Joseph The Good Father, December 24, Christmas Eve Homily, 11 pm
Note: this is the version of this homily preached at the 11 pm service. Shorter versions wre preached at 6 and 4 pm.
I want to think about Joseph this evening. He is an interesting character in the birth story.
Outside of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and the story of Jesus in theTemple at age 12, Joseph is rarely named in the Bible. There are a few references to Jesus being the son of Joseph, but little else. So Joseph disappears from the story early on. Still, he is an important personage.
Let’s begin with the fact that Joseph is engaged to be married to a young woman, Mary, and then sometime after their engagement, she shows up pregnant and he knows that he is not the biological father.
We don’t know how he finds out she is pregnant.
Imagine one possible scenario: Mary comes to him and says, “Joseph, I have to tell you that since the time we became engaged I became pregnant; but don’t worry it was the Holy Spirit that did it”.
We do know that Joseph was a bit troubled by this and he decided to end their engagement.
Now at that time in that culture, if Joseph denounced Mary it was possible that she might be killed, stoned to death. According to the book of Matthew, Joseph decides to “dismiss her quietly”.
Now actually that probably is not going to help Mary any. Her pregnancy is going to manifest itself at some point, and if she is not married she could be in serious trouble. But Joseph would be untouched by the scandal and some think that is what he was concerned about.
But then Joseph has a dream and in this dream an angel comes to him and says, “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.
Then Joseph wakes up and basically says, “Oh, okay then; everything is alright” and he stays engaged to Mary.
That is a remarkable level of trust in his dreams on the part of Joseph.
Or maybe he loved Mary and it didn’t matter to him how she became pregnant.
In any event, Joseph becomes the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus.
But it is not a simple family life that he enters into. He disrupts his life for Mary and this child.
He takes her toBethlehemwith him. They are espoused, they are engaged. This is a state closer to marriage than engagement is today; they are really considered to be married but not fully and it is a little odd that Joseph takes his betrothed to Bethlehem with him. But he does.
After that the disruption begins.
Following the visitation of the wise men, Herod the Great decides to kill the baby who was born to be “King of the Jews”, because, after all, it is Herod who is King of the Jews.
In order to escape this intended killing, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus down into Egypt. By this time,Egypt had been a province of Rome for about twenty five years, as was Judea; but Joseph was not fleeing from the Romans, he was fleeing from Herod the Great so he needed to get away only from the territory that Herod the Great had influence over.
One estimate is that this trip down into Egypt would have taken about ten days. But it is not just the journey to Egypt; once there, Joseph must somehow care for his family. He needs to find work. He needs to do so in an area where he does not speak the primary language, which was Egyptian.
Now people travelled throughout the Roman Empire all the time, and so there was a common language. Many Egyptians—the educated elite–would have spoken Greek, and it is possible that Joseph spoke some Greek because as a carpenter in Roman controlled Palestine he would probably have had business dealings with people living there who were not Jewish. Those included the Greeks who settled in cities in Palestine after the conquest by Alexander the Great. But, still, moving to Egypt is a major commitment on the part of Joseph.
Herod the Great died in 4 BCE and Joseph was able to bring his family up out of Egypt, but still did not feel entirely safe. Instead of going to Judea, which was ruled by a son of Herod whom he feared, he went to Galilee—which was ruled by another, less threatening, son of Herod—and settled in Nazareth.
So, think of how much traveling and pulling up of stakes Joseph went through for his family, for his wife and his son. He showed a deep commitment to them.
I think he also affected the way in which Jesus viewed the world.
Jesus refers to God as “Father”. And the father he speaks of is a kind and loving father.
To some extent, most of us gain our vision of God and of “perfect” parenting from our parents. Jesus the human being would be no exception to that.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus tells the story of a father who expresses unconditional love and absolute acceptance of his son. The young man takes his inheritance and goes off on his own. After misadventures he returns. Jesus says, “…while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him”. The father does not know and does not care where his child has been; all he cares about is that his child is home. And he expresses his love and his joy. And when the son confesses that he has sinned, it doesn’t matter. The father ignores that and celebrates the return of his child.
And hear these words of Jesus from the Book of Matthew:25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” …32indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’
The God of Jesus is a knowing, loving, forgiving, caring God. The God of Jesus is the God of our Universalist heritage; that is, the God of unconditional love and acceptance.
And I believe that Joseph was at least partially the model for this vision; that he was a model of unconditional love and of absolute commitment.
And I believe that he understood something else. He understood that this child Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit; because the truth is that every child born is born of the Holy Spirit; every child born is born pure and innocent.
And in our lives, if we are to truly take a lesson from Joseph, whatever our theology may be, whatever our beliefs may be, let us see that every child is welcomed into this world surrounded by love and acceptance.
And as Joseph protected the infant Jesus, so let it be our mission to provide protection to every child that is born on this planet.
And let us also see that every person–every child but also every adult–is a child of the Holy Spirit; let us look for the pure and innocent child that still lives within the heart of every person, including ourselves.
The Christian claim, the claim of this story, is that God is a God of love and that God so loved humanity that through his son he came into the world to bring salvation to all. It is unconditional love that is at the heart of the story of the child born in a manger two thousand years ago. And so let us spread unconditional love, for all people are children of God, children of the Holy Spirit, children of the earth and of the universe and of humanity. So let it be.