In our house, we have a nativity scene that we set up each Advent. We put out the stable and in the stable goes the manger, Mary, the shepherds and their sheep, the camels, a cow or two, the donkey, the wise men and more often than not, we get everyone in place only to realize there’s an extra shepherd or wise man hanging about—Oh, that must be Joseph! And we put him in his place beside Mary. Joseph gets so often overlooked this time of year. He’s always in the background, hovering over Mary and the babe. He is the responsible family man. The one who is conscientious enough to take a woman as his wife who is having a baby that is not his own and give it a name that he did not choose.
Matthew would have us believe he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He gets up and does what was told to him in a dream. We don’t hear anything about his feelings on being the surrogate father to the Son of God. Poet J. Barrie Shepherd wrote a poem that helped me look at this passage in a new way, and I’d like to share it with you.
"The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don't you see?
It is important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,
For those of us at least-
So many- who recognize and know-
That heartache, for our own,
Who share that helpless sense
Of lost-ness, of impotence
In our own lives, our families, our jobs
In our fearful threatened world this night.
Yes, in Joseph's look of anguish
We find our place;
We discover that we too
Belong beside the manger:
This manger in which are met
God's peace and all our wars and fears....
Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It's far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, 'Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.'
Joseph, son of David,
'Do not fear,' the angel said.
And Jim and Alice, Fred and Sue,
Bob and Tom and Jean and Betty too,
The word to you, to all of us
Here at the manger side,
The word is also, 'do not fear.'
Our God, the Lord and Sovereign,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Time and eternity,
Of life and death and all that is
And shall be,
Has joined us in this moment…,"[i]
What a night that must have been. Joseph has just discovered that his fiancée is pregnant. Of course, his first thought is going to be that it is by another man. How else could it be? His immediate response is that of a “just” man—he must divorce her. That is, it is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. It is not his prerogative to forgive her and act out that forgiveness by consummating the marriage. In this instance however, justice is tempered by mercy; although he must divorce her in order to demonstrate that his love for God is stronger than his love for Mary, he determines to do it secretly, so as not to cause her public humiliation.[ii] He plans to let her go quietly, preserving her dignity and probably her life. And just as he’s resolved to do this, the weight off his mind, ready for a good night’s sleep, God gives him another path to take, one that’s mapped out by an angel in a dream.
Matthew doesn’t tell us a thing about Mary other than her relationship to Joseph. All we know about her comes from Luke’s gospel. We don’t get all that much information from either gospel about Joseph. Matthew is setting him up as a responsible, God-fearing man, who obeys angels that appear to him in dreams. After each occurrence of an angel dream (there are at least two more, one that sends the family to
‘Course, I’m not sure that’s the whole story. I don’t doubt that Joseph was a good man, a man who loved God and followed the Torah, but really, he just got up and did whatever he was told in a dream? I’d be thinking back about what I’d had for dinner that night. “Perhaps you are an undigested bit of beef, or a blot of mustard,” as Scrooge said to the spirit of Marley.
The angel doesn’t just tell Joseph that it’s ok to wed Mary. No, the angel has a little more to say. Like the fact that the child isn’t another man’s. Now that must have been a pretty big shock. How could this child not be another man’s? It certainly wasn’t his own! No, no, says the angel, this child is of the Holy Spirit. Well, if finding out his fiancée was pregnant before the wedding wasn’t shock enough, finding out the child was from God must have been pretty surprising. Joseph probably wondered, “Why me? Why Mary?” Couldn’t God have picked another young woman? Anyone else but me?
The last thing the angel tells Joseph is the name to give the child. “Jesus,” from the Greek translation. “Yeshua,” in Hebrew. And if that wasn’t enough, the angel continues, telling Joseph that this child that he will have to raise and provide for, but who really isn’t his, will be the Savior of his people. Matthew tells us that’s what the name Jesus means, “He will save.” Isaiah uses the name Emmanuel, “God with us.” And as Joseph finds out, things can get pretty crazy when God comes to be with us.
Joseph may have wondered how this tiny little baby boy would, in fact, save people from their sins. But if he had known, would he have followed the angel’s instructions? Would he have given that baby the name that held such big expectations for such a small child? I don’t know if I could have. Even though Matthew tells us that Joseph just got up and did what God’s angel instructed, I think it must have been a pretty tough bite to swallow. All this goes to show just how dangerous (and amazing) dreams can be! God’s dream for salvation came about in a baby and a cross. Joseph’s dreams have him take a woman already pregnant to be his wife and then travel to a foreign land to keep the child safe from a jealous king, only to come back when the king was dead. I imagine that after that first dream Joseph was a little wary of going to sleep, and especially after a second and so on.
But, Joseph wakes up to a new reality. God’s reality. One where a baby saves the world. He’s there, standing by the manger, a comfort to Mary, in awe of the child in his care, the child that belongs to God, who belongs to us all. Amen.