“Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” Matthew 2:15-16a (NRSV)
Every so many years, I like to preach a sermon on the Sunday after Christmas that has the title, “What Happened to Joseph?” Somehow it seems like we need to give Joseph a little credit for the part he played as Jesus’ earthly father, and it’s amazing to me in the biblical writings that Mary (or any woman) has a “front and center” role.
I’m grateful, to be sure, because I think that Mary had a huge influence on Jesus’ faith development and theological understandings. From what we can tell, she was a remarkable person – she had to have been since God chose her to bear the Savior of the World.
Yet, somehow, it feels strange to push Joseph to the back of the manger and totally ignore him. Let’s think about what Joseph did:
- In a culture where a young woman became pregnant without the benefit of marriage, the custom would have been to stone her. But Joseph chose not to sensationalize Mary’s pregnancy and initially decided to divorce her (release her from their betrothal).
- When he was told in a dream to take Mary as his wife because the child she carried was of the Holy Spirit, he did what God had asked him to do – quite a leap of faith!
- He and Mary traveled a long distance to reach Bethlehem – about 100 miles from Nazareth – a LONG walk for him pulling a donkey with his nine-months-pregnant fiancé on board!
- If we take the Lukan birth narrative at face value, Joseph was the one who delivered the baby, too – a BIG no-no in that culture because it would have rendered him unclean. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. He probably had seen birthing all around him as he was growing up, so he had some idea of what would happen.
- He stood by Mary when she would have been shunned by family and friends and townspeople. He protected her as they traveled. He stayed with her when the baby arrived. He was the “hovering” presence when strangers showed up at the stable (the “dreaded” shepherds who didn’t have a good reputation among the villages) and then the Magi from the East (an odd sight for anyone).
- When Herod became so paranoid that he sent the soldiers to kill all the infant boys from the age of two and under, Joseph listened again to God’s instructions to take the mother and baby to Egypt to keep him safe. They traveled another LONG journey and became refugees in a foreign country, only to return to Nazareth once Herod had died and it appeared to be safe for them to go home.
- He would have raised Jesus as his own son, teaching him practical things, but he also would have taught him – as all the fathers apparently did – about the Torah, Jewish customs, and probably told him the story of his birth and early childhood.
- Joseph gave Jesus legitimacy by giving him a name and a father. He took Jesus as his own child, and he was faithful to Mary, as well as to God.
I think Joseph must have been a remarkable man, just as Mary was a remarkable woman. Our Bible study group watched the movie “The Nativity” for our Advent study this year. It was fascinating to see how they portrayed all the characters, but the one that struck me the most was the actor’s portrayal of Joseph.
His kindness and selflessness was so evident, and in the movie, he and Mary gradually bonded as husband and wife. In one scene, Joseph had fallen asleep from exhaustion, and Mary decided to wash his muddy and dusty feet. She looked down at her stomach and told her child that he would have a kind and loving father.
It is good for us to ponder Jesus’ earthly parents because we can learn a lot from them. Both of them exhibited amazing faith and courage. Both of them accepted their role and responsibility as parents of the most precious gift of all – God’s Son. Let’s keep Joseph right up front with Mary because they both were remarkable people.
What can you learn from Joseph?
What can you learn from Mary?
How will you carry that with you in your faith journey?