At the beginning of the service we sorted out which elements of the Nativity story were found in Luke's Gospel and which in Matthew, and which we had added that were found in neither, (like the donkey, the innkeeper and the stable!)
We’ve seen that the story of the annunciation to Joseph only comes in Matthew’s Gospel, and the truth is that often we don’t really take much notice of Joseph at all. Even in Matthew’s Gospel, where he is centre stage, he never actually speaks. We sometimes get to know what he is thinking, but he never actually says anything at all.
Mostly he just stays in the shadows.
That’s why today I wanted to focus on him, because actually I think he’s really important to the story, and he has something really important to tell us too.
It’s easy to find pictures of Mary, of course, but it’s quite hard to find pictures of Joseph - perhaps painters thought that a young woman was a more appealing subject than an old carpenter. As you can see I did manage to find some though, and I have printed on the service sheet. There are larger, colour versions of them on the board too, which you can have a look at later if you’d like to.
The first shows the incident from the Gospel story we’ve just heard. (The dream of Joseph. Georges de la Tour 1640). Joseph and Mary are betrothed, but not yet married, and in in their culture that meant that though they weren’t yet living together, the commitment between them was as firm as it would be when they were married. But now Mary is pregnant, and whoever the father is Joseph knows it isn’t him. It is a disaster. In a small community there is no hiding this. The natural thing would be for Joseph very publicly to disown Mary, to shame her, so that everyone knew that this wasn’t his fault. But that could have very profound consequences for her. She could even be stoned to death for this, and she certainly would be rejected by the community. But if he goes ahead and marries her now, it will dishonour him in the eyes of his neighbours. To work and struggle to raise another man’s child, a cuckoo in the nest, would make him look like a fool.
The only thing he can think of to do is to quietly call off the wedding and hope her family have the sense to keep her hidden or send her away somewhere till the child is born.
When the angel comes to him, in a dream, although he comes with a message that is supposed to be reassuring, you have to wonder what Joseph thinks. It may make him feel better to know that this is all right in the eyes of God, but his neighbours aren’t very likely to be convinced by talk of angels and dreams.
There is nothing in this message which is going to make any difference to their whispering campaigns.
Tissot’s painting of “The anxiety of Joseph” captures it perfectly. You can see him in his workshop, so preoccupied that he can’t get anything done, with those neighbours he fears so much going about their business all around him.
Joseph’s decision to stand by Mary is a brave one, angels or no angels, and that’s not the end of the cost to him. The picture below (Durer: detail from The Seven Sorrow's of the Virgin") is a detail from a bigger picture. Joseph is leading a donkey, on which Mary sits with a rather wriggly looking Jesus. It’s not a pleasure trip, though. They are on the run from King Herod, who has given an edict that all the children of Bethlehem are to be killed, because he is so desperate to get rid of anyone who might be a rival to him. In Matthew’s Gospel, as we saw, they are living in Bethlehem from the beginning of the story. But now they have to leave their home and run for their lives, down to Egypt, a foreign land, not knowing if or when they’ll return. Joseph is leading his family into exile, with no idea of how they will live there, just as many fathers do today. All this could have been avoided if he had cast her off, but he doesn’t.
And when they do come back, it isn’t to Bethlehem, their home town – that’s still too dangerous. They have to make a new home in Nazareth, way to the north, where perhaps they know no one.
But Joseph has made his commitment. A commitment to Mary. A commitment to Jesus. A commitment to God. And he sticks by it. This is the right thing to do, so he does it.
The question I used as a theme for this service, “What’s in it for me?” is a question that Joseph never seems to ask, or if he does, he quickly dismisses it. There is nothing in it for him, at least not at the outset – just scorn and danger. But he does it anyway, because it is the right thing to do, and without his protection and care, how on earth would Mary and Jesus have survived?
We only hear of Joseph once more after the birth of Jesus. That’s when Jesus is twelve and Joseph and Mary take him to the Temple for the Passover – his first – and manage to lose him there, each thinking he is with the other as they set off home. Our stained glass window here has the moment when they find him again, holding forth in the Temple and confounding the religious experts. He’s still causing trouble even then, and still Joseph sticks with him. We presume that Joseph died before Jesus began his public ministry, because he isn’t mentioned then, but his work is done by that time, and it has been done well.
The other pictures I have put on the sheet are, I think, really powerful attempts to fill in the gaps. Guido Reni (Above: Guido Reni: St Joseph with the Infant Jesus 1620s)shows the developing bond between Joseph and Jesus – the perils of having a beard and a small baby! The next picture (Childhood of Christ: Gerrit Van Honthorst 1620) shows Jesus holding a light while Joseph does his work – Jesus, the Light of the world, has brought light into Joseph’s life, light he never expected to see. The two figures in the background are angels watching with approval.
And the last picture (Giovanni Battista Caracciolo:
Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus c.1625) is one which I think is a detail from a bigger picture, though this is all I have found, and I think it is quite remarkable. We might talk about New Men and the changes in the expectations of fathers over recent generations, but here is Joseph, an affectionate father figure with whom Jesus feels just as safe as he would with his mother, just as physically close.
What is in it for Joseph? At the start, apparently nothing, and yet, the love and commitment he gives to Jesus are returned to him in full measure, pressed down and overflowing. This child, who ought to have brought him nothing but trouble and shame has actually brought him delight.
As I said at the beginning, Joseph actually never says anything, but if he could talk to us, I wonder what he would say? I’d like to suggest two things.
The first is that families come in all shapes and sizes, and they always have done, and whether they are full of love or full of strife has much more to do with the quality of the relationships within them than it does with the biological or legal ties that bind the members of the family, the number of parents around, or their gender. It is love that makes the difference.
The second is that “what’s in it for me?” though it is a perennially popular approach to life, may end up leaving you poorer rather than richer, missing out on the blessings that only come when you give up your own agenda and open yourself up to the glorious surprises of God.