Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
Christmas is upon us! The streets are as full of Santa Clauses as the shops are of over-priced trinkets wrapped in tinsel, and I know it all gets very crass and commercial this time of year but I can’t help getting excited.
I know it’s a very busy time of year and I know that for those who are isolated and lonely it can be a devastating time of year but I must say that from my (admittedly privileged) position it is a very gratifying time of year.
I still love receiving cards and presents, though I think that perhaps my favourite experience this time of year is going through the list of the names of people I send cards to and thinking back over the interactions I’ve had with them over the last twelve months. Not every memory is a good one, of course, but so many of them are and hence I find that I have no shortage of reasons to be cheerful this time of year.
It is for me, and for many of us, a special time when we remember people who are special to us, which is why it comes as a bit of a jolt, I feel, when we turn up to church on the Sunday before Christmas and find that our Gospel reading focuses on the person of Joseph, who is without doubt the least special and frankly the most boring character in the entire Christmas story!
You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds callous but I’m pretty sure that Joseph is not going to take it personally.
Let’s be honest: Joseph makes a brief and relatively unspectacular appearance in the Christmas story and we know very little about him. The Gospel writer says only that he was a “good man” (Matthew 1:19), which is the sort of thing I hear said at funerals by people who don’t really have much to say about the deceased.
Joseph was a good man who most surely did a good thing by not divorcing Mary and disgracing her, which would have made a bad situation worse. Even so, it’s not obvious that this good man went on to do any great thing. He appears here and again in the only boyhood narrative we have of Jesus, where he seems to have lost his son (Luke 2). After that he disappears from the Gospel narrative completely!
What happened to Joseph? By the time the Gospels were written it seems that nobody could remember! Perhaps he was just one of those forgettable people. You know how when you’re at a party and all of a sudden it occurs to you that Joseph isn’t there anymore. You ask “what happened to Joseph?” and someone says “I think he left about half an hour ago” but nobody is quite sure and nobody’s really too concerned to call his mobile and find out.
That’s Joseph! There is always a place for him in every Christmas pageant, but it’s a minor place. He walks a few steps behind Mary, as the Duke of Edinburgh always walks a few steps behind the Queen. His name is always in the credits, but he doesn’t get a full screen listing like Jesus and Mary or the evil Herod. His name is on that page where the names of all the minor actors scroll quickly by: Joseph, shepherd #1, shepherd #2, the little drummer boy, etc. …
He was a good man, even if otherwise uninspiring. Am I wrong? Has Joseph been a source of great inspiration for anyone?
I put this to the test last night. I Googled “mary visited by archangel gabriel” and clicked ‘images’ to see indeed a vast array of great paintings and other artworks depicting the mother of God’s famous angelic encounter, and indeed dear Mary has been the source of inspiration for countless persons through the ages who look to her as a role model, as a source of strength, and as an ideal mother-figure.
I then Googled “Joseph had a dream” to see if Michelangelo or any other great artist had ever undertaken a depiction of the good man, sitting bolt upright in bed perhaps with a “what the …” expression on his face.
In fact I did find numerous pieces of religious art when I clicked the ‘images’ link but they were all images of the dreams had by Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham – Joseph, the dreamer, who ended up being the right-hand man to Pharaoh. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, it seems, inspired no great artworks.
And I suppose this shouldn’t bother us, and I recognise, of course, that our Gospel reading for today isn’t really about Joseph at all. It’s about the much greater event that Joseph is a part of.
The Christmas story is much bigger than Joseph and much bigger than his family. The dream is a reminder of that, and even more so the words prophecy that are quoted – words that go back to the prophet Isaiah and were spoken at least seven hundred years earlier!
I want to take a moment to focus on those words of prophecy today as I think they are instructive, and I think they well illustrate the way that Biblical prophecies work.
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1:23)
These words go back to the prophet Isaiah and they were words spoken to Ahaz, king of Judah, probably around 735 BC.
We can be pretty accurate with the dating of this prophecy as the larger prophecy is given with reference to a battle that was about to take place between northern and southern Israel where the north had allied itself with Syria. And we know that both northern Israel and Syria were pretty much destroyed by Assyria in 733 BC, so this prophecy must have been given just before that.
Indeed, the whole point of the prophecy is that king Ahaz doesn’t need to be concerned by the warlike machinations of northern Israel and Syria because both nation-states were very soon going to disintegrate! A child would soon be born – a child with a name that spoke of hope – and by the time that child was on solid food these two great enemies that Ahaz so greatly feared would be no more!
