Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
13 Now after the Wise Ones had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."
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Today we celebrate Father’s Day, honoring those who have been a father to us and spending this hour of worship in praise of God the Father. Fathers have a profound impact on our lives, especially in our early childhood when our deepest beliefs are formed. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to focus on the father of our most belovéd Jesus. I would like us to take this time to consider the impact of this loving father in the early years of the life of Jesus.
Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke give us stories of the birth and early childhood of Jesus. Our reading from Matthew today tells of the early, troubled history of the Holy Family. Hunted by the murderous Herod, the family is forced to flee their home country, traveling to far off Egypt where they stay until Herod’s death. The family then finally returns to Israel and settles in Nazareth. Key to the survival of the family were the actions taken by Jesus’ father, Joseph.
It strikes me as intriguing that in the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time the Gospel stories do not tell us much about Joseph, the all-important male figure in Jesus’ life. Joseph provided his son with a name, protection, societal position and a profession. By taking Mary as his lawful wife, he provided her with the safe home necessary to nurture Jesus into adulthood. It is true that we do not really know how Jesus spent the first 30 years of his life, but he would not have had the opportunity to live at all if not for Joseph’s willingness to listen to God, take Mary as his wife, and acknowledge this son of questionable lineage as his own first-born son. We know Joseph did indeed give Jesus that coveted position of the First-Born Son because of the story in Luke when the family visits the temple shortly after the birth of Jesus. According to Jewish law at that time the first-born son “shall be called holy to the Lord” (Exodus 13:2) and, as it says in Luke chapter 2, verse 22 “…they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”
Now, Mary is highly honored in all four Gospels. She takes part in many conversations. She sings. She speaks in the temple, even when Joseph is standing there right by her side. She even tells Jesus what to do, and he obeys. Mary was there throughout the travels and ministry of Jesus. She is present at his crucifixion and very possibly she accompanies Magdalene in witnessing his Resurrection.
Joseph, however, is a mystery man. Information about him in the Gospels is minimal. From Matthew and Luke, we learn that Joseph was a “just man” (Matt. 1:19), that he was a “son of David” (Matt 1:20, Luke 1:27), and that he was a carpenter (“…is not this the carpenter’s son…” Matt. 1:16). From Luke we have the story of Jesus teaching in the Synagogue at the age of 12 and Joseph is featured in that episode. So, we know that he was a guiding example for his son at least until the age of manhood. However, Joseph never speaks in the Gospels. And after the brief childhood stories in Matthew and Luke, Joseph is never heard from again. However, the time we do spend with Joseph is powerful time. Joseph does not speak in our records, but he does take action. Joseph makes four life-impacting decisions that result in major changes in the life of the family. Joseph risks everything: his name, his reputation, even his life to preserve the life of this divine child and his mother. Why?
The Gospel of Matthew starts out with a pivotal moment. “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Mary told Joseph she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit – before they were married but after they had become engaged. This must have been an incredibly difficult conversation – both for Mary to tell, and for Joseph to hear. Having told her truth, now the life of Mary and her unborn child rested in the hands of her fiancé. What would he do?
According to Matthew, there was an angelic visitation in a dream. Joseph was told “…do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 1:20). Joseph listened to the angel and did as he was commanded. Could it be, though, that he had other motivations as well? Was there another reason Joseph was so willing to accept this young mother as his own wife and this mysterious child as his first-born son? What do the stories tell us about this father?
Both Gospels tell us that Joseph was engaged to Mary when he was surprised to learn she was pregnant. They both also state that Joseph took Mary as his wife anyway, but only Matthew explains why he made that choice, citing divine intervention through an angelic visitation in a dream.
Joseph’s story is fully contained in the first two chapters of the 28-chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. In this brief introductory narrative, Joseph is visited four times by an angel of the Lord. Matthew chapter 1, verse 20 “…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said ‘Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.’ ” In our reading today, there are three more visions experienced and acted upon: Chapter 2, verse 13 “…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you…” Chapter 2, verse 19 “…an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel…” And the final vision, chapter 2 verses 22 to 23 “…and after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…”
Four angelic visitations listened to and acted upon? The man was a mystic! Joseph listened to the Still-Speaking God even when it totally uprooted him from his family and home community. He made choices against the norms of his society and position in life. People didn’t move and live in different cities easily the way we do today. Joseph uprooted his family, traveling hundreds of miles, twice, at the will of an Angel of the Lord. In the formative years of Jesus’ life, Joseph followed God’s callings without hesitation. That takes vision. That takes trust. That takes love. The man was a mystic; the man was also in love.
Even though my argument here is that Joseph was a mystic, I sometimes wonder about the angelic vision telling Joseph “not to fear to take Mary as his wife…” Isn’t it just the best justification ever to say an Angel made him do it? I believe Joseph’s motive was love. Big love. Romeo and Juliet love. I believe that when Joseph first met Mary he was a goner. She resonated in his heart to such a depth, so completely entangling herself into his love, that he would do anything for her.
As I was working on this sermon, letting the scripture passage run quietly in the back of my mind an image arose: I was picturing the moment when Joseph first looked into the eyes of this newborn son. The image invited the question: what might the birth of Christ have been like for his father! According to the story in Luke, they had to travel while she was pregnant; going up to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house of David. Imagine that journey: Joseph led the donkey on which Mary rode for miles and miles. It’s 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem as the crow flies, and they didn’t fly! Whether they traveled alone or in a caravan of people traveling for the census, Joseph cared for Mary, stopping frequently to give her rest, food and water. Cradling her in his arms as they slept beside a small campfire at every stop along the way. They managed to reach Bethlehem before the birth, but the city was so full that no lodging could be found. The Gospel of James has a birth story that speaks of midwives assisting in the birth. Joseph, however, would probably not have been involved in the process, but rather would have been ushered outside to wait, to listen to her cries and the soft coaxings of the midwives. And at long last to hear the first lusty cry of his newborn son. Did he then rush into this private space to assure himself that Mary had not died during the birth? That would have been a fear on his heart. Did he kneel by her side and smile encouragingly into her tired face? Did he kiss her hand, her brow, her lips? And did he then turn to the midwife who held his tiny son in his swaddling clothes? What happened in this father’s heart when the Christ child first opened his eyes and smiled up at him with the love of God in his gaze?
After such a sacred moment, I believe Joseph would have done anything for that boy. And looking at his actions through the lens of love makes all the stories of his mystical choices believable. For love of Mary and Jesus, Joseph would have left his home, his profession, his family and taken them far away to Egypt to protect them from Herod’s wrath. Sometime later, after Herod’s death, again he uproots the family to return to Nazareth to raise the child, teaching him his own craft and skills. These also were long and arduous journeys. Each time Joseph had to leave the home and profession he worked so hard to create to support his family.
I think it is quite possible that Joseph’s love was a formative teaching that he passed on to his son. Jesus may well have striven to embody the compassion and love of his earthly father into his ministry. Maybe that was even one of the reasons Jesus was able to follow the mystic’s path, to be as open as he was to the Holy Spirit and the voice of God guiding his life.
What does Jesus say to his disciples close to the end of his time with them? In the mystic Gospel of John we read: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Could he have been talking, at least in part, about the love his father Joseph had for him?
Why did Joseph marry Mary? Let it be love. Let love be the reason for Joseph’s fulfillment of his roles of father and husband. We know love is at the core of all of Jesus’ teachings. I believe we can give great credit to the example of unconditional love set for his son by Joseph. Let love be the guiding light for us today as we celebrate the father of this most beloved of sons. Let us give our love and our praise our Father in worship today; and then take Our fathers to lunch. Amen.