Joseph being in the direct line of the kings of Judah, of the house of David, he was in this respect the legal heir of the crown of David; and Christ being legally his first-born son, he was his heir; and so Christ, by the law, was the proper heir of the crown of David, and is therefore said to sit upon the throne of his father David.
— Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 556.
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
18 uNow the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. 22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. 24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: 25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
— The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Mt 1:18–25.
Terrorism has once again left the indelible marks of its vicious attacks on the soul of a nation: our nation, the United Sates of America. Among the many questions that must be asked will surely be, “What are our most effective weapons in this war against Islamic Jihad?” And among the answers, I believe, must be attention to the one that we might be tempted to overlook—our spiritual armory.
When Jesus Christ was born the world the was filled with terror. One of the key actors in the birth story of our Savior was Herod, a madman who sought to kill the Christ Child. God’s provision in those days was a father, a man who would represent the Fatherhood of God: His love, His protection, and His steadfastness. God chose a carpenter from Nazareth, a man in the line of David, who would give Jesus His rights of primogeniture in the eyes of men to claim the throne of David. Joseph, the earthly father, a father by adoption, by grace, if you will, is a gift to us this Christmas. For we are a people moving through our days like cosmic orphans, fatherless, chased by madmen, our land being overtaken by forces alien to us: terrorists in our streets, laws that taunt the Bible and call what our mothers and fathers taught us as right and wrong to be hateful, or just plain outdated. The forces threaten us. Who will watch over us? Now, the answer is quite plain. God Himself will watch over His children. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” God comes to us through our parents, through authorities, and through the men and women that we aspire to be in Christ Jesus.
Joseph is an enduring gift from the Christmas story to stir us to faith in our heavenly Father in these trying times. Moreover, as we grow in our faith we will begin to reflect the same virtues that Joseph demonstrated in his life: virtues that are urgently needed in our time.
What are those virtues of Joseph that we need so desperately today?
Joseph was a just man (19). The betrothal to Mary was suddenly shattered by news of Mary being with child. The Bible says that Joseph was “just” in that he chose not to make a public example of her, but rather to end the arrangement quietly. This was a noble act on his part that preferred the honor of Mary to his own. And this is seen as just by the Gospel writer. One who prefers another, one who shows honor rather than “rights” is the kind of person we not only need, but we need to become. Of course, Joseph is just in this case, because this is an imitation of God. Christ left His royal robes in heaven to become one of us. Joseph’s virtue is just so because it is a heart after God’s own heart. This man was God’s man.
Joseph was a thoughtful man (20). We must not stretch the passage. Yet Matthew says that Joseph “thought about these things.” But there is something here. We think of Mary as one who “pondered these things in her heart.” But, here, we see that Joseph, too, was a thoughtful man; a man who contemplated things. Our God is a God of great intention. We cannot begin to understand the complexity of His glorious mind as He has related each of us to all of us and all of us to His eternal redemptive plan. But we are told that His thoughts are higher than ours. It is a good thing to be a thoughtful person, to seek to think about how to apply God’s Word to situations; to imagine courses of action before us and to consider the consequences of the courses of action. I wonder how many of us pride ourselves on how quickly we move in life? In work, in play, in relationships, in decisions. We might reconsider this as a virtue.
Joseph was an attentive man (20, 24). “But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appear to him in a dream … ” Now, you might say, “Of course he was attentive! He saw an angel!” Good point. But, let us be careful to see that Matthew states that “while he thought about these things … ” This gets back to the previous virtue of being thoughtful. Contemplation of God’s ways leads to a vision of God’s glory. This is the attentiveness that we see here. This is the attentiveness that we need in our lives: to be attentive to God’s glory in our lives as we struggle with decisions, with, perhaps, a sense of calling, or with a burden, or a response to danger. Thoughtfulness—contemplation of the divine—brings about the visitation of angels. And, yes, that gets our attention.
Joseph was an obedient man (25). “And [Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.” There is much here. Joseph was a man of honor, a man of restraint, and a man of devotion, all of which came under the larger rubric, “obedience.” He was obedient to God. This characterized his life. Jesus’ earthly father was obedient. That God chose a man who would be the earthly guardian and father to His only begotten Son and we see, arguably, the greatest single virtue in his life is obedience to His Word must surely tell us something.
Joseph was a confessing man (25). “And he called His name JESUS.” Joseph named the Son of God. He did what he was told to do. He named him. He gave to Jesus his lineage. He gave to Jesus his earthly name. Jesus was Jesus bar Joseph. But more than that we must surely see that this man Joseph was also a man like you and me. In naming Jesus this man Joseph knew that Jesus surely was the One who would save Joseph from his sins. This was the Mediator of the Covenant, the One Moses had foretold, the One the prophets had foretold, the One that would live a life in our place, and, in some way he could not understand, become a sacrifice for us, so that we could be reconciled to God. This was the One who would bring the world of Mankind back to God. The whole cosmos hung on that name: JESUS. And we, too, must confess that name, JESUS, if we will know God and know God’s redemption in our own souls.
Joseph is a Christmas gift to help us see the virtues we need in our world today. But in seeing these virtues we begin to see Christ Himself among us.
There once was a church play at a small congregation. To be chosen to play the part of Mary or Joseph or any of the parts, for that matter, was, of course, a matter of considerable honor for the children. In this particular year a very thoughtful Sunday School teacher, Mrs. McKenzie, felt that the part of Joseph should go to a young man of about thirteen years of age who had Down’s Syndrome. Tom was a quiet, but very pleasing young man, although his bouts with various physical issues related to his condition seemed to be getting worse. The little girl chosen for Mary was much younger this year, as were most of the other actors, an assortment of shepherds and sheep and donkeys and cattle, three very tiny Wise Men, and an inn-keeper. As you might imagine Tom’s parents were thankful for the teacher’s interest in their son, but as Sunday night came for the play the family was understandably nervous for Tom. That night as the play came to its conclusion everyone got ready—there was to be an ending in which all of the actors playing the various parts were to walk away, leaving only Mary and the baby doll, as Jesus, in the manger. The crude lighting that was set up in this little chapel would, then, focus on Mary and the Babe. As the teacher was at stage-left, giving directions with a loud whisper, “Okay, move away! Move away, children!” Yet amidst the scurry about, one child stood like a statue. It was apparent that Tom was not moving. “Did Tom forget the ending?” the teacher asked herself. “Okay, Tom, you can move away now,” his teacher was slightly anxious. Tom stood straight and tall, robed in his father’s wintergreen flannel, his rather dense eyeglasses revealing a sentinel’s stare. All the other children had moved off-stage, but there was Tom, staff in hand, refusing to budge. The little girl playing Mary seemed quite content amidst the theatrical drama to just look at her baby doll. The teacher raised her voice once again, this time in a rather therapeutic tone: “Tom, it’s alright. You can move away now. It’s just part of the play.” Tom’s parents shuffled uncomfortably in their pew. The choir was supposed to begin singing as soon as the scene was set with only Mary and the Babe in the spotlight. But Tom was immovable. Finally, growing tense with the pressure of Mrs. McKenzie’s voice, still staring at Mary and the Babe, he spoke, at last, and he spoke so loudly that everyone in the chapel heard:
“I will never leave Mary and the Baby. I can’t move. This is where Joseph must be! I AM JOSEPH!”
The congregation was hushed for an eternal moment. Tom’s mother held her hand over her mouth as she gazed in wonder upon the scene. The teacher’s eyes were filled with tears. Mrs. McKenzie exhaled a slight smile mingled with awe. She motioned for the choir to begin. As “Silent Night” was sung by all Joseph stood over Mary and the Babe. Everyone agreed that this was the best Christmas play they could ever remember. And it was remembered from then on as the time when Joseph refused to move.
In days of terror and in times of trial we need men—yes, and women, and boys, and girls—like Joseph: upright, thoughtful, attentive, obedient, and confessing the name of Jesus. But let us be careful to say that we are not merely commanding “Go and be ye like Joseph”—not a bad model to aspire to be and we certainly do urge all to make Joseph a model. But the question would be how? How do we live like that? How do we cultivate such virtues? The answer is in Paul’s words that we should seek the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Seek those virtues, cultivate those virtues through Christ in Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. Seeking Christ will shape you into His person, the virtues we see in Joseph, appearing in you. For these are virtues shaped by those who have been transformed by the One who will truly never leave us nor forsake us.
In days when terrorists strike against us we long for God’s presence among us. In Christ we come to see that His power is within us. And this will stand us in good stead in the days to come. How we need Josephs standing beside us in days like these pointing us to safety in Christ alone.