about Joseph. Later on in Jesus’ life, whenever Mary is mentioned – at weddings, at events – Joseph is not there. Most Bible scholars believe Joseph died before Jesus’ public ministry began.
But for a man who speaks no words, Joseph has said much.
- He has demonstrated that a righteous man is a man of compassion and mercy
- He has shown himself to be thoughtful, someone who weighs his actions and decisions
- He is a man who, when he hears God’s word, trusts it
- And when he hears God’s word he acts immediately to do God’s will.
- He is a man of self-control
- He is a man of great love
I can imagine how good it was for our Lord Jesus to have an earthly father like Joseph – someone to show him by his actions what it means to live God’s way as a human being here on earth.
In addition to all these things, Joseph teaches us the power of silence, of really listening. Of thinking about what’s best for others in a given situation. Joseph teaches us the power of doing God’s will God’s way. And he gives Mary and Jesus a loving home and family life. In just creating a normal, everyday home life for his family Joseph changes the course of history.
God’s response to a man of Joseph’s character and Joseph’s faith is honor.
- God honors Joseph by trusting him with Jesus. Can you imagine trusting your child to someone else’s care? God trusted Joseph.
- God honors Joseph for his mercy. Joseph does not demand what’s rightfully his – he chooses mercy, and mercy wins. And God honors this.
- God honors Joseph’s willingness to follow God’s instructions by leading Joseph into wise decisions for his family. With God’s guidance, Joseph and his family live in safety and in peace no matter where life takes them.
God honors Joseph. And that’s Joseph’s song: a song without words. A song expressed in actions that speak so beautifully of the faith and love in Joseph’s heart.
As a takeaway for this today, I’d like to suggest this: In the week between now and Christmas, let’s look for opportunities to follow in Joseph’s footsteps, and to share the good news of Jesus – using our actions rather than words to show what we believe. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/18/16