Sermon at Choral Evensong, Sunday, March 17
St. Andrew's Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh
The Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright
Priest Associate, St. Andrew's Church
Priest in Charge, Episcopal Ministry at the University of Pittsburgh
Priest in Charge, Episcopal Ministry at the University of Pittsburgh
I've been asked to preach on Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, and since I seldom refuse a challenge, that’s what I’m going to do. It is a challenge, though, because although we see him every Christmas, standing quietly off to the side in the manger scene, the Bible tells us so much less about him than about the rest of the dramatis personae in that scene, and we have to dig a bit deeper if we’re to give him his rightful place in God’s word, and be able to hear God’s voice speaking to us in what Scripture says about him.
The word, Joseph, is Hebrew for Jehovah has added, and first appears in Scripture as the name given by Rachel to the child she finally bore after years of waiting, and years of watching her rival and older sister Leah have one son after another.1 God… hearkened to her and opened her womb, the narrator of Genesis tells us. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she called his name Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’
So the name came into being right in the middle of the world we live in today: no sooner was Joseph named with thanksgiving and celebration, Jehovah has added, than more is demanded: add to me another son. Genesis even puts it in the same sentence. Even after three thousand years of human beings becoming daily more superior in every imaginable way, as they tell me, you may be familiar with that attitude. You may even have moments like that yourself.
But through the Joseph named with such ambiguous sentiments God brought shelter and protection to his whole family. You remember how young Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Instead of yielding to his fate and living like a slave, or rebelling against it with such fury that he died of the inevitable punishments, Joseph made himself useful and rose to become the de facto governor of the most powerful nation of the time.
God gave him a key rôle in the national life of the Israelites, but he remained still so much part of the family in his own mind that when he was finally reconciled with his brothers, he made them promise that he would be buried in the place where he would have been if his descendants had never been taken into captivity.2 And he was—but not until generations later. His family’s descendants fell back into slavery in Egypt, but when God finally delivered them and they escaped from Egypt and returned to the promised land, they took Joseph’s body with them, and Moses ordered it finally buried in its proper place.3 Moses pronounced this blessing on his descendants: Blessed by the Lord be his land, with the choicest gifts of heaven above… Let these come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the crown of the head of him that is prince among his brothers.4
When his descendants formed themselves into a new nation in the promised land, they sometimes called themselves ‘the sons of Joseph’. This first Joseph was a foreshadowing of the one far down the generations who would shelter and protect the One Who would save God’s people not from earthly depredations but spiritual ones, from the covetousness that cries add to me another in the midst of the blessings being poured out on us and all the other spiritual failings that still beset us.5
Lots of people in the Old Testament were named after him over the centuries,6 but many of Joseph’s descendants did not live by the faith handed down to them and did not take seriously their promises to live in accordance with the Lord’s will; but the Lord never abandoned them, never ceased to call them back to Him through the prophets; Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice… it may be that the Lord… will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph, was the burden of their message they brought from God (Amos 5.15).
The first Joseph was the son of Jacob, and when the time finally came for God to redeem his wayward and sinful people, Matthew tells us that the He used another Joseph, the son of another Jacob: the quiet figure in the manger scene. Despite the mass of legends that accumulated around him during the middle ages, we know a lot less about him than about the first Joseph, who gets about twenty chapters to himself in the book of Genesis.
We presume he was born in Bethlehem, because when Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken, everyone had to go back to the town where he was born in order to participate in it, and Joseph went to Bethlehem. We may also presume that his whole family had moved away years earlier, because when he went he had no friends or relatives there with whom he could stay.
The first thing we don’t have to presume is that he was a righteous man, because Matthew tells us that explicitly.7 We can see that this is true by his response when he found out his fiancee was pregnant. Knowing it could not be his child, he was nevertheless unwilling to put her to shame, and resolved to divorce her quietly. Because he was a righteous man, he decided to obey the spirit of the law given in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 22, and cancelled the marriage, but because he was also compassionate and kind he planned to do so without fuss, just an announcement that it was best for all if the marriage did not take place, no reasons given. To have done otherwise would have meant dreadful punishment for Mary, as well as for the unknown man whom for a while Joseph assumed was the father of the unborn child.
