Sermon for 12-04-11: “Journey to Bethlehem, Part 2: Joseph of Bethlehem”

This sermon is part 2 in our Advent sermon series, “Journey to Bethlehem.” This week we focus on Joseph’s story in Matthew’s gospel. Joseph is something of an unsung hero in the Christmas story. Unlike Mary, who gets her own song—the Magnificat—recorded in scripture, Joseph doesn’t get a single word of his recorded in scripture!

As quiet and humble as Joseph undoubtedly was, however, we can infer his powerful influence on the life of Jesus himself. Don’t you think God knew what he was doing when he chose Joseph to be the earthly father to the Son of God? 

This scripture inspires us fathers, but its challenge is for all of us: Aren’t we surrounded by people who need a Joseph, or a Josephine, in their lives?

Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Have you noticed how there aren’t many good songs about Joseph at Christmastime? Mary certainly gets plenty of well-deserved attention—like, for example, in the Amy Grant song that Stephanie did last week, “Breath of Heaven.” In the Bible, Mary has her own song recorded, the Magnificat, which we’ll look at next week. Joseph, by contrast, doesn’t even get a single word of his recorded in scripture.

One Canadian rock band, a favorite of mine, wrote a song about Joseph, in Joseph’s own voice, recounting the likely argument that took place between Joseph and Mary after she broke the news to him that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. According to that song, here is what Joseph says to her:

“Rumors are flying all over Galilee these days
And, Mary, I’m trying to be cool.
When my friends walk by ’em, they cannot look me in the eye
Baby, I’m trying
You’re asking me to believe too many things
You’re asking me to believe too many things”

I love the way this song humanizes Joseph’s plight. It captures some of the emotional turmoil he must have been going through. Imagine: your fiancée tells you that she’s pregnant, miraculously, without the intervention of a human father. Who could blame Joseph if he said, “You’re asking me to believe too many things”? Because you know what Joseph’s thinking, right? You know what those rumors flying around Galilee are, don’t you? That Mary has been unfaithful to Joseph.

There is so much that Matthew leaves unsaid between verse 18, in which Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit,” and verse 19, in which Joseph decides to quietly divorce her. We have to do a little reading between the lines to figure out all that’s going on, because Matthew doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know. Even things that we think we know may not be exactly right.

Such as, where do the events described in today’s scripture take place? In the song I just mentioned, these events take place in Galilee—because remember that’s where Nazareth, Mary’s hometown, is located. We imagine that Joseph and Mary both live in Nazareth, and when Caesar announces this empire-wide census, everyone has to return to their ancestral home. Since Joseph’s ancestors are from Bethlehem, he and Mary have to travel there. And when they get there, all the hotel rooms are booked up, and they have to give birth in a barn. Because there’s no room at the inn.

So we imagine that Joseph is in Nazareth when he gets the news that Mary is pregnant. But Matthew doesn’t say that.

In fact, Matthew doesn’t mention Nazareth until chapter 2, verse 23, and he implies that Nazareth is not Joseph’s hometown. Matthew tells us in chapter 2, verse 1, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And since we know from Matthew’s genealogy that Joseph is a descendant of David, whose hometown and whose family lived in Bethlehem, our best guess is that Joseph was from Bethlehem, too—that he lived there. And that this relationship between Joseph and Mary is a long-distance one, arranged by their families. That’s what many scholars believe. Adam Hamilton believes, too, as he describes in his book, The Journey. If that’s the case, notice how well this fits in with Luke’s Christmas story.

It's likely that Joseph lived in Bethlehem, not Mary's hometown of Nazareth.

In Luke’s gospel, for instance, after Mary receives the news from Gabriel that she’s pregnant, it says that Mary “got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. [Show map.] So she left town right away to go south to Judea. And Luke tells us that she stayed gone for three months. According to ancient tradition, Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived in a place called Ein Karem, a town just four miles away from Bethlehem, about 90 minutes by foot—a week’s journey or more from Galilee. Do you think that as she “got up and hurried” to go to Ein Karem, she stopped by Joseph’s place in Nazareth, broke the news to him, and said, “O.K., honey. I’ll let you process this news for the next three months while I go visit Elizabeth.” That doesn’t make sense to me. Doesn’t it seem more likely that Mary “got up and hurried” to Ein Karem in part so she could see Joseph, who lived in nearby Bethlehem. And that it was there, in Ein Karem, that she told him the news that she was pregnant? After Joseph decides to go through with the marriage, he and Mary would then return to Mary’s hometown, Nazareth, where they would get married. That’s why the two are in Nazareth when the census time came. At which point they returned to Bethlehem, the city where Joseph actually lived.

The major objection to this interpretation is the traditional “no room at the inn” part. If Joseph lived in Bethlehem, and had a home there, why would they be looking for a room at Bethlehem’s version of the Holiday Inn. Well, as I’ll discuss in a couple of weeks, they weren’t looking for a hotel room. But put a pin in that question for now, and we’ll come back to it in two weeks. O.K.?

Let’s assume for the time being that Adam Hamilton and these scholars are right. Think again about what transpired between verse 18 and verse 19. Joseph is in Ein Karem, where his fiancée has just told him that she’s pregnant by a miracle of God and that he’s not the father. Joseph can’t believe that, obviously. He knows the facts of life, and that women don’t get pregnant without the intervention of a human father. “You’re asking me to believe too many things.” So imagine Joseph on that four-mile, 90-minute journey back home, from Ein Karem to Bethlehem. What’s going through his head? What’s he feeling?

