“Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he.” Thus starts one of our carols that we sing at the carol service this afternoon. It is a lovely carol, but we do not know if it was true. What do we know about Joseph?
He appears in the stories about the birth of Jesus, and when Jesus is twelve going up to Jerusalem. He does not appear in any stories about Jesus when he has begun his adult ministry from the age of about thirty. We therefore presume he must have died by then, and that he was likely older than Mary. But that might mean that he was 20 and she was 15.
Engaged. In keeping with Jewish custom he had been betrothed to Mary. They had had a ceremony at her house at which vows were exchanged. He had said the words “I go to my father’s house to prepare a place for you; I will come back to take you to be with me.” A period which was typically as long as a year had begun during which building work could be done to prepare the bridal home. The young couple had a lot to look forward to.
Expectant. We do know that he was of the tribe of David. Like all the people of Israel, he was waiting. At some time in the future, God would send the promised deliverer to rescue his people. Centuries before God had promised to King Ahaz that he would deliver the “house of David” from the threatened invasion by the Assyrians and Ephraimites. He would do this quickly, in the time it took for a new born child to grow old enough to start eating solid foods. Joseph was heir to this tradition, the way that we are to the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Britain, but with something extra. There is the expectation that at some time in the future God will act.
Exercised. Like a character in the new X box ad, Joseph is put on the spot. God is acting now, and he wants Joseph to be involved. Out of the blue his whole life and expectations are shaken up.
First, his intended is found to be with child. There was careful provision made for this in the law in Deuteronomy 22. It mattered whether the offence took place in a city or out in the fields. It was a serious matter, and in ancient times could be subject to the death penalty. Joseph reveals himself as a compassionate interpreter of the law; he will deal with her as gently and quietly as circumstances allow.
Second, an angel breaks into his dream with a warning and a promise. It is as if you were suddenly called to join Wellington at Waterloo. As if you were asked to climb into a Spitfire or help operate an operations room as enemy bombers sweep in. What you thought was history, to be remembered and celebrated has become your living reality and you must make a choice.
Joseph, remember when God appears to Moses and says I have seen my people’s troubles and I am with them to deliver them? It is that moment now, and God is with us. Joseph, do you remember when Isaiah promised that a young woman would conceive, and this would be a sign that God is with his people Israel? It is that time now, and you are in the place of Ahaz. Joseph, do not be afraid to take this woman as your wife, and this child as your son. It matters that he will be the son of Joseph, because then he will be revealed to be the promised descendant of Abraham and David that we read about in the first 18 verses of the Gospel. Joseph, call him Joshua (Hebrew), Jesus (Greek), because that means “Yahweh will save”. It tells us all that we need to know about your son to be, that he will save us from our sins. Joseph, what are you going to do?
It is striking that Matthew has his priorities. There is no story about how Jesus was born, no stable or manger; Jesus appears half way through verse 25 and the story continues. Neither Mary nor Joseph get to say anything in this telling of the story. It is all about God. God acts in history by promising long beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures (Romans1:2). God sends the angel with the message that it is the Holy Spirit who has enabled Mary to conceive.
What can Joseph do? He can be obedient. There are subsidiary questions we can ask. How was Joseph equipped to receive this calling from God? A lifetime of patient study of the scriptures must have come into it. A regular pattern of prayer so that he was familiar with God’s ways and could realise that it really was an angel speaking.
What can we do? We are called to share that obedience that comes from faith for the sake of the name of the one who received the name of Jesus – Saviour. We are called, like Joseph, to be open for all that God has for us, open for all that he would teach us, open to serve and help all who seek for him, and open to follow him wherever he leads us. We will see in the next week where God was leading Joseph. Let us also be open to see where God is leading us, and who he is leading us to.