Joseph’s righteousness made him obey the spirit of the law, his mercy made him reluctant to insist on the letter of it; another foreshadowing, this time of Jesus’s sacrifice of Himself for the sake of others, in which mercy and justice are both fulfilled completely. But while Joseph is still considering his response,8 God sent an angel to show Joseph the truth: do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. And Joseph happily obeyed—happy to believe something he cannot understand, partly because he loves Mary, but more importantly because he loves God.
A husband who loves his wife is only halfway there; it takes love of God as well to be a good husband, although we all need a deal of growth in both these loves, as every wife will testify—although a merciful wife will change the subject when asked about it!
Joseph did not apparently think very deeply about the angel’s words; he was happy to have his difficulty resolved, and unlike Mary, who treasured these things in her heart, Joseph put them out of his mind and got on with the business of providing for his family. So when he and Mary took the baby to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, as was the custom for the first-born male, Joseph was amazed when someone in the Temple, just a by-stander really, looked at the little baby and began to pray, saying now You let me die in peace, for my eyes have seen thy salvation which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.
In seeing the baby, Simeon had seen his Saviour.9 Simeon also was led by the Holy Spirit to reveal some painful things that lay ahead for the baby, but he said those things to Mary only. Joseph was the practical type, and just got on with the job God had given him without too much speculation.
Soon the angel came back to Joseph and said take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. God’s guidance and Joseph’s willingness to be guided saved the infant Jesus from death before He could carry out God’s plan for the salvation of the world. And that was impressive willingness: a journey of several weeks into an unknown land where he had no support from friends or family, until the danger was past.
We heard in our reading that he and Mary shared the anxiety when Jesus, ten years or more later, failed to tell His parents that He was staying behind to chat to the teachers in the Temple,10 but after that, we hear almost nothing of him. He was said by the inhabitants of
have been a carpenter,11 although the Greek word tekton, usually means ‘builder.’ But Justin Martyr, who was born in Palestine
probably around 100 AD, a Greek speaker, believed that the word meant
‘carpenter’ and said that he had seen ploughs and ox-yokes still in use which
were said to have been made in the carpenter-shop at Nazareth. Nazareth
That he was a good father we can also presume, because Luke tells us that Jesus was obedient to him,12 and since we are also told that Jesus was without sin, Joseph must never have told Jesus to do anything that wasn't upright and honest. And it may be due to Joseph that Jesus could not imagine a father who, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent.13
In some of the incidents of His adult life His father is not named when Jesus’s whole family is referred to,14 and there is no mention of him at the crucifixion or afterwards, when Mary is mentioned often, which leads most scholars to conclude that he must have died earlier, leaving Mary a widow. Jesus, when about to die on the Cross, entrusted His mother to John’s care, which he would have been unlikely to do if her husband was still alive.
All in all, we can say that there is not a lot about this distant descendant of the first Joseph in the Bible, yet what God did through the first Joseph foreshadowed what God would do through the second, bringing salvation to His people from the consequence of their sins. And it’s nice to know that practical men who tend to feel a little out of their depth when spiritual issues are at the top of the agenda can still serve God by being faithful to the tasks God has given them, by being a good husband and father even when by ordinary standards it’s not easy to do that.
By sticking to the task set before him, by doing what God asked even when it wasn't easy or convenient, Joseph became part of something bigger than he may have ever understood in this life.
There isn't one of us who can’t do as much as Joseph: keep the faith even when we’re not sure where it’s taking us, be the best we can for God, follow faithfully the path set before us, journeying with God and trusting Him for the destination. I pray that this reminder of what great things God can do with small acts of faithfulness will encourage us all to a greater persistence in our own faith, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Genesis 30.22–24
2 Gen 50.25
3 Joshua 24.32.
4 Deut 33.13–16.
5 Psalm 80:1. Cf Psalm 105.19, the word of the Lord tested him, referring to Joseph.
6 Eg 2) father of Igal, who represented the tribe of Issachar among the spies, Num 13.7, no other info; 3) a son of the prophet Asaph, I Chron 25.2, no other info; 4) a man who took a foreign wife in the time of Ezra, 10.42, no other info; 5) a priest of the family of Shebaniah in the time of Nehemiah, 12.14, no other info; 6) the son of Jonam, several generations after David, Luke 3.30, no other info.
7 Matt 1.19
8 Matt 1.20
9 Luke 2.33
10 Luke 2.48
11 Matt 13.55
12 Luke 2.51
13 Luke 11.11
14 Matt ; Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19; John 7:3