Joseph of Bethlehem

Matthew 1:18-24

Birth of Jesus

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.


Thoughts on the passage:

When Marianne and I got married we had a conversation about what to do about our names. It was actually something I had not really thought about. My parents had both kept their own names when they were married. Marianne planned to take my last name and then to add her maiden name as a second middle name. She proposed that I would also take her maiden name as a second middle name. For whatever reason, it was something I could not wrap my head around. Changing my name was something I had just never really thought about doing and it seemed odd to me. In the end I did not make the change, and it something that I have regretted since then.

Growing up, one of the few musical groups I listened to was Peter, Paul and Mary. One of the songs I listened to is a song entitled “Danny’s Downs.” It is about a new mother and father grappling with unexpected complications in the birth of their son, Danny. They had been so looking forward to having this child, but when he was born, it was not the way they had imagined it. Through the course of the song they learn to accept and love the child they have, not the child they imagined having.

I share these two illustrations to start our sermon today because I think it is important to remember just how powerful our expectations of things can be. A more immediate example would be the disappointment that Zoe had the other day when she opened a gift she had gotten at school. In her head it was going to be a toy, she was so disappointed to get Gummy Lifesavers instead. There was nothing wrong with the gift, but it did not match her expectations and that through her off.

We are continuing our journey to the manager this week with the story of Joseph. Our inspiration for this series, as well as much of the background information comes from the work of Adam Hamilton, specifically his book “The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem.” Each week we are focusing on a different part of the story as we seek to get ready for Christmas and the birth of Christ.

For whatever reason I do not tend to give as much thought to Joseph. He feels like the extra in the story, dutifully accompanying Mary but not really playing as important a role. After all, he is not the real father of Jesus, and Mary is the one who is going to have to do the real work when it comes to giving birth. Still, when I read this story today, I am struck by the challenge that would have faced Joseph when he was given the news about Mary.

Maybe I am reading my own 21st century gender assumptions into things, but if Joseph is like most men I know, he had probably not given a lot of thought to his wedding, and probably even not that much thought to the children he was going to have. He might have assumed that he would get married and that kids would follow, but if he was like me, he was not concerned with the exact details. When he receives the news from the angel however, his assumptions are shattered. Even though he never thought about his wedding, he was probably sure it would not take place with a woman who was already pregnant! When it came to imagining the children he would raise, he had always thought they would be his, not someone else’s. Now he must wrap his mind around a totally different reality.

In his book, “The Journey,” Adam Hamilton makes note of the fact that there are a lot of assumptions we make about Joseph because not a lot is said in the scriptures. Traditions emerged over hundred years later that would see him as an old widower who married Mary very late in life. In the Catholic tradition, Mary is a virgin her whole life and this explanation merges well with this belief. For Protestants, Mary’s status as a virgin after Jesus’s birth is not important and so often Joseph is believed to be young, like Mary, since this would be the typical age that a person marries. Hamilton also observes that a closer reading of the text makes it clear that while Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth after their marriage, at the start of the story, Joseph was likely living in Bethlehem. If this is the case, Hamilton notes, Joseph likely learned that Mary was pregnant when she would have been visiting her cousin Elizabeth who lived near Bethlehem.

When I read the part about Joseph wanting to break the engagement, it can seem like a cold and callous thing to do. After all, it seems like Joseph is cutting ties with Mary and leaving her to her fate. What we fail to remember, however, is that the real risk is that Mary would be found to be an adulteress, the stated penalty which was death. When Joseph chooses to break off the engagement, he is taking the cost onto himself instead of Mary. If he accused her of adultery, she would be penalized, and he would recover the dowry he would have paid to her father. Instead, by him breaking the engagement he is the one who accepts the fault and he not only loses what he had already given to Mary’s family, he would owe the remaining amount that was to be paid at marriage.

When we consider this information, we realize that Joseph really is a righteous man, seeking not what is best for him but what is fair and just. In Joseph’s actions we see connections to how Jesus will act later on, taking on the sins of others and paying the cost himself. It is quite fitting that Joseph is the adoptive father of Jesus. Even when he does not believe her, he is able to forgive her. Once he believes her, he goes even further, setting aside his own dreams for the future and joining with her in this great journey that God has placed them on.

Think back to those early examples I gave of when things did not go as one might have planned or imagined. What is a time in your life when things did not go as you had planned them? What was it like to have to let go of your dreams and visions for how things should have to be? If you are like me, sometimes you do not realize how much you wanted something until it is not possible. Often the process of accepting the new way of the world is hard.

There is a word associated with each Sunday in Advent. The second Sunday of Advent is peace. There are lots of meanings for the word “peace” but one of them is a serene calm when we can accept things as they are rather than as we would want them to be. We all have things in our life we wish we could change. We all have people in our lives that we want to change. We can scream and shout about it. We can lash out at things around us. None of this is necessarily going to change the way of the world. There is a deep wisdom and peace to be found in recognizing what we can and cannot change. It comes when, like Joseph, we can accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

Martin Luther King described peace not as the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. I think we see that same sort of peace working in the story of Joseph. In his actions towards Mary, his goal is not the absence of tension, but rather an attempt at justice. He wants to do what is best not just for him or for her, but for everyone. His wisdom comes in recognizing what he can and cannot change. When he is able to do that, a peace surrounds him, and he is able to do God’s work.

As we get ready for Christmas there is a lot we can and cannot control. We cannot make our brother-in-law like us, or our sister to behave herself at family gatherings. We cannot change the fact that the stores will be busy, the weather will be crappy, or that we will not get everything we really want for Christmas. We can choose how we react to all of this. We can choose to be filled with God’s peace in this season.

Even beyond the Christmas season, there is so much we cannot control that is wrong in the world. We cannot fix the tragedy of the civil war in Yemen. We cannot control the economy. We cannot solve the growing divides in our country around issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality. What we can do is place our trust in a child who comes to offer peace. We can place our trust in a God who loves us and forgives us. We can set aside our problems and troubles and join Mary and Joseph in following God.


Questions to Ponder:

How do you react when things do not go how you expect them to?

What do you think it was like for Joseph to learn about Mary being pregnant and that God is the father?

What sort of peace are you longing for this Christmas season?


Wondrous God, you come into our hearts in small and simple ways, like a child, born in a manager. As we get ready to explore again the miracle of your birth among us, prepare our hearts and minds to let you rule them. Take away from us all of the distractions and temptations to follow others instead of you. Help us to be faithful to you. Amen