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The Actors of Advent: Joseph
Matthew 1:18 - 1:25
December 12, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
We continue our sermon series “The Actors of Advent,” by focusing on Joseph, who is often overlooked and underappreciated. In this sermon, we explore the pivotal role he plays in the coming of Jesus by taking a close look at his compassion, his courage, his conviction, and how it points us to Jesus.
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As you can tell, our children did a masterful job presenting the Christmas story to us in their Christmas pageant last weekend. It seems to me like every year, there are more and more children. The songs become more beautiful, and the experience is more magical. We are so grateful for all of their hard work. Apparently not everyone, however, knows what a Christmas pageant is. I heard that one of the little girls told someone recently that she was going to be in a Christmas pageant, and this New Yorker responded by saying, “I hope you win!”—as if this was some kind of beauty pageant that you could win around Christmas time. Just so you know, you cannot win a Christmas Pageant.
If you have ever witnessed a pageant, like the one that our children presented last Sunday, you might have noticed something a little curious. There are a number of leading figures who play a key role in the Christmas story. There is, of course, the angel who greets Mary and informs her that she will be the one who bears God's Son. Then Mary famously receives the role that God has entrusted to her by saying, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Then there is the angel that announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Then the shepherds decide among themselves that they're going to go see this thing that has happened in Bethlehem—key figures with important lines.
But did you notice, there's one person who never says a thing, and that's Joseph. Joseph is right there, all throughout the story, but he never speaks a word. In fact, there's not a single recorded word of Joseph in all of Scripture. He's key to the action. We see him in the Gospel of Luke, as well as the Gospel of Matthew, but he never says a thing. Although he appears prominently in these early chapters around Jesus's birth and infancy, he doesn't appear towards the end of the book. So what are we to make of this? Many people have suggested that Joseph is nothing more than a bit player in the divine drama, but I would beg to the contrary. I would say that Christmas would simply not be the same without Joseph. My goal here is to try to draw Joseph out of the shadows, and reveal just how important of a role he has to play. If I could be anybody in a Christmas Pageant, I'd want to be Joseph, and let me show you why.
Advent is a time of waiting, and so during this season, we have been engaging in a brief sermon series, which we have entitled The Actors of Advent. We've been taking a look at those key figures that play a pivotal role within the unfolding drama of the Advent story, all of whom remind us that during this season of waiting, we're called to an active and expectant faith, rather than succumbing to passivity or indifference. That, of course, is true throughout the Christian life. We’re called to anticipate God's future promises in our actions now. Perhaps, no one demonstrates that more strongly or vividly than Joseph. Let's turn our attention to him, this figure who is often overlooked and underappreciated. Let's see what we might be able to learn from him as we consider Joseph’s resolve, Joseph's role, and Joseph’s reputation. If you'd like, let me invite you to open up a Bible to Matthew 1. I’ll be reading v.18-25,
18Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
The Christmas story may be so familiar to at least some of us that we might miss the significance of some of the details. Let's try to put ourselves in Joseph's shoes for a moment. Imagine that the woman you were engaged to marry comes up to you one day and tells you that she's pregnant, and it's not your baby. Then she tries to explain that no, there isn't another man. God is the Father. You would probably say, "Sorry, sweetie, but I know how babies are made." There's no question that that would put a lot of strain on your relationship. You would be dealing with a whole other level of stress if you lived in an ancient traditional culture, with even more strict social norms when it came to sex than what we might experience today.
Let me explain how things might have worked. V.18, tells us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time that she learns that she will bear God's child. The thing you need to understand is that Jewish weddings in the ancient world took place in two stages. The first stage was the betrothal. This was a public, legal binding contract between two people that was made in front of witnesses. Usually this betrothal would last at least one year. This was much more significant and weighty than an engagement today. If you were going to break off a betrothal, it wasn't as simple as simply handing back the ring. No, in order to break off a betrothal, it would require a divorce. That's how serious it was.
According to the custom of the day, Mary and Joseph's parents very likely had arranged their marriage when they were still children. When the betrothal itself took place, in a public ceremony, Mary might have been 13 or 14 years old. Joseph might have been a little bit older, around 18, 19, or 20 years old. But they probably didn't know each other very well because back then unmarried men and women were not allowed to ever be alone together. During this time, this one year period, the woman would have continued to live in her parents house, and the two would not be physically intimate with one another. Although they would refer to one another as husband and wife because they had been betrothed, and we see that in v.19. Joseph is referred to as Mary's husband.
