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 A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian on 
December 1, 2019.

JOSEPH

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; 
he took her as his wife.  Matthew 1:24


        Today marks the first Sunday of a new Christian year.  The season of Advent begins a new cycle shaped by the life of Jesus.  During this Advent we are going to put aside our yearlong study on Christian practices.  Over the next four weeks we will focus on the life of Joseph and what his experience can teach us.

Several years ago our Advent focus was on Mary.  That year was relatively easy for those of us who plan worship. There is an abundance of material that helps to tell the story of Mary.  There have been so many books, prayers and stories written about Mary.  There are many hymns and anthems that reflect Mary’s words and experience.  Almost every important artist in the last two thousand years has painted their interpretation of Mary.  Our great challenge that year was to pick and choose wisely from a great treasure house of material.

Joseph presents a different challenge.  He is often the forgotten figure in the Christmas story.  If you pulled out your crèche scene one year and the statue of Joseph was missing, you would not be nearly as upset than if you could not find Mary or the baby Jesus.  Koto has had a difficult time finding music to help tell the story of Joseph.

Today I would like to share the basic information that we have about Joseph.  The information we have about Joseph is found in Luke and Matthew.  Remember that Mark and John do not tell us anything about the early years of Jesus.  They only tell the story of Jesus’ public ministry.  Mark and John start their narratives with Jesus’ baptism.  Joseph is not part of the story.  The absence of Joseph from all the gospels during Jesus’ public ministry leads us to believe he had died sometime after Jesus was thirteen.  But there is no documentation that tells us his demise.
        There are four important events in Jesus’ life in which Joseph plays an important role.  
        The first is in the birth of Jesus.  We are told that Mary and Joseph were engaged when Mary was found to be pregnant.  The normal marriage practices of the first century were very different from our own.  In the normal Jewish marriage there were three steps.

The first was the engagement.  The engagement was often made when the couple was only children. It was usually made through the parents or through a professional match- maker. It was often made without the couple ever seeing each other. Marriage was held to be far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of human passion and the human heart.

The second step was the betrothal.  The betrothal might be called the ratification of the engagement.  At this point if the bride or groom wanted to back out they could.  But once the betrothal was entered into it was absolutely binding.  The betrothal lasted one year. During that year they were known and man and wife, though they did not live together.  It was a year of preparation.  This relationship could only be ended by divorce.

The final step was the wedding.  This was a week-long celebration in which the bride and groom were treated as a queen and king.  It was one of the high points in the life of a Jewish peasant.

Joseph and Mary were betrothed when she was found to be pregnant.  Joseph knew he was not the Father.  He could have made Mary pay a very high price for her betrayal, but he seems to have been a kind person who wanted to divorce her quietly.  Then Joseph had a dream, we will talk about this dream next week, in this dream he is told the baby comes from God and he should take Mary as his wife.

Joseph obeys God and goes through with the marriage.  We learn Joseph takes his pregnant wife to Bethlehem in order to fulfill a census.  It was there that Mary gives birth to Jesus.  While in Bethlehem they have two sets of visitors.  First, came the shepherds who had been told of Jesus’ birth, and then some time later, Magi from the east following a star came bringing gifts to the new born king. 

When the visitors had left, Joseph had another dream in which he was warned that King Herod was out to kill Jesus.  So Joseph packed up his family and fled to Egypt.  There Joseph worked to provide for his family for two years until King Herod died and it was safe to return to Israel.  They settled in Nazareth and Joseph continued his work as a carpenter.

There are only two other events in which Joseph plays a role.  These are found in Luke’s gospel and are centered on the temple in Jerusalem.  Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to the temple for special sacrifices upon his birth, and again they travel to the temple for Passover when Jesus was twelve.  We will focus on these temple visits in two weeks.

That is basically all we know about Joseph from the New Testament.  What does this life of Joseph teach us?  

First, I think Joseph has a message for male followers of Jesus.  Joseph provided protection, support and love for his family.  We live in a culture that faces a crisis in our families.  We know all the statics concerning the general health of families are not good.  The out of wedlock births in our country are 40%.  The percentage of able body males of working age not in the work force is at all time highs.  The dropout rate for males far exceeds that of females.  There seems to be an epidemic of males not taking responsibility.

        In the this month’s  issue of the magazine “First Things” we find this poem by Mary Patrice Woehling:

He scrubbed the trough and filled it with fresh hay.
The midnight sky was bright and hard and raw;
The constellations danced above cold clay.

That night the heavens put on a display
That froze wise man and shepherd mute with awe.
He scrubbed the trough and filled it with fresh hay

And wondered how long they would have to stay
In Bethlehem fulfilling Caesar’s law.
That night the heavens put on a display

While Herod hoped the Magi would betray
The child sleeping snugly in the straw.
He scrubbed the trough and filled it with fresh hay,

Too cold and busy to kneel down to pray;
His fingers, stiff and wet, would need to thaw.
That night the heavens put on a display

While Joseph worked and watched as Mary lay
And nursed the baby. Sheep and oxen saw
He scrubbed the trough and filled it with fresh hay;
The constellations danced above cold clay.

The words He scrubbed the trough and filled it with fresh hay remind us that Joseph models for us the male who fulfills his obligations to his family even in the most basic ways.  Love is made up of many small sacrifices.

Secondly, the life of Joseph teaches us that following Jesus does not make our lives any easier.   Remember that Joseph was apparently a nice man.  He was betrothed to a woman who is pregnant.  Joseph knows that the baby is not his.  He has been wronged and could have made life miserable for Mary and her baby.  But he initially decides to divorce her quietly and move on with his life. All the blame would have fallen on Mary.  He could have had a quiet normal life.
        But in his dream he is told to proceed with marrying Mary and he does.  This adds tremendous complexity to his life.  The community would have whispered and gossiped and looked down on the cuckold.  He would not have had to make a difficult journey to Bethlehem with a very pregnant wife.  He would not have had to flee Egypt and live as a refugee.  Joseph models for us that loving Jesus does not mean an easy life.

Sometimes people seem to believe that if they put their faith in Jesus all will be easy.  They think that faith will guarantee health, wealth and success.  Remember Jesus said pick up your cross and follow me.  Discipleship does not mean an easy life but it does mean real growth.  Joseph went places he could not imagine, did things he could not dream and played a role in Jesus’ life that he did not live to see fulfilled. Remember Joseph was dead before Jesus began his earthly ministry.  Unlike Mary, Joseph did not experience Jesus teaching, death and resurrection.  He played his role without seeing the results.

        In his obedience to God’s call Joseph becomes a model for all of us. The current Pope Francis said at an audience in 2014:

“St. Joseph’s mission is certainly unique and unrepeatable, as Jesus is absolutely unique. However, in protecting Jesus, in teaching him how to grow in age, wisdom and grace, he is a model for every educator and in particular for every father. … I ask for you the grace to be ever closer to your children, allow them to grow, but be close, close! They need you, your presence, your closeness, your love. Be, for them, like St. Joseph: protectors of their growth in age, wisdom and grace. Guardians of their path, and educators: walk alongside them."
        And it all began "When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife."
Joseph is a model for us 
                of obedience,
                        humility 
                                and trust.

        May we too say yes to God’s call on our life.