This is my sermon for last Sunday, based on Matthew 2:13-23.
In my Christmas Eve service, I asked people to picture their nativity sets. Today, rather than thinking of the whole scene, I just want you to picture Joseph. Do you have him pictured in your mind? Now that you have him pictured, now I want you to think about whether he is really necessary for the scene. That is, could you still have a nativity scene if Joseph had stepped out to get some fresh air, or perhaps had gone out for a cup of coffee? I believe you could. If Mary or Jesus were not there, people would definitely notice and ask what was going on. If the shepherds weren’t there, people would wonder if they were still out in their fields watching their sheep. If the wise men had not shown up and laid their gifts at Jesus’ feet people would notice and wonder where they were. But what about Joseph? While Joseph is certainly nice to have around, he is not crucial to the scene. He is the wall flower of the story. He is like Jesus in the old spiritual about his crucifixion. Joseph never says a mumbling word. Joseph is totally silent. In neither Luke nor Matthew’s gospel narratives, the only ones who say anything about him, does Joseph say a single word. Isn’t that a little odd?
Now the truth is we know very little about Joseph. We are told that he is a righteous man, which is how Matthew describes him. We should hear that to mean that he is a devout Jew, one who obeys Torah. Matthew is also the one who tells us his occupation. The problem is, the Greek word translated as carpenter is tekton, from which we gets words like technical and technology, but its meaning is a little ambiguous. It can mean someone who works in wood. This can be someone who is skilled, such as a ship builder, but it can also refer to someone who is less skilled, like those who make yokes and ploughs, which is what Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers, says that Jesus does. But, tekton can also refer to someone who works in iron or stone. In other cases it simply refers to someone who is basically a day laborer. So we can’t even say for sure what his occupation was.
We are told that Joseph is of the Davidic line, and in Matthew his father’s name is Jacob. This should send off some bells for those are remember the stories in Genesis, which we will get back to in a little bit, so remember that Joseph’s father is Jacob. While Luke also claims that Joseph is of the David line, he says that Joseph’s father’s name is Heli. We also know that he lived in Bethlehem and Nazareth. Luke has Joseph with Mary and Jesus at the Temple when Jesus is 12, but that is the last that we hear of Joseph being around. And that is all that we know about Joseph from scriptures. The Gospel of John only mentions him as being Jesus’ father. Mark does not mention him at all, as Jesus is referred to as Mary’s son, nor is he mentioned in the earliest Christian writings which come to us from the apostle Paul.
With the later development of Marionology, which is the elevation of Mary to theotokos, God bearer, the church developed a theology which said that Mary not only conceived as a virgin but that she remained a virgin the rest of her life. Joseph was chosen only to look after and protect Mary, rather than to be a true husband, and so the marriage was never consummated. Now in order to give justification for the scriptures referring to Jesus as having brothers and sisters, they said that these were step-siblings from Joseph’s prior marriage. If Joseph already had several other children, they also speculated that Joseph must have been much older when he married Mary, which would not have been all that unusual for the time. This also helped to explain why Joseph was not around during Jesus’ ministry. If Joseph was older, then he could already have been dead. But there is no scriptural backing for any of this. Indeed, much of what we hear or believe about Joseph comes from non-canonical works.
We do know, according to Matthew, that when Joseph heard that Mary was with child, even though he had no known her in a biblical way, he wanted to dismiss her, but was told in a dream by an angel that Mary was having a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he should take her as his wife, and he did what the angel said. Then he was told in a dream by an angel to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt because Herod was looking for Jesus with the intention of destroying him, and so Joseph does what he is told and flees to Egypt in order to save Jesus’ life. Good thing that Egypt did not have strict illegal immigration policies in place.
After they’ve been in Egypt for a while, although we don’t know how long or even what they did there, another angel appears to Joseph in a dream and he is again told to take Mary and the child and to return to Israel because Herod has died. And so Joseph does what he is told, only this time he does hesitate a little bit because he hears that Archelaus is ruling over Judea and so he does not feel safe in returning. If Herod was tyrant enough to have ordered the killing of children, and he certainly was, although he was not all that unusual of a leader in the ancient world, Archelaus was over the top. He was actually removed from power by Rome because of his atrocities, which was almost unheard of. Rome tended not to care what you did as long as you kept the peace, and Archelaus kept the peace by killing anyone who might be in opposition to him or his policies. This included killing 3000 Pharisees who revolted in the year 6 CE, under the leadership of a certain Judas of Galilee, which would make for another interesting sermon, but not today. Anyway, Joseph in this instance hesitates the follow the angel’s direction because of his fear of Archelaus, but then an angel appears to him in a dream and confirms his hunches and so he does not return to Bethlehem but instead goes to Nazareth, which is where Jesus grows up.
Every step he takes, Joseph seems to be obeying someone else’s commands. To Joseph, the angel is like EF Hutton: When the angel speaks, Joseph listens. Now the problem with that joke is there is at least one if not two generations who won’t get it, because they don’t know who EF Hutton is. But, in seeing Joseph and his relationship with God, I believe it is appropriate to stop and ask if this is someone we should be trying to emulate? Should we hold up Joseph as a role model for proper behavior as a Christian? Is that what discipleship is supposed to look like?