What you need to understand is that the length of the betrothal, this one year period was no accident. The reason why they waited a year for the wedding was to make sure that no child was on the way. Sex before marriage was taken very seriously, and adultery was considered the worst kind of theft. In Old Testament times, for example, if a man slept with a woman who was betrothed to another, that was a capital offense—a capital offense—according to Deuteronomy 22, although in the first century that had been moderated to divorce. Divorce was now the new norm based on Deuteronomy 24.
So that would be the first stage, the betrothal. Then the second stage was the wedding itself, which would take place after that one year period. The marriage would take place in a public ceremony. At that point, the husband would take his wife home to live with him, and that is when the two would come together as a married couple. What we're being told then, is that when Mary discovers that she's pregnant with God's child, it takes place during that betrothal period, before the two have actually married one another in a public ceremony.
Put yourself once again in Joseph’s shoes. It's hard to imagine the pain of betrayal and embarrassment that Joseph must have experienced when he learns that his betrothed, Mary, is pregnant, and he can only assume that it's with someone else's baby. All of a sudden, all of his dreams and hopes for the future have been shattered. Joseph’s whole world now has been flipped upside down. He has no idea which direction is up, which is down. He would have been devastated, but here we get a window into Joseph's character. This is what's going to make you love Joseph even more than you ever did. V.19 tells us that Joseph was a just man. He was a law abiding citizen. He was a stand up guy—the kind of person who was committed to doing the right thing. So what would that require in this kind of a situation? When Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant with what he can only suppose is someone else's baby, then he would have been expected, no, he would have been required—he would have been required—to divorce her. He lived in a society where he couldn't give Mary a second chance, even if he wanted to. He would have been required to divorce her and divorce would have meant making a public accusation of adultery, which inevitably, would have led to a public and very scandalous trial. Do you see that? Joseph was caught between a rock and a hard place. Justice demanded that he divorce Mary, and subsequently make a spectacle of her—drag her name through the mud—but compassion demanded otherwise.
So what would he do? What could he do? V.19 goes on to tell us that Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame, unwilling to make a public spectacle of Mary, unwilling to drag her name through the mud because if he had, it would have made it impossible for Mary to ever marry someone else within that culture. Instead, what does he do? He resolves. He resolves to divorce her quietly because he doesn't want to create a scene or a frenzy around the situation.
What does that show us? First of all, it reveals the forgiving spirit of Joseph—that he's willing to take this action when, as far as he knows, Mary has cheated on him; he doesn't know any better. Do you also realize what this means? It means that it's only a matter of time before everybody else realizes that Mary is pregnant. If Joseph doesn't demand justice, if he doesn't take proactive steps to clear his own name, what will people think? What will people think of him? Do you realize that showing compassion to Mary is going to come at a cost to himself? And he's willing to take the risk. He's willing to make the sacrifice. If he does not put her to shame, it means that he very well may be put to shame. If he doesn't drag her name through the mud, then other people are going to drag his name through the mud. All of which shows us that God chose a remarkable person. God chose a remarkable person, especially within that time and day, to be the earthly father of Jesus. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that he was perhaps only a teenager.
That brings me to Joseph's role. Joseph probably agonized over this decision. This was not an easy decision to make. Then he resolves what he's going to do. It is settled in his mind. That's what he would have done. He would have divorced Mary quietly, and then move on with his life unless God intervened. And God intervenes because Joseph has a critically important role to fulfill, more important than you've probably ever realized. If God needs to get through to you, he can use any means necessary. In this particular instance, God speaks through an angel who appears to Joseph in a dream, and informs Joseph that, as unbelievable as it may sound, Mary, his betrothed, is actually pregnant with God's child, with a child who has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Stop and think about this for a moment. Does Joseph really need to be part of the picture at all? Do we really need Joseph in this story? If God is going to become a human being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, does he need Joseph? The answer is Yes. Not only because God wants to keep families intact, but also because Joseph has this critically important role to play. It will become clear when you consider who Joseph is, what he's asked to do, and why.
