I’ve really been enjoying Facebook this week – mostly for the pictures people have been posting of their fathers. Many of my friends have put up photos of their dads. They are young men in these pictures, full of promise and plans, or they are mature men, who know themselves and their worth.
Celebrating the gifts of men, or as our liturgical calendar calls it, “Men of the Church Sunday,” is our opportunity to remember the men of faith in our own lives, and how they have been a part of our own faith – teaching, encouraging, challenging. Who are the men in your life that have contributed to your being here this morning?
As I was thinking about this particular Sunday, I wondered who in our Bible stories would be a great man to lift up and celebrate? We have Abraham, who was willing to leave his family and his home and follow God’s call. We have Moses, who brought God’s people out of slavery and led them through the wilderness long enough for them to lose their fear, so they could become a nation in the land of God’s promise.
We have prophet after prophet, and king after king, beginning with David – who, though he had his own deep flaws, came to know that God must come first, and became “a man after God’s own heart.”
But in the shadows, there is a man whom we rarely see or talk about: Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In 2005, my daughter Vanessa and I were blessed to take a mother-daughter trip to Rome. We walked all over the city, through the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Vatican. We ducked into tiny shops on every street. Each shop, it seemed, had a display of icons, those beautiful paintings of Jesus from infancy to adulthood. Many had representations of Jesus with his mother, Mary. But in the five days we were there, I only saw one icon of the Holy Family which include Joseph.
The church has worked hard to make it clear that Joseph is not Jesus’ father. This begins in the Gospel of Mark, when the people of Jesus’ own hometown hear him teaching, and make the derogatory comment, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…” Men in that day were referred to by their relationship to their father (whether genetic or adoptive), so to call Jesus ‘the son of Mary’ was to say that he was illegitimate, that his father was unknown.
Matthew and Luke are careful to build their stories about Jesus’ birth around a denial of Joseph. Clearly, they say Joseph is NOT Jesus’ father, but that his conception and birth were God’s will and God’s doing. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, Jesus has become the cosmic Christ, conceived – at least in the divine sense – before creation.
And yet, Joseph was an important part of who Jesus was, and what he did.
Joseph is betrothed or engaged to Mary; the story suggests that this was done early in Mary’s life, since the tradition was for the betrothed girl to live with her parents until the age of maturity, at the onset of her first menstrual cycle. Mary, at this point in the story, has not gone to live with her husband, so we assume she was quite young.
Perhaps it is her tender youth that touches Joseph’s heart when he finds out that she is already pregnant. In that society, such a discovery could actually spell death for the woman-child, since the Hebrew scriptures called this adultery, and commanded such an unfaithful wife to be stoned to death. But this is not what Joseph wants. The text calls him a ‘righteous’ man, and says he planned to dismiss her quietly.
What the text does not say is how Joseph felt about this. How long had he waited for Mary to be ready, to come to him as his wife, to begin their own family? How did he feel about his soon-to-be wife putting him in the position of having to ‘dismiss’ her when this would also be a reflection on him as a man? How did he feel about having to begin a search for a faithful wife, when he had been so close to beginning this new and important phase of his life as a man in society?
But Joseph seems to be a compassionate man. Certainly, he is not vindictive, giving Mary the opportunity to live, first of all, and then not making a public spectacle of her.
Then God sends Joseph a message (angel means messenger). “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Don’t, in other words, be afraid to go ahead with marriage to a woman who has, to all intents and purposes, already shown herself unfaithful. Don’t be afraid to be labeled, “the guy who married a loose woman.” Don’t be afraid to give up all your expectations, and a good chunk of your hopes, because the heir of your household will now be someone else’s son.
And why? Because this baby is God’s work. This baby, who seems to have no status, no promise, no honor, is to become the salvation of his people.
This is what we celebrate in our godly men, in our righteous men. They have hopes and dreams and expectations, and yet they put God first. At the core of their self-identity, they put God first.
And they put others first. Joseph knew from the angel of the Lord that Mary’s baby would mean so much for those around him. Salvation from our sins, the chance to be made right with God, the promise of a whole new life, a whole new world, would come through this one little child – who was about to take away Joseph’s life-long plans.
We should also remember, Joseph did all this for people who would never understand. Thirty years later, these same people, for whom Joseph gave up everything, would be calling his Jesus “the son of Mary.”
Think about the men you named as being your teachers and mentors in the faith. In what ways did they give up their own plans and dreams, the expectations of their youth, to become the men who nurtured and supported your faith? And what does that say about their own faith? What are we willing to give up in order that others might receive the love of God, and the promise of eternal life?
In every day and age, it has been people who have the faith of Joseph who have made holy space for the Holy Spirit to gather in God’s people, to make a home for all where Christ can be encountered and understood, and become a brother to us all. Let us be like Joseph. Amen.