“When Joseph Awoke”
Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25
December 23, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
When I was in the second grade, we had a Christmas play that we put on at the school. And I got chosen to be Joseph. I had always wanted to be Joseph, and to my utter astonishment, the girl I really liked was chosen to play the Virgin Mary! I was so excited to have such a big and important part in the play. I went home and told my mom and dad the exciting news. We practiced the play for weeks and the big night finally came when we performed for the whole school. I was a little disappointed though because the shepherds and the angels and even the sheep had speaking parts, but here I was—the earthly father of the savior of the world—and I didn’t even get a single line! My girlfriend Mary, she got speak all sorts of lines and got a spotlight put on her even. My dad made fun of me telling me that I really memorized my lines perfectly and that I didn’t mess up once!
Ever since then, I’ve always thought that Joseph got the shaft in the Christmas story. I never wanted to play the role of Joseph again after that. It seemed to always be about Mary or the shepherds or the angels or a little drummer boy (of whom I can find no mention whatsoever in the Bible!). The little drummer boy even got to sing a song in our school play! That was the beginning and the end of my acting career that night in the second grade Christmas play.
But you know, it’s not just in school and church Christmas plays that Joseph gets overlooked so often. Even in art through the centuries Joseph gets largely left out of the Christmas bundle. If he is even included in a painting or an icon of the nativity, he is usually painted as an old man with a long gray beard and a walking stick. And typically he is asleep in the corner hardly aware of the cataclysmic event that has just taken place in the history of the world.
Poor Joseph! I am really happy that this year we get to hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that tell us the Christmas story, and they have some major differences. Luke’s story is the one we all know with the journey to Bethlehem and the “no room in the inn” and the shepherds and angels and all that. Luke has all sorts of speaking parts for Mary too. But Matthew is different. Mary is virtually silent in Matthew, and Joseph is the one with the speaking parts. Joseph is the one who is up front and center. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph isn’t asleep in the corner unaware of what’s going on. In fact, even when Joseph is asleep he’s being given a message from an angel.
Well, you can see why I like Matthew’s story. Joseph is an important part of Christmas. For centuries Mary (dressed in blue) has gotten all the attention while Joseph has remained largely in the background, mute in his speech and drab in his appearance. But historically, Joseph’s role was key. If he believed the angel and didn’t divorce Mary, then everything went on as orchestrated. But if Joseph didn’t believe the angel, if Joseph divorced Mary, she would have been stoned or at least disowned by her family. In Matthew’s gospel, the whole Christmas story hangs on Joseph’s acceptance of a less than ideal situation. Joseph had three options: (1) keep Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own son, (2) divorce her quietly and leave her to be shunned by her family and community, or (3) divorce her publicly and have her stoned to death—which was within his legal right according to Old Testament law.
Joseph weighed his options, he surveyed the less than ideal situation he found himself in, and he believed the angel. Joseph believed that God was present, even in the midst of a bad situation. The angel told him that Mary would bare a son, and that he was to name him Jesus because he would save his people from their sins—an almost unbelievable situation! Joseph is a lot like you and me. He finds himself in the middle of circumstances beyond his control, a role he never wanted to play, but he believes against all odds that God is present even in those circumstances. He believes that God is coming and that he has an important role to play in the cosmic battle between good and evil. And so do we. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen