In Luke’s gospel it is Mary who is front and center in the story of the nativity of Jesus, and in our minds I think that is where she stays. But in Matthew we get more of a glimpse of Joseph. Joseph is a shadowy figure in the pages of scripture; he is introduced in the genealogy as the “husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” We see him in this story about Jesus’ birth and again briefly in the events of Jesus’ childhood, the circumcision at the temple, the flight to Egypt to escape Herod, and in a small story about Jesus as a twelve year old when he gets separated from his parents on a trip to Jerusalem and turns up at the temple, teaching the elders. Then Joseph disappears from the story, except for references to Jesus as the carpenter’s son.
But though Joseph seems to be what is called a supporting character, without him the drama of salvation could not have taken place, and I would submit that that is just the way God works, with supporting characters who appear for a little bit and do what needs to be done and then disappear from the story. But they are always a part of the story and the story wouldn’t be complete without them.
And it seems safe to say that without Joseph, Jesus could never have become who he became. Joseph must have played an important forming and nurturing part in the life of Jesus. There has been much speculation about Jesus’ upbringing in the carpenter shop in Nazareth. The scriptures tell us nothing, but if Joseph lived until Jesus was at least twelve, as Matthew indicates, then Joseph becomes the primary male role model for the young Jesus.
One noted scholar speculates that Mary and Joseph were from the ranks of the humble and pious multitudes, the kind of people who loved God and maintained the law as best they could, but without the means to carry it out to the letter in all its intricacy. If this is true it would go far in explaining Jesus’ attack on the Pharisaic understanding of religion and his quest for a new freedom to live for God.
In any case, in the story of Jesus’ birth Joseph is most remarkable in the way he responded to this crisis in his life. The young woman to whom he is betrothed is found to be pregnant. This is more than a matter of divorce, the law demands her life by stoning for adultery, for betrothal carried the weight of marriage in those days. So Joseph dismissing her quietly to avoid public disgrace was an act of integrity. But what is even more remarkable is that when he has this strange dream, in which an angel of the Lord appears to him and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, he believes the angel and does what the angel said to do.
The angel said something else about this child: they are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins, and that all this fulfills what Isaiah had written: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Let me invite you to consider this Christmas the statement that God is with us. Consider that God is with us not just in high moments of religious insight, in worship and in prayer, or some mystical moment when all seems clear, but rather in the ordinary events that befall us in this life.
One of the implications of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is that God is no longer remote, but is with us in ordinary life and that our story is inextricably wrapped up with God’s story. There is more to it than that to be sure; there is a cross as well as a cradle and we need Easter to interpret Christmas, and perhaps Pentecost to interpret them both for without the Holy Spirit it all becomes just a story from long ago that can touch the heart, but not change the life.
But God is with us now, because of Jesus Christ. We can see his human face and know that there is something of him in the other human faces we see. God is with us in our exalted moments of joy, when we get glimpses of the joy God wants for us. Perhaps a sunset does it for you, or a sunrise (I’m told they are pretty.) Or perhaps watching a child at play, or a fresh snowfall.
I saw a fine movie this week called “A River Runs Through It” in which fly-fishing becomes the entranceway into a realm of pure awe and wonder in the midst of some very tragic human life. To know that our story and God’s story touch and intertwine can transfigure some pretty ordinary stuff into something special. Perhaps it is only as story that we understand our lives, which otherwise remain rather elusive.
In “A River Runs through It” the writer’s father, who is a minister, asks him a question that made Norman wonder if he understood his father at all “You like to tell true stories, don’t you? he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.” Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories some time, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know that elude us.”
So it is that our own personal stories may only be understood in the light of this vaster story that begins at the moment of creation and will end in glory in God’s own good time and finds its center around two poor Palestinian peasants wondering what the birth of this child might mean. That the angel promised that the child means “God is with us” must have addressed their perplexity as it can address ours.
For it means God is with us not just in those fleeting moments of joy, but in moments of confusion and despair, of faithlessness and doubt, the kind that comes to all of us at one time or another. Emmanuel means God is with us as we try to get our minds around what happened on a Monday night in a neighboring community, as we struggle to understand the incomprehensible fact that an eighteen year old boy walked into a sporting goods store in our community and legally bought an assault rifle and used it to kill people. The God of Good Friday who is also the God of Christmas was with us as Wayne Lo began killing people, and the first tear that was shed at Simon’s Rock was God’s tear, not only for the dead and wounded and their families but for a world which still makes such moments possible.
So “God with us” is not the stuff of Kodak commercial sentimentality; it means God really with us in all the grandeur and misery of human life, in Bosnia and India and Somalia and the homeless mean streets of our cities as well as by the Christmas tree in the warmth of our living room. The mystery of the Incarnation puts God right in the thick of it all. For God did not stay remote, high above the heavens, but ventured into the precarious life of an infant born into a marginal family in a precarious political situation. That should give us pause from turning the Christian religion into something ethereal and apart from human life. As Frederick Buechner remarked wryly, “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.”
This Christmas I invite you to discover God in the everyday ebb and flow of your life, in the ones you love as well as the ones who drive you up a wall, in your moments of consternation as well as in your high moments of joy. Take the time this Christmas to take it all in. If you spend all your time in frenzied preparation, you may just not be paying attention, and miss the time of your visitation, and never learn, as Joseph did, what supporting role you are called to play in this great big story of which our story is valued as an important part by the God who, whatever else he may be, is most assuredly with us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I preached this sermon at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational, twenty years ago this week, December 20, 1992, after a gun slaying at a school, in nearby Simon’s Rock College on December 14. I posted this after the Sandy Hook School slayings in Newtown, CT, which were on the 20th anniversary to the day. Lord have mercy.