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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas 12/29/2013

Today is a day when I think the lectionary is a little bit mean spirited and unfair.  Throughout December the lectionary encourages us to observe Advent, not to rush to Christmas because in church Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s twelve days; we’re going to have twelve days to celebrate.  But then, every third year, year A of the lectionary, on the Sunday after Christmas which this year is the fifth day of Christmas, we get the slaughter of the innocents, Herod’s plot to kill all the babies two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. 

It doesn’t seem fair.  I know it’s a reminder that God became part of this world, a world full of violence and terror, not some make believe world, but to be honest I really didn’t need that reminder; I already knew that and besides we were good, we observed Advent with the promise of the twelve days of Christmas but with this text, the lectionary breaks the promise.  I don’t think I should have to be like a politician standing up here explaining what the promise really meant.  As much as I might like to, I really can’t fault the churches and pastors that cop out and ignore the lectionary today and instead do a service of lessons and carols or something like that, something more Christmas-y, more in tune with celebrating the twelve days.

What I’m going to do today is talk a little bit about the character of Joseph.  It’s not a complete cop out on the lectionary because Joseph is really the main human character in today’s gospel.  Actually, in Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus, Joseph is the main human character throughout, the main instrument of God’s will, more so than Mary, as Matthew tells it differently than Luke.

In Matthew, Joseph is a dreamer, patterned after Old Testament Joseph who also was a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams.  When Mary was found to be with child, it was in a dream that an angel appeared to Joseph to tell him it was OK despite what it looked like.  According to the law of the day Mary would not have been put away quietly as the text says Joseph wanted to do, but instead she would have been put away rather loudly, an adulteress brought to trial and likely put to death by stoning.  As a righteous man who observed the law, that’s what Joseph should have done.  But with the word from the angel, Joseph would conduct himself by a higher rule. 

The text does identify Joseph as a righteous man.  His actions though, guided by angelic revelation, would show that his righteousness was grounded in compassion and mercy not in the strict observance of the law expected of a righteous man.  Joseph wouldn’t be narrowly limited by the norms of the day and things like public shame and honor.   Because of that, his response represented a change in how righteousness is defined, a change in definition that Jesus would continue to pursue throughout his ministry.

The angel called Joseph “son of David,” and that reaffirmed his place in the genealogy of Jesus which opens Matthew’s gospel.  “Son of David” also made Joseph a servant of the Lord.  Being called a servant of the Lord wouldn’t necessarily render the societal norms of the day irrelevant, but it would mean that something larger was going on.   In serving the Lord, things are sometimes turned upside down and that’s what Joseph found; he found that what he thought was bad was actually good.  He found that God’s hand was at work in a new and surprising way and he needed to be open to that and so he acted outside the boundaries of the law.

In Matthew’s telling of things, Joseph wasn’t done with dreams and angels.  Following the visit of the Wise Men, which we don’t celebrate until a week from tomorrow, but following that visit the angel appeared again to Joseph in today’s gospel with the warning about King Herod wanting to kill the child, and yet again with word that it was safe to return to Israel because Herod was dead and again with instructions to go to Galilee in order to avoid Herod’s son who was now in control and might still be out to get Jesus.  In each case, Joseph was obedient to the word of the angel.

It’s at that point that Joseph falls out of Matthew’s story.  We don’t hear any more about him, but in all of these cases he acted as a son of David, as a servant of the Lord.  With his actions he shows that he belongs to God and acts accordingly, not necessarily understanding all the events going on around him, but trusting in the presence of God with him, trusting that somehow God is involved in it all. 

Luke gives us Mary, open to the will and work of God in her life, Matthew gives us Joseph.  In faith both of them were open to the possibilities rather than being limited and overcome by fear and shame.  Their response to events wasn’t rational or reasonable, but it was faithful.  Of course both Matthew and Luke also have many examples of characters who didn’t have the eyes or imagination to see.  They only trusted their own reason and intellect and ability to figure things out and because of that Jesus didn’t fit into any category that made sense to them.  Unlike Mary and Joseph they missed the opportunity and remained stuck in the ordinary instead of opening themselves to the divine possibilities.

In the Icon of the Nativity which is on the cover of your bulletin, Joseph is never part of the central group.  In the center you get Mary reclining and the baby Jesus in the manger; the Wise Men and shepherds are on either side and angels are prominent at the top of the icon.  Joseph however is down at the bottom, the lower left hand corner, looking rather perplexed and frightened.  He’s separated from the central group because while he is a key part of the story, our theology says that he’s not the father of the child, so visually the icon wants to make that clear; but he is included.

Keep in mind that icons are not creative works of art but are drawn or written (as they say) according to specific requirements.  If you Google “Icon of the Nativity” the images that come up will all be very similar because to be authentic the icon has to follow the pattern that has existed since the earliest days of Christianity, a pattern intended not just to tell the story but to convey the accepted theology.  What’s interesting in how Joseph is depicted in this icon is that he is always accompanied by a bent over old man who is understood to be the devil in the disguise of a shepherd.

The devil is portrayed as tempting Joseph who is justifiably troubled and confused about what is going on.  In this depiction Joseph becomes the representative of all of humanity.  It isn’t just about him but shows the difficulty any of us have in accepting that which is not logical and reasonable, the difficulty in accepting the possibility of the Incarnation, God becoming human in the Christ child.

With his confusion and temptation, Joseph represents all of us.  At some point, at some level, every thinking person is faced with the impossibility of all this and most of us probably don’t have the experience of angels appearing to clarify things; but we do have a character like Joseph who models for us a faithful response in the face of difficult questions and circumstances.  We’re never told that all of his questions were answered or were gone and we don’t know if he lived long enough to know how things would play out.  The fact that he’s never mentioned during the years of Jesus ministry leads one to think that he was probably dead by then. 

As Jesus’ guardian though, Joseph played a role, an important role for Jesus; but he also plays an important role for us as a model of faith in the midst of circumstances that had to test who he thought he was and what he thought was possible.  In every situation Joseph responded with trust in God’s presence with him despite whatever questions he had.  That in itself is good reason to spend a little time with him this morning as we do continue to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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