The Bible doesn’t really tell us that much about Joseph, the husband of Mary, the man that would one day become the stepfather of Jesus. Legend has it that he was an elderly widow. Supposedly that explains why he was able to honor Mary’s virginity during the first months of their marriage and why he quietly disappears from the narrative sometime after Jesus becomes a teenager. But the Bible itself doesn’t fill us in on those details.
What we Know about Joseph – The Husband of Mary.
We know Joseph was a descendant of King David. We know that when Jesus was conceived, Mary was engaged to Joseph. We are told that he was a righteous man—an observer of the Law of Moses. We can surmise that he was a kind man, since he was concerned about Mary’s reputation and well-being as well as his own.
We know that Joseph spent time living in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth. We know he was a carpenter, and we presume that he trained Jesus in that craft. We know he provided for the religious instruction of his family and fully participated in the rituals and pilