Joseph – the Reluctant Stepfather

Listen to Joseph’s side of the nativity story:

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.” (Matthew 1:18-21)

Here we are, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just two days away and we are all waiting for the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.

But waiting for what?

Some are waiting for travel and returning to families, for parties and merrymaking;

  • children wait wide-eyed for Santa and gifts,
  • while others delight in special music, plays and art displays.
  • Some are waiting for meals to be cooked and eaten, houses in disarray to be made right, order to return after chaos, and to be able to stop pretending all is perfect when it almost never is.

The most common answer to what we are waiting for is the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ Child, who we believe came as a prophet, teacher, example and God Incarnate – to show the world a better way to live.

But . . . what does that mean – for us today. . . in this complex world of 2016?

Today’s scriptures tell the Nativity story from another point of view: from the standpoint of Joseph, the father. We all remember the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her she would bear the Son of God. Today’s scriptures however, points us to an aspect of our beloved Christmas story often glossed over – the fact that Joseph was NOT the father of Jesus.

He is described as a ‘righteous man’, a member of the synagogue and follower of Jewish law. But he went against all Jewish religious and cultural laws to stay with his young betrothed, to shield her from certain infamy and dishonor, as well as himself. To be, in fact, the stepfather of Jesus – – all of this because God spoke to him in a dream!

How many of you are stepfathers?

Imagine yourself in Joseph’s place; here he is betrothed to a lovely young maiden, probably making him the envy of Nazareth. And, all of a sudden, she is pregnant! Now, he knows he is NOT the father. In those times, when a couple was betrothed, the girl moved into the house of her espoused to learn from her future mother-in-law, making this situation even more disturbing.

So, it wasn’t as if she was living somewhere else and could have been carrying on with someone behind his back. Joseph intended to quietly dissolve the arrangement and send Mary back to her home.

Jewish law said that a man and woman were not supposed to have intimate relations until they were married. A righteous man like Joseph, would have honored that law. But he suddenly learns that his fiancé is ”with child” – and he doesn’t know it has come through the Holy Spirit. All he knows is that he has a horrible dilemma. If he marries Mary, others would assume that he disobeyed the Jewish laws.

It’s difficult for us to imagine the depth of Joseph’s shame at this point. In his culture, a fiancée’s unfaithfulness would imply Joseph’s inadequacy, bringing dishonor on him and his entire family. In fact, Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife or break off the engagement if she was unfaithful. Friends and relatives of Joseph would surely have mocked him and treated him with contempt.

According to Jewish Law, he would have been expected to publicly divorce Mary. He could have impounded her dowry—the total assets she brought into the marriage But Scripture tells us Joseph was a good man—a righteous man. He chose a more compassionate path:

Matthew 1:19 says that he

planned to dismiss her quietly

In other words, in front of two or three witnesses, he would quietly give her a certificate of divorce and minimize her public dishonor. Joseph could have chosen the righteous path, a path that would have allowed him to maintain his honor without humiliating Mary.

But God had other plans for him. He may not have been the biological father, but he was being charged with bringing up the Son of God. No pressure there!!!!

It is incredulous to us today! This ‘righteous man’ Joseph, however, risked all to do what he felt led to do – regardless of the consequences. And the result, we believe, is that Jesus of Nazareth grew up nurtured in a family, with brothers and sisters, in the synagogue, protected and loved by an adoring mother and stepfather – to fulfill his destiny on earth: to be in the truest sense the Son of God and the Perfect Man.

The Bible generally does not give us a very good picture of fathers. Look at Herod, who slaughtered all the newborn male children out of fear; or Herod Antipas, who promised his daughter Salome anything, including the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

Joseph could have become one of those fathers. He had every right to be upset, after all, Mary was carrying another man’s child. But he didn’t; even though Joseph was a ‘righteous man’, he chose another path.

He ignored Jewish religious and cultural rules to do what was right, no matter what the consequences. He maintained his integrity under what could have been severe public ridicule. He became a model to young Jesus, of a living, protective father and was the best stepfather he could be, showing unconditional, patient love.

Joseph helped raise Jesus to fulfill his destiny on earth. He showed him the kind of love that Jesus and God show us. He risked common opinion to do what was right, no matter what the consequences. And he had NO idea of what was going to happen to his little boy. He was the best stepfather he could be. I have a friend who married late in life and had three stepchildren. He swears to this day that Joseph is the patron saint of all stepfathers.

Joseph represents the type of father on earth that God is in Heaven. Jesus teaches us that we are to look to God as our father, redefining the laws of the times. Joseph showed Jesus the kind of love that comes from God. He shows us the kind of love God has for all his people, particularly those who are the least. And he risks everything to make sure that his Son is safe. Joseph was not the earthly father of Jesus, but showed to us the sort of love that God wants us all to have for each other.

Do you possess the kind of Christ-like behavior, like Joseph, that allows you

  • “to do the right thing?”
  • to risk personal comfort and even your reputation to deal with a difficult and unacceptable situation?

Ask yourself:

  • When you see or hear about someone who has broken God’s or man’s laws, does your heart fill with compassion and concern or do you simply roll your eyes and gossip?
  • Do you move towards them, or do you move away?
  • Are you willing to risk the shame of personal disgrace because of your contact with this person?
  • Do others know that if they have a problem that goes against the norm of social behavior, that they could come to you and find acceptance and help?

By following God’s command to him in a dream, Joseph had to overcome his natural desire for revenge and judgment. He had to risk his reputation. He had to disregard the local customs and religious laws defining a good Jew, turning his back on his cultural class . . . to follow God’s will.

Yet, it is precisely here that we see the glory and greatness of Joseph. He was willing to trust God amid doubts and unanswered questions. He was willing to follow God’s will for today even though tomorrow was totally unclear. Joseph is, in many ways, the patron saint for all of us who must live by faith in difficult and uncertain times.

Because of Joseph’s example we are challenged and commanded to do the likewise.

In large measure because of the integrity and goodness of Joseph, you and I have a Savior, this child born more than 2000 years ago who led the world to a fuller understanding of what it is to be fully human and the Son of God.

Are we willing to do the same?

May we, like Joseph, risk all to show the love of God to all our fellow men this Christmas and always.

Let us pray:

Father, our hearts are full of the truth that our minds can’t grasp: the virgin Mary carried the Son of God in her womb! Yet the miracle in Mary is a reminder that we have been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. All praise to you, O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I praise you in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Delivered at In The Garden Ministry, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 18 December 2016

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