On the mantle in my office is a picture of a baby about 5 months old. It’s a picture of my youngest grandson being held by my son, his father, on the day of his baptism. It’s a picture of simple serenity and utter peacefulness, of a child cradled in the curved crook of his father’s arm. You can’t see the man, only the child, fast asleep, held close to his father’s heart. Most people who see the picture focus on the child. But I focus on the strong arm holding that child and the unseen heart beating in the chest of the father.
This is a sermon about a father and a child. I call the hero in this sermon, the “forgotten father.”
Christmas after Christmas in crèche and nativity scenes displayed around the world the focal point is a mother and child. A man stands close by, not quite within the spotlight. Is he really in the scene or not? Angels, shepherds, wise men, cattle, a sheep or two in shepherds’ arms, they seem to get much more attention than the gentle looking man standing behind Mary. No one seems to pay much attention to him.
But Matthew, among all the evangelists, does. Joseph is a key character in the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel. He’s a major player. What is it that Matthew sees about this man that everyone else has missed?
In Matthew’s story today, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, not Mary, to announce the coming of Jesus. As a matter of fact, Joseph and the angel of the Lord have an ongoing relationship throughout chapters one and two. Joseph seems to have a regular hotline to God going. In our passage today God’s messenger transmits heavenly commands to Joseph. In chapter two the angel will appear again to Joseph to warn him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s lethal net. And again, when Herod dies, the heavenly messenger will appear to Joseph to direct him to bring Mary and Jesus back to Israel and specifically to Nazareth in Galilee .
Matthew will have wise men bring expensive gifts to the new born baby, but it is not gold, frankincense and myrrh that will sustain this child. It will intangible gifts such as those Joseph brings to the scene that will help provide a foundation for Jesus and sustain him in his early years as he grows into the life his heavenly Father intends for him.
One by one, let’s open Joseph’s gifts this morning.
The gift of identity. Look at how Matthew opens his Gospel, not with a manger scene but with a genealogy, “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Almost makes you think Matthew could have been a Virginian. Don’t we Virginians love our genealogy.
The genealogy starts with Abraham and 40 + generations later we arrive at “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born . . . .” (Matt. 1:16) This is a venerable family tree, deeply rooted in the hearts and minds and history of the Jews. It’s an exceedingly fruitful family tree. Just look, there’s David, a most impressive branch.
Our passage today immediately follows this genealogy. The angel appears to Joseph and addresses him as “Joseph, son of David.” And so we get a hint right away at one of the things Joseph has to offer this child. Connection.
The angel makes demands on Joseph. Take Mary as your wife; name her child. And so we grasp the implications of these actions and the incredible significance of Joseph’s role. Name this child – an action which will graft Jesus onto the family tree. Name this child – an action which will incorporate Jesus into the line of David, make Jesus a son of David and a son of Abraham. Name this child – an action of adoption here which will make Jesus the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Here is our bridge from the Old Testament to the New.
What a gift a father can give to a child: a name that claims the child and gives the child an identity, strong roots, and a firm foundation for life. A history that makes the child feel accepted, cherished and connected.
A second gift we can glean from this passage. Joseph’s obedience and his faithfulness to his God. He models it in all his appearances in Matthew’s Gospel. The angel of the Lord brings God’s messages to Joseph. And over and over again, Joseph responds in obedience and in faith. Isn’t this the story of Jesus’ life when he is a man? Every step of the way to the cross he acts in obedience to God’s will in and for his life. Like father, like son. An earthly father models behavior which when appropriated by this son will lead through death to life not only for this son but for the whole world.
What a gift a father can give to a child: a faith centered way of life modeled by the father.
A third gift. Honor and respect for the mother. Joseph is confronted with startling news by the angel. The woman to whom he is engaged is going to be pregnant and give birth, and it’s not his child. Jewish religious law would require Joseph to divorce Mary. It was his duty. Under the law he did not have a choice. Even if he loved Mary and wanted to follow through with the marriage, the law’s requirements trumped. Here Joseph refuses to take the public route which would disgrace Mary and decides to “dismiss her quietly.” But don’t we sense that his heart was heavy and he really didn’t want Mary out of his life? The angel says, “Joseph, son of Davie , do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt. 1:20 ). Made bold by God’s commands, Joseph does. Joseph is a righteous man, but is faithful to his God. And so Joseph’s life of righteousness is tempered with mercy.
What a gift to give to a child: honor, respect and mercy as a model of behavior to others. What a gift to give to a child: an environment in which honor and respect are lived values between the child’s parents one to the other.
A fourth gift, Security and protection during childhood. In crèche and nativity scenes, the figure of Joseph may not be directly in the spotlight but notice how he is stationed. He is a standing or bending figure, bending towards and always hovering near the mother and child. His stance, his demeanor is protective. Certainly the other stories of Joseph in Matthew’s gospel promote this image. The angel appears to Joseph and warns him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt . He obeys and the Holy family flees. It’s a time when Herod is searching for Jesus, seeking to destroy him. Other children all around Bethlehem were sought out and killed by Herod’s men, but Jesus remained safe and secure in Egypt .
What a gift to give to a child: protection, safety, security.
We hear no more of Joseph, this earthly father. He fades so far in the gospel background it’s as if he has ceased to exist. Matthew moves at light speed from the scene of a little family slipping quietly into Galilee to a wilderness some thirty years later where John the Baptist appears and Jesus, now a man, is baptized. It’s here Jesus’ divine identity is revealed as a voice from heaven thunders, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. This is the divine Father (father with a capital F) that becomes our overarching focus. We forget the quiet gentle earthly figure of Joseph, except to the extent we honor him today. If there were any day in the church calendar we could designate father’s day to hold up and pay our respect to earthly fathers, this might be the day.
All gifts originate from our heavenly parent. But to work out His purpose on earth, God has to work through us, flawed and vulnerable as we are. He offers us gifts and we, in turn, under his direction and strengthened by His grace, are called, not only to open the gifts but to cherish them, nourish them, help them grow and then in turn pass them into the world to be a gift to others.
The most incredible gift we are all given is the gift of children. Whether it is a child of our own blood, a child by adoption, a child within our larger family, a child brought into our faith community by his or her baptism, a child to whom we are called to love and support. What gifts can we give these children who are brought into our lives and handed to us by the Divine.
Today, let’s remember what an earthly father gave to his newborn son on a Christmas night so long ago. Not gold, not lavish containers of frankincense and myrrh – nothing that could be boxed or wrapped or laid beside a straw-lined manger. No, they were gifts that are timeless: a deeply rooted identity, a strong foundation, a family environment where the members show honor, respect and mercy, one to the other. May our gifts to our children be like Joseph’s to his baby son – our heart to love them, our arm to protect them and a faith to sustain them.
Thank you, Joseph, for being with us today as you move into the divine spotlight and step into the role of father. I will not forget you. I will remember you whenever I look at the picture in my office – where a father’s strong arm cradles a sleeping child held close to his heart.