That was the point of the prophecy, and most scholars think that the child being referred to was probably the prophet’s own child, soon to be born. That’s why the prophet knew what the name of the child was going to be. He was going to name the child himself!
Of course one problem with this interpretation of the prophecy is that it wouldn’t make much sense for Isaiah to be referring to his wife as a virgin. It seems that he already had two children by this stage and there’s no suggestion that any of his wife’s pregnancies were immaculate conceptions. Yet this is easily resolved when we realise that in both Hebrew and in Greek the word for ‘virgin’ is the same as the word for a ‘young woman’.
This helps us make sense of the prophecy given to Ahaz in Isaiah chapter 7. At the same time, it makes the link with the story of Jesus look extremely tenuous! If the prophecy of Isaiah about the child Emmanuel had already been fulfilled through the birth of his own son in 734 BC what could that possibly have to do with Jesus?
I used to think that the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible functioned something like the clues in a game of Cluedo.
The goal of the game is to guess who the Messiah is, and so you go from room to room (or, in this case, text to text) and gradually compile a complete profile.
- He’s going to be born of a virgin
- He’s going to be born in the city of David (Bethlehem, obviously)
- He’s going to ride a donkey at some point
In my younger years I envisaged that at the time of Jesus’ birth there must have been an army of godly people who had been reading those prophecies and working out all the clues and that the smart ones must have been anticipating Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem, in a stable, at around the time it all took place. I’ve realised since that these Biblical prophecies actually all worked the opposite way round!
You begin with the realization that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and then as you go back and re-read the ancient texts you see the links!
For sure Isaiah was originally talking about his own child and the woman he was referring to was his wife but, looking at that ancient prophecy in the light of the coming of Jesus, perhaps there was more to Isaiah’s words than he realised! After all, the word he used to refer to his wife could also refer to a virgin-birth, and if ever there was a child who deserved the name “Emmanuel” it was Jesus!
This is the way our ‘Old Testament’ prophecies work. I used to wonder why Jewish scholars and others who read those prophecies weren’t all immediately convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, for all those prophecies point to Jesus! And indeed they do all point to Jesus but you only see that when you’re reading them as someone who is in love with Jesus!
When you love Jesus and when you believe in the Gospel of forgiveness and new life then it changes the way you see everything else! You read those ancient texts in a new way and see people and the entirety of human history in an entirely new way and life itself takes on a whole new meaning.
All of a sudden the really bad things that happen to you in life don’t seem quite so devastating because you recognise them as chapters in a larger spiritual battle in which you know love is ultimately going to triumph!
Your marriage can fail and your loved ones can die and your church hall can burn down but you start to see connections that you didn’t see before and you start to see the hand of God at work in ways you didn’t see before, and you can walk down the streets of Damascus and see the devastation and the inhumanity but rather than shrink from that in despair you see signs of hope and new life in the midst of all that pain, and life doesn’t become any less mysterious but all of a sudden it becomes a mystery that you can embrace and a mystery that you feel embraced by.
What I’m saying is that while, for some, faith in Jesus can be the end-point of an intellectual journey and religious pilgrimage, it’s even more so the beginning of the journey – the starting point of our pilgrimage, the launching pad of our great adventure.
Once we see all of reality in the light of the resurrection of Christ, life becomes an adventure, nothing is without meaning any more and nobody is ultimately ordinary – not even the humble Joseph. He is a part of the great cast of the great cosmic drama that is the Gospel. His part may be small but that does not mean that it is not vital, and isn’t it far better to have a minor role in the greatest story ever told than to have the lead role in a story that is not worth telling!
And it is a great story – the Biblical story. It is a great narrative that spans the entirety of human history – starting in a garden and ending in a city. It’s a saga that starts in love and that ends in love, and at the centre of that great story is the nativity scene that is the ultimate focus of all the excitement that is going on around us today!
And the greatest thing about this great story is that it is our story! And I don’t mean that we own it. I mean we’re in it!
Of course we don’t have starring roles but that’s ok. We each have a role and, as I say, it’s far better to have a minor role in the greatest story ever told than to have the leading role in a story that’s not worth telling.
Our story is worth telling, just as Joseph’s story is worth telling. It’s the Gospel story – the story of Christmas, the story of Jesus. May we never tire of hearing it!