In order to begin to understand this question, we do need to look at some of the stories of ancient Israel being referenced by Matthew in this passage. Joseph, the person married to Mary, is the namesake of Joseph, best known to us today for his amazing Technicolor dream coat. Besides for his coat, does anyone remember one of the things that Joseph was famous for? He was able to interpret dreams. Any light bulbs going off yet? Joseph is sold into slavery, and where does he get sent into slavery? Egypt. See you’re catching on. So Joseph goes to Egypt where he rises in power because he successfully interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, and as a result also is able to save his own family who go to Egypt because Canaan, where they live, is suffering a drought. Joseph takes them in, and they remain in Egypt, but we are told that later Pharaoh’s forget Joseph and become concerned about how many Israelites there are and so all male Israelite children are ordered to be killed. Do you see what Matthew is doing here? And who was it who was saved from this death decree when his mother put him in a basket in the Nile? Moses. I don’t have time to go into everything that Matthew is doing in setting up Jesus’ life story, but if you want to learn more you can take my class on the Gospel of Matthew on Wednesday evenings beginning January 12. But I do have a point here as well.
So we’ve set up how Joseph relates to the older Joseph, now what was Joseph, who is married to Mary, father’s name? Jacob. Now, just one more piece of information as an aside, Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah. Rachel is referenced in today’s scripture coming from the prophet Jeremiah, as she weeps for her children and Rachel is the mother of Joseph Now in what town would you find Rachel’s tomb. I’ll give you a hint; it is directly related to the Christmas story. That’s right it’s Bethlehem. Are you seeing all the connections?
Now, I know I’m taking forever to get to my point, but there is one event in particular that is even more important for us today. Jacob spends the night wrestling with an angel, and when the sun comes up in the morning, Jacob is renamed Israel, which means something like, “contended with God” or “wrestles with God.” At the very heart then of Israelite history, and then name itself, is a struggle with God. Throughout scripture, people contend with God, from Abraham to Moses to Jacob to Job to Jonah, to name just a few. As Rabbi David Thomas of Congregation Beth El here in Sudbury recently said to me, “Jews don’t really have a conversation with God; we have an argument with God.”
But then we have Joseph, who we are told is a devout Jew, who would know scripture, who would know that plenty of people have questioned God’s actions in the world, sometimes questioning them directly to God’s face, but Joseph never says a word. Every time God tells him to do something he simply does it, no questions asked. He does this even when what he is asked to do contradicts Jewish law. He is a righteous man, meaning he follows Torah, but when asked to violate it by the angle he complies.
Katherine Mitchell is a Methodist minister in southern Massachusetts. I was her seminary husband and she was my seminary wife while we both attended BU because we spent more time with each other during those three years then we did with our own spouses. Before coming to seminary Katherine had worked as an emergency mental health counselor, and so she is very good at always being able to be in control of situations, telling you exactly what she is thinking and what is going on because in many cases her life depended on that ability. If you are in a group and wonder who is going to be in charge, you can bet that Katherine will be one of the first to step up and take a leadership role.
Recently she was asked to participate in a program similar to dancing with the stars to help support one of the community groups in the town where she serves. At the time she agreed to it, she assumed she would just have to show up on the day of the event do some dancing and then everyone would vote on who was best. But shortly after saying yes, she received a call from Arthur Murray dance studio asking when she wanted to come in and start her dance lessons. She put if off for as long as she could, came up with as many reasons as she could, in other words struggling with the commitment, before she finally had to give in and go.
Now, Katherine is in her upper forties, stands maybe 5’5” and as I said, fully in control of her life. When she showed up for her first lesson, she was assigned to a dance instructor who was 23, although she side he looked like he was 15, and he was shorter than she is. They danced for their hour appointment, and when it was over he said to her, “you have the skills and the ability to be a good dancer, but in order for this to work you are going to have to let go and let me lead.” And Katherine’s response? She said “now look here little man, do you have any idea who I am. I am Pastor Katherine, and I’m the one in control.” To which her dance instructor said, “You’re a minister, aren’t you used to following God’s lead, this should be easy for you.”
Now as you might imagine, this floored her and she had to look deeply at what she was doing and how she was living her life, and what she found was that she was not so good at following and so she made a conscious effort to let go. This decision has not only radically changed her relationship with her family, her relationship with her congregation, but most importantly it has changed her relationship with God. Since that day she has had some life altering experiences that she knows God has led her to, that she would never have had before, because she would never have to let go of what she wanted to do long enough to allow them to happen. For the first time in her life she now feels as if she is truly being guided by God, everyday of her life from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, and sometimes even in her dreams, because she was willing to let go and let God lead the dance of her life.
How are we doing? Are we able to let God lead, or are we fighting and trying to be the one who controls where, when and perhaps even what dance is being done? I would have to say that I am not very good at this myself. I have trouble giving up and giving over to God. Even though some of the most profound experiences in my life have occurred when I have turned myself over to God to be led, I have to say that normally I am closer to having an argument with God rather than a relationship, and there are definitely times for that. I do not think that we are called to be fully like Joseph.
Being a dancing partner requires both parties to be involved and participating. Dancing is a give and take relationship. If one person does nothing but let the other person do all the work, then they are like a rag doll and that does not make a beautiful dance. Instead, both partners need to be in relationship with each other, working with each other, but one person has to be in control, and if that person is us then the dance is not as beautiful as it could be.
All of us could use to be more like Joseph than we are. Joseph was willing to trust and to act, to listen and to do, and most importantly to have faith and depend on the word of God that everything was going to be okay, knowing that god would uphold Go’s word and would guide and lead him. May it be so in our lives. Amen.