The first clue to his significance comes through when you consider who Joseph is. Notice how the angel addresses him. V.20, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” God had previously promised Mary that the child that she would bear would inherit the throne of his father, David. Matthew 1 wants to establish Jesus's royal lineage. Matthew wants to show us that Jesus is a descendant of King David, the greatest of Israel's kings. Jesus is not only a son of God, but he's also the promised messiah. He's a son of David. Second, look at what the angel tells Joseph to do. He says in V.20, “Take Mary as your wife.” Take that second step in this marriage process. Move from the betrothal, to the wedding and the marriage itself. Then v.21, he says, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus was similar to a very popular Hebrew name in the first century, Joshua. Joshua was the leader who succeeded Moses and helped lead God's people out of their slavery in Egypt to the land that God had promised. Jesus is even greater than Joshua because he's going to lead God's people not merely out of slavery in a foreign land, but out of the slavery of sin, into the future that God has promised. So he receives an even greater name than Joshua. Joshua means Yahweh will save; God will save. But Jesus means He will save. He will save. Mary's own son will himself save his people from the ultimate enemy, the ultimate oppressor: Sin and death. Jesus will save his people from their sins. Here we see Joseph's faith in action because in v.24, we read that, "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” All he had to go on was a dream, but he acted upon it. He took Mary as his wife, meaning they held their wedding, and then he publicly married her and Mary came home to live with him. Then in v.25, we read that they did not come together as a married couple, until after Jesus was born, so that there could be no question about Jesus's divine origins. Then at the very end of the passage we read, “He called his name Jesus.”
Why does this matter? First, consider what obedience to God will cost Joseph, in an already embarrassing situation. If Joseph quietly divorces his betrothed, Mary, then everyone will assume that Mary must have cheated on him, and though that's not flattering to Joseph, it at least allows his own honor and his own integrity to remain intact. But if he goes through with the marriage, and if he takes Mary as his wife, and then a child appears earlier than expected, then what are people going to think? They're going to think that Joseph is the one that got Mary pregnant. And they're going to assume he's the one who wasn't able to control himself because a godly person in that culture was meant to demonstrate self restraint. Do you realize what's going on here, following God's direction is going to cost Joseph his own honor and integrity. He's going to be put to shame in an honor-shame culture where your honor was everything. It was the most important thing that you had. But Joseph reveals that God's honor is actually even more important to him than his own. He’s willing to take the risk. He's willing to make the sacrifice. He's willing to be put to shame in order to honor God. Are you willing to do the same? Are you willing to do whatever God might ask, regardless of the potential social cost to you? Consider Joseph. He only had a dream to go off. You've got so much more. You know so much more about God—his faithfulness, his commitment to you. You've got all the pages of Scripture that spell out for you the kind of life to which God is calling you. Joseph only had a dream, but he acted on it because of his convictions.
That's not all. There's something more. There's an even greater reason why this matters. By doing what God says, by following God's orders, Joseph formally adopts Jesus as his own son. He completes the marriage. He takes Mary as his wife and he names Jesus. He gives Jesus his name, and by doing so, he adopts Jesus as his own. He doesn't keep this child at a distance, but rather he takes Jesus into his home. He takes Jesus into his heart. He takes Jesus into his life, and he becomes his adopted father. Some might look at this critically and say, "I mean, technically, Joseph wasn't really Jesus's biological father, so Jesus can't really be said to be a son of David." But if you miss this, you will miss the gospel. If you miss this, you will miss the gospel because adoption lies at the very heart of the Christian message. The theologian J.I. Packer once said that adoption is the highest privilege of the Christian. Adoption is the highest privilege of the Christian. He once wrote,
“If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.”
Adoption lies at the very heart of the Christian message, and it is the highest privilege of the Christian. If you say that Jesus wasn't really the son of David, because he was only adopted by Joseph, it just shows that you have no idea how seriously adoption was taken in the ancient world. Tell that to Caesar Augustus.
Octavian Augustus had Julius Caesar as his father, but Julius Caesar wasn't actually his biological father. Julius Caesar was his great uncle, but Julius Caesar adopted Octavian Augustus. He gave him his name, and he named him as the heir, so that when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, what happened? Octavian Augustus not only received his name and his estates, but the loyalty of his legions of soldiers. If you want to say that, Octavian Augustus wasn't really the heir of the throne of his father, Julius Caesar, think again.
Adoption is taken incredibly seriously in the ancient world, and it plays a critically important role within the Scriptures as well. Joseph has this role to play. He adopts Jesus, so that he might inherit the throne of his father, David. He establishes his lineage as a son of David on Joseph's side.
What does all this tell us about Joseph's reputation? He's got a reputation for being the strong and silent type. He's the silent guy in the background who never says a word, but we should remember him not merely for his silence, but for his action. We should remember him for his compassion, for his courage, and for his conviction. Despite finding himself in this difficult, painful and embarrassing situation, he resolves to show compassion to Mary. Despite the cost to his own honor and integrity, he is willing to display remarkable courage. Despite how easy it would have been to dismiss the dream that he receives as nothing more than a fantasy, no, he acts on his convictions. Rather than putting Mary away, he embraces Mary as his own. Rather than distancing himself from Jesus, he takes Jesus into his heart and into his life.
Sadly, Joseph probably never lived to see how Jesus would actually save his people from their sins. He appears prominently in the beginning of the gospels, but we don't hear him in the later chapters. Joseph is not there with Mary at the end. Mary's there at the cross. She sees Jesus die. Joseph doesn't. Joseph probably died before he ever got to see his adopted son Jesus grow up. But even if that's the case, I can assure you that he would have been proud. Joseph would have been proud. People say: Like father, like son. There's no doubt that Jesus reflects the person, the character, the values of his Heavenly Father, but I would suggest that Jesus also supremely embodies the best characteristics of his earthly father, Joseph, as well.
Consider Jesus' compassion. Joseph thought that Mary had wronged him, but he was mistaken. Yet, in our case, it's true that we actually have wronged God through our spiritual rebellion and failure, and what does justice demand? Justice demands that God should hold us responsible for the lives that we've lived. He should hold us responsible for our misdeeds. But compassion demands otherwise. So how can the two be reconciled? As for Joseph, so for Jesus, in order for Joseph to show compassion, it meant that he would willingly have to suffer himself. It would come at a cost. So for Jesus in order to show compassion to us, it will come at a cost to himself, and we see that supremely on the cross. On the cross the consequences for our sin, our misdeeds, fall on Jesus so that it doesn't fall on us. Jesus acts out of compassion. That's how God's justice and his mercy come together and become one.
Consider Jesus' courage. Joseph had guts. There's no question about that. He was willing to sacrifice his own honor, his own reputation, in order to preserve Mary's. He had tremendous courage. He bound himself to Mary. He identified himself with her, made her his wife and brought her into his home, regardless of what anyone else might think. You know what? Jesus has done far better than that for you. Despite who you are, despite your record, despite your reputation, Jesus is not ashamed to be identified with you. That's what Hebrews 2 tells us. He's not ashamed to be identified with you. He's not ashamed to refer to us as his brothers and sisters, to take us into his heart and his life, into his family. Jesus not only died on the cross for you, he was also shamed for you. Do you realize that? He didn't just die in your place, he was shamed in your place. He was stripped naked. He was humiliated. He died alone, in shame, so that he might share God's honor with you.
Finally, consider Jesus' conviction. Jesus went through all this even knowing exactly what it would cost him. In the garden, Jesus prays to his Heavenly Father, Father, if there is some other way, if there's some way for me to avoid the cross, then please let this cup pass for me. But there wasn't, and so he didn't. There was no other way, so the Father could not remove the cup. Yet in that moment, he said, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” Then he set his face to the cross, to do what needed to be done, to do what only he could do. But do you realize what's taking place on the cross? Do you realize that Jesus on the cross is forsaken—forsaken by the Heavenly Father—so that you might be adopted by the Heavenly Father. Jesus is forsaken, so that you might be adopted as God's child, as his son and daughter, so that you might become an heir of all of his promises. Jesus on the cross cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” so that you might be able to cry out "Abba. Father." That's the highest privilege of a Christian, to be able to know that God of the universe as Abba, Daddy, Father. To know him on personal, intimate terms as the loving parent that he is. Jesus is forsaken, so that you might be adopted.
Now, by simple faith, if you put your faith and trust in him, Jesus gives you his name. He places his name on you. You belong to him, and that means that you inherit all of his blessings. You inherit his kingdom, his inheritance, the loyalty of legions of angels—they're all yours. By the sheer act of grace through which Jesus places his name on you, takes you into his heart, takes you into his life, brings you into his home, and it all got its start with Joseph. So you think that you can't really be a child of God, if your Heavenly Father is not your biological father, if he's only adopted you? No, tell that to Joseph. No, when God places his name on you, you belong to him. You are his child now, and that's why Paul tells us in Romans 8, that the Spirit of God “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” who is not ashamed to count us as his brothers and sisters, and to share his inheritance with us. May God be praised.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we thank you for this figure of Joseph, who is often overlooked and underappreciated, but Christmas would not be the same without him. Help us this Christmas to consider his compassion, his courage, his conviction, and how it points us to great David's greater son, Jesus. Help us to relish the fact that because of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, you have adopted us into your family and we are yours. We ask all this in Jesus' name for his sake. Amen.