Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25
Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King, Alleluia, we are going to see the King – Amen
Once every 3 years in our cycle of readings, we get to this day and it is mainly about Joseph rather than Mary. In the gospel of Matthew we have a few short verses to describe what came to past when Jesus was born. And in the bit we heard there is no mention of shepherds, donkeys and even travelling to Bethlehem for the birth, and the only angel mentioned is seen by Joseph in a dream. The good news is that Matthew does acknowledge this all happened in Bethlehem at the beginning of the next chapter (and his account of the wise men – more of that in a couple of weeks).
So what do we know about Joseph then? The truth is not a lot. In Matthew’s genealogy (family tree) which precedes the account of the birth in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is described as the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. His lineage goes all the way back to Abraham (28 generations) and David (14 generations). We surmise from our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day that Joseph was likely to have been significantly older than Mary when they married. We also know from much later in Matthew’s gospel that Joseph had a trade as a carpenter – when Jesus appears in the synagogue in Nazareth, when people doubted him saying Is not this the carpenter’s son? Finally, we know that Joseph was still around as the family travel to Jerusalem (and Jesus is 12 years old), but by the time we get to descriptions of Jesus’ ministry (when he was in his early thirties in all probability) as there is no account of Joseph being present, the assumption is as he was older that he has died (though of course Mary still features prominently).
In Matthew’s account of the early days around Jesus’ conception and first couple of years of life, Joseph has repeated encounters with angels in his dreams. Firstly, as he contemplates what to do about Mary pregnant with someone else’s child, and then twice more, so they flee from Herod’s wrath after the visit of the wise men and then return to Nazareth again when all is safe once more. In our passage today, Joseph is described as righteous. (He is holding to his faith and beliefs clearly – and we first hear him trying to find a way to ensure Mary is not exposed to public disgrace (when she was found to be pregnant before they married)). This was a thorny dilemma. There wasn’t an easy answer. Many would not have hesitated and even thought it was righteous in the circumstances to throw her to the proverbial wolves. The choice Joseph was going to make before God intervened was compassionate and not without risk to himself and his reputation. A hint of the character of the man perhaps?.
Let’s unpack the dream sequence next. We know a previous Joseph (of technicolour dream coat fame!) who was a dreamer – but that was different. Technicolour Joseph had dreams all about himself and the gift to interpret dreams for others. Whereas Mary’s Joseph had vivid dreams with repeated angel encounters. We can only surmise that we have this story as it was handed down by oral tradition from Joseph himself until it eventually reached the ears of the gospel writer Matthew. The dream he had was very compelling and very clear. It says Joseph responded to the angel of the Lord’s commands. We don’t get any sense of hesitation or doubt in Joseph. I find this reaction in Joseph quite compelling. The option he took would have caused him some angst in the society of the day (no doubt, the tongues to wag about quick pregnancies after their marriage!). The angel spoke to his sub-conscious in his sleep and Joseph acted on it precisely as he had been asked. Would we do the same?
I don’t have experience personally of God using my dreams, but I have on occasion had a sense I needed to do something. On one such occasion, I felt I had to visit someone in hospital (and do it then and there). The patient turned out to be in a much more serious condition than I had realised, and I was able to be a significant comfort to his relatives whilst the patient had some interventions. We prayed amongst other things and the patient pulled through. Several other times, I have been thinking about someone and I have either met them in the street or they have rung! I call these things God incidences not coincidences (which is a phrase I first heard from the Baptist preacher and writer Ian Coffey). I have come over the years to recognise these moments and act on them as Joseph did in his dreams and I would be interested to hear your God incidences over coffee after the service this morning. On Wednesday there was a power cut shortly before the School nativity was due to start. Unlike most of Wincanton who had a power out for the next couple of hours. The church lights flickered back into action after a couple of minutes. Another God incidence? I think so….
In the gospel we heard, Matthew links this to one of the prophet’s words again (Isaiah of course!) and the significance of the baby Mary was carrying being Emmanuel ‘God is with us’ to help ground us rather than Joseph in the importance of his mission. Have we really taken in the enormity of that? It has huge consequences for then and for us and went on to change things forever, so we can encounter the God of love through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus left with us through his death, resurrection and ascension.
Sending a vulnerable baby to earth, meant an earthly father needed to be recruited to help care for Jesus as he grew up, and the man God chose was Joseph. He chose him just as much as he chose Mary. I think God chose Joseph because his heart was compassionate and kind and open to God’s prompting. Just recently I have told the first two parts of the Christmas story to the children in Wincanton Primary School. I kept in the bits about Joseph’s compassion to Mary (as many children today understand all too often about relationships breaking down and why). I also had them when I said the names of the two characters saying for Mary – I’m special and for Joseph I’m special too – as I think he was!
A final thing I admire about Joseph’s openness to God, was how whole hearted it was. From what we know of events, once he was in and there for Mary, he stuck with it. Particularly keeping her and the young Jesus safe from the harming influences on this earth, and caring for them until his time was up.
I am going to conclude these thoughts with a reflection by Lisa Debney from the compilation Hay and Stardust about the character of Joseph:-
My arm around your back was all that I could offer as support as each unravelling chapter came.
My arm around your back was there when you first heard the news that heaven dwells in you and words fled faster from me than response. My arm around your back was all that I could offer you to reassure you that I would never desert.
My arm around your back was all that I could offer as support on Bethlehem’s weary road, as the journey wound around path and street and doors closed swiftly in our faces. My arm around your back was all I had to protect you from despair.
As the child emerged in an open barn, my arm around your back was all I had to help you through. To be a leaning post, it seemed, was all that I could do to show I struggled with you in the birth.
It doesn’t seem enough for one who’s destined to endure so much. I should have words or eloquence or money, land and powers of protection to buffer you against the harshness of this world.
But all that I can offer is my arm around your back. Its strength will never be enough to show the strength of love that holds me to your side. But ready still to comfort, to steady and to reassure, my arm around your back, if needed, will be there.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995,
Joseph by Lisa Debney from Hay and Stardust edited by Judith Burgess – published by Wild Goose Publications © 2005