Isaiah 7:10-16+Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18+Romans 1:1-7+Matthew 1:18-25
We started our Advent journey three weeks ago near the end of Matthew’s gospel, with Jesus telling his disciples to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. We then stepped back in time to John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, and last week, we were still with John, except much later when he was sitting in jail and wondering if Jesus was “the one.” Today we start at the very beginning, at least as far as Matthew goes in his telling of the story of Jesus.
Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that goes all the way back to Abraham. He situates Jesus in the messianic line, using this family tree as proof that Jesus is the one long promised by the prophets of old. But if you rely on Matthew to tell you a birth story, you’ll be sorely disappointed. And if you expect Matthew to spend much time with Mary, you will be similarly disappointed.
You see, Jesus descends from a line through Abraham and David, and it was important in Matthew’s telling to confirm Jesus’s identity through his father, even if Joseph is not his biological father. So there is no annunciation or visitation with Elizabeth or Magnificat here. There isn’t really even a birth! There’s an engagement, a dream, and the little detail that Mary and Joseph had no marital relations until after Jesus was born.
That’s it. No shepherds, no angels, no manger, no census even. And then it’s on the Magi from the East and the flight into Egypt.
Joseph the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus has been much on my mind this week. We really know nothing about him. Mark doesn’t mention Joseph at all. He appears here at the birth in both Matthew and Luke. The last time we hear about him is when Jesus gets left behind in the temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-51). Joseph is mentioned by name twice in John’s gospel, but only as a way of identifying Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (John 1:45, 6:42). We can assume that Joseph had died by the time of the crucifixion because, from the cross, Jesus is assigning responsibility for caring for his mother to the disciple whom he loved (John 19:26-27).
There are some apocryphal stories about Joseph in writings from the 2nd and 4th centuries (the Protoevangelium of John and the History of Joseph the Carpenter) that claimed that Joseph was much older than Mary, already had a number of children which is where we get the references to Jesus’s brothers and sisters, and that he died at the ripe old age of 111. There is no reason to believe that these later writings are true, which leaves us with the question, who was Joseph and why does he matter?
We may never be able to fully answer the first of those questions. What we do know, according to Matthew, is that Joseph was a “righteous man” (1:19). He knew that Mary would be stoned to death if it became public that she was pregnant and unmarried, so he was going to quietly set her aside. It sounds bad, but in this context, it was a gracious thing for him to do. And then the angel came and told him to marry her, and so he did.
It’s a shame that, beyond these few details, Joseph is such a mystery. Mary has been venerated as the Mother of God (theotokos) since the 5th century. St. Joseph’s Day wasn’t established until a millennium later, and poor Joseph wasn’t declared a patron saint of the universal church until 1870 and only got an additional name day under Pius XII in 1955. It’s May 1, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a countermeasure to the Communist’s May Day.
Yet there is as much to learn from his obedience to the message of the angel in the dream and whatever thankless fatherly duties he performed. In fact, Joseph might be the best model of what it means to be faithful, because, in the end, the true work of the Church is not done by those of us dressed up in fancy robes or who are well-known, who get invited to speak in public spaces, or whose names are found in books.
No, this thing we call Church has survived and thrived because of all the people through the centuries who, like Joseph, listened and obeyed.
In my former congregation, there was a dear old lady named Jean who was 90-something and not always in great health, but she refused to allow attention to focus on her and would always deflect concern away from herself to something or someone “more important.” Jean had served as head of the altar guild for decades, marshalling the forces of a dozen or more volunteers who set-up and cleaned-up and polished and mended all the implements used in worship at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville.
The story goes that Jean was at the church one day setting up for something, and there was some object she couldn’t reach. What it was escapes me now, but it just so happened that a young man who had recently begun attending the church happened by. He was a gay man in a same-sex partnership, and he and his now-husband felt welcome at St. Paul’s, so they started coming regularly. For Jean’s purposes, the good news on this particular day is that he is about 6’4”. So Jean asked for his help, and the next thing you know, he’s on the altar guild – the first man there that I know of and certainly the first gay man – and now, long after Jean stepped down, he is head of that same altar guild.
Jean and Wayne are not Joseph, but they were and are faithful to what they are called to do and be. They took care of business that nobody notices, at least unless it’s missing or not done right! They’re not in it for attention or to make a statement. They are simply doing what they are called to do. Just like millions of others whose work on behalf of the Church and the God they love has carried us from the birth of Jesus to this very day.
So today, I want to honor Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, who bore an enormous responsibility and fulfilled the task to which he was called. Had he not, the story would have ended with him.
There are some who think that the story is dying, at least as it is told in churches across this country. Numbers are down. Giving to churches is falling. Who is going to carry our story into the world? Who, like Joseph, will respond to the invitation to do our part?
As we gather here on this 4th Sunday of Advent, waiting and watching and listening, maybe, just maybe, you will hear an angel inviting you to do your part to help Jesus be born in hearts anew this Christmastide.