Anger… Rage. He probably wanted to wring someone’s neck. Who could blame him? He feels jealousy, indignation—a sense that he was bitterly betrayed by someone he loved. Unfortunately, I’m sure that some of you have felt those same feelings. More than anything, he feels profound disappointment. How did this happen? Life is not supposed to be like this. This is not what I planned. This is not what I hoped for. Disappointment.

In the midst of Joseph’s profound anger, broken-heartedness, and disappointment, he could not imagine that God was at work in the most profoundly good and loving way possible—that through these difficult circumstances, God would soon demonstrate how much God loved the world by taking on flesh and becoming like us, so that through faith in his Son Jesus we could become like him.

I want us to think for a moment about how we handle disappointment and heartache. Because we will all face these things! And it’s not because we’ve necessarily done something wrong, or that something is wrong with us, or that God doesn’t love us, or that God has abandoned us. On the contrary, as Joseph’s experience demonstrates, it could be that God is going to bring something profoundly good out of our experience of pain and heartache and disappointment. Don’t forget the sign of Immanuel: “God is with us.”

Lost your job? “God is with you.” Lost your boyfriend or girlfriend? “God is with you.” Struggling to pay the bills? “God is with you.” Struggling in your marriage? “God is with you.” Struggling with your grades? “God is with you.” Struggling with your health? “God is with you.” Struggling with your business? “God is with you.” And because God is with us, we can trust that, despite all our failures, setbacks, and disappointments, God has a different and better plan for us than we can know—just like he had for Joseph. It may not be what we want right now, but we can trust that it will be good.

So it’s likely that by the time Joseph has walked an hour-and-a-half home to Bethlehem, in verse 19, he’s worked through some of his anger and pain and disappointment. And he has a plan: because he is a “righteous man,” and because he didn’t want to expose Mary to public humiliation—and he certainly doesn’t want her to face capital punishment—he decides to break off the engagement quietly. Because engagement was the first part of being married back then, this means that he would have to get a divorce.

Here’s a question: How will divorcing Mary quietly spare her any public humiliation? Even if Joseph “divorced her quietly,” the conspicuous fact that Mary was pregnant would become more and more apparent with each passing week, and someone must be the father. Right? Wouldn’t people put two and two together and assume that Mary slept with someone else, and that Joseph, in his justifiable anger and pain, divorced her for this reason?

Well, no… Not according to Adam Hamilton. By keeping quiet about his reasons for the divorce, people would assume that Joseph himself slept with Mary—perhaps when he visited her at Ein Karem. By divorcing her and through his silence letting people believe that he was the father, Joseph would bear the shame, not Mary. Meanwhile, by divorcing Mary, Joseph believed he was giving the “real” father the chance to do the right thing and take Mary as his wife.

Out of great compassion, because he was a “righteous man,” Joseph was willing to let people think that he was the irresponsible jerk. He was putting Mary’s interests ahead of his own. He was setting aside his own feelings of anger and pain and looking out for this woman that he believed had betrayed him. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Joseph was being positively Christ-like. Imagine that! That’s just the kind of person Joseph was. And I think God planned it that way!

It’s no exaggeration to say that because Joseph was the kind of person Joseph was, Jesus was the kind of person Jesus was. At least in part. It is not biblical to imagine that Jesus was born as some kind of superhero, that he was born with the same mind as that fully developed 30-year-old man that we meet later in the gospels. No, when God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity entered into humanity, he started out as a baby just like you and me, with all the same limitations. Because he was also God, he didn’t sin. But he had to grow into the man that he would become, as Luke 2:52 makes clear: “Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.” Joseph played a crucial role in Jesus’ development.

Don’t you think that God knew what he was doing when he chose Joseph to be the earthly father of our Lord? Don’t you think that God knew that Joseph was going to be a great daddy—maybe the best dad who ever lived? Don’t you think that when Jesus called God “Father,” and taught his followers to do the same, Jesus’ understanding of what a father is and does was informed mostly by his adoptive father, Joseph? Don’t you think that when Jesus told that story about a loving, generous, patient, and forgiving father who welcomes back a wayward son, Jesus had in mind a father like his own father, Joseph?

What a gift to have a father like that!

Is there a message there for us human fathers? Don’t we want to be that kind of father to our own children? In his book The Journey, Adam Hamilton writes:

From the time my children were born, I would pray that God would help me to love them with his love. I prayed that I could as their earthly father, help them by my actions to see and know their Heavenly Father. I sought to teach them what God was like, both by my actions and by my words. In so many ways I failed at this, but this was my prayer and hope.[1]

My fellow fathers out there… Is this your prayer and hope?

But this message isn’t only for us fathers. Consider this: Jesus learned from his earthly father important truths about his Heavenly Father. Something about Joseph reminded Jesus of God. Jesus experienced through Joseph’s love some measure of God’s love.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are surrounded by people who need a Joseph in their lives. Amen? We are surrounded by people who need a Joseph to demonstrate the love of God through word and deed. We are surrounded by people who need a Joseph in their lives to show them who God is. Can that Joseph, or that Josephine, be you and me? Why not? What’s stopping us from being that person to someone else? Is Joseph really so different from us?

Holy Spirit, empower us to be like Joseph to people in our lives who need to know and experience your great love. Amen.

[1] Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 50.

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