When I was a child growing up in church I would be one of the first to volunteer for one of the roles in the Sunday school Christmas pageant. It is not that I was a keener and that I loved being a part of it. I wanted to grab the best part before anyone else got it. What was the best part? Joseph.
Joseph was the best part because he didn’t have to say anything. All Joseph had to do was stand there beside Mary while wearing a bathrobe and a towel on his head. I didn’t want to get stuck with the role of angel because I would have to memorize lines.
While my attitude was a bit silly, Joseph doesn’t seem to grow in importance as we grow older. Yes, Joseph is represented in our nativity sets and Christmas art, but he is kind of the background decoration. Even the manger and straw seem more important than Joseph. But is that fair? Could we have a Christmas story without Joseph? Since Joseph didn’t play a role in the conception of Jesus, does he matter at all? That is what we are going to look at.
Joseph is Silent
I mentioned that I liked playing Joseph because I didn’t have to say any lines in the Christmas pageant. I only realized this week that Joseph doesn’t even get lines in the Bible. Joseph only appears in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. We are told by the narrator what Joseph was intending or what he did, but no words are put in his mouth. We have Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are arguably less important to the story, making statements. Even the shepherds and magi are given words to speak. Mary has plenty to say. Even as a young boy, when Jesus went missing in the temple, it is Mary who speaks on behalf of herself and Joseph. Joseph is completely silent. Isn’t that strange?
After the story of young Jesus in the temple, Joseph never appears again. We are told about interactions with Mary, as well as with the brothers and sisters of Jesus. But no Joseph. Why is that? The assumption is that Joseph likely died sometime between when Jesus was twelve-years old and when he started his ministry around the age of thirty. That is significant. This means that Jesus understood loss. We shouldn’t think that Jesus didn’t feel much, since Joseph was only the adoptive father. As a person who was adopted by my father and as a father who has adopted children, I can tell you that the adoptive relationship is as close as the biological relationship. We should be careful to not speculate too much, but how did Jesus feel watching Joseph die, knowing that eventually he would be raising some total strangers from the dead.
There is something attractive to me about the way Joseph is portrayed in the Gospels. There are those of us who enjoy the spotlight. It is exciting to be front and centre and to be the one making everything happen. But there are also those of us that enjoy being in the background. We like to be quiet and behind the scenes. It is not about being lazy, it is about having a different sort of impact. For such as these, the example of Joseph is meaningful. Joseph could easily be the patron saint of the strong but silent type.
Joseph is Important
So if Joseph doesn’t get any lines in the Gospels, does that make him unimportant? Is he just decoration like the animals that are standing around the manger? I would like to suggest that Joseph was one of the most important figures at the birth of Jesus and it couldn’t have happened without him.
Like Zechariah before him and Mary around the same time, Joseph receives an angelic visitation. It is worth noting how the angel addresses Joseph. The angel calls him “Joseph, son of David.” Why would the angel do that?
While Joseph probably didn’t feel particularly royal, he was indeed of the line of David. For a number of centuries, there was a descendant of David on the throne of first Israel and then Judah. Then came the exile and the Babylonians ended that dynasty. Some Jews hoped that at the end of the exile that a son of David would once again become king of the Jews but it didn’t happen. In fact, at the time that Joseph was receiving this vision, the king of the Jews was Herod the Great. Herod was at best only half-Jewish and while he may have been great in terms of accomplishments, he was not good but was rather quite evil.
The descendants of King David continued to live their lives quietly and out of sight. There were hopes that God would raise up someone from the line of David to be the messiah. The messiah or anointed one, would be someone who would free the Jews from their oppressors and return them to the golden age of King David. But descendants of David did not rush out and try to make that happen. That would be a good ways to get on the wrong side of a Roman sword. It was a good idea that the less people who knew about your connection to David, the better.
So why does the angel address Joseph as son of David? It was not to differentiate from other Josephs in the room. It was because Joseph’s participation in the line of David was the reason that he was chosen to be involved in the greatest miracle ever. It was through Joseph that Jesus would be considered a son of David, fulfilling messianic prophecies and completing the promise given to David one thousand years before.
But Joseph wasn’t biologically related to Jesus. How could that Davidic connection be passed on through adoption? If we have a problem with that, it is because we misunderstand the power of adoption. Adoption was not considered a second-rate relationship. In fact, in some ways it was a more important relationship. You are stuck with your biological children, but the child you adopt is the one that have deliberately chosen.
Let me illustrate this with an older contemporary of Jesus, Caesar Augustus. Augustus, back when he was called Octavian, who was adopted by Julius Caesar. After Julius Caesar was murdered, the senate voted to make him a god. Augustus, based on this, then became to describe himself as the son of god. No one debated this on the basis of Augustus only being adopted. Adoption was a strong enough bond that Augustus could legitimately called the son of god.
In the same way, Joseph adopting Jesus as his own son, allowed the Davidic line to pass through to Jesus, making him the son of David and thus the promised messiah. None of this could happen without Joseph.
Joseph is Obedient
There is one more thing I want to highlight about Joseph. I want you to notice these words, “ When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” (Matthew 1:24)
For some context, here is what is going on. Joseph and Mary had been pledged in marriage. This was more than engagement but not full marriage. So they were living separately, but an actual divorce was required to break off the relationship. Joseph had discovered that Mary was pregnant, which was a problem. He assumed something had happened with another man. Joseph could have made a big deal about it and have humiliated Mary for betraying him. While hurt, he still had compassion, and so his intention was to divorce Mary quietly.
It was in this context that the angel appears and explains the situation. There was no biological human father. The child was conceived miraculously. Mary was still a virgin. This child would grow up to save his people from their sins.
Last week, we saw how Zechariah questioned the angel about how these things could happen. Joseph had much more to lose when it came to a child being born. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth giving birth in her old age was interesting, but it couldn’t hurt his reputation. Joseph’s wife Mary getting pregnant and not by Joseph, would be something that could deeply damage his reputation. People seemed to be aware that something happened but they would likely not assume a virgin birth. This would hang over Joseph and Mary.
But Joseph was obedient. He didn’t argue with the angel. He didn’t try to negotiate. He simply did what he was commanded to do. This is an example for all of us. There is a place for us simply to be obedient to what we are called to do. We are called to love God and love people. Instead of trying to analyze that and determine the limits, we should just follow Joseph and be obedient. God wants us to do something and we do it. It is as simple as that.
I like Joseph. Perhaps it is the introvert in me but I like the way he is portrayed in the Gospels. He is quiet and behind the scenes. There is nothing flashy about him and he doesn’t call attention to himself. In fact, none of his words are recorded for us.
But that is not to say that Joseph brings nothing to the table. Joseph is essential to the Christmas story. Jesus as the promised messiah needed to be of the line of David. It is through Joseph that Jesus receives this. Adoption does not make this any less valid. Jesus can be addressed as the son of David because Joseph is the son of David.
There is a role for every one of us. We have something to bring. That doesn’t mean that we are up front or are speaking publicly. Some of the most effective people in the kingdom of God are behind the scenes and we never hear about them. Joseph is our inspiration. How is God addressing us? What potential does he see in us? Joseph responded in obedience. May we respond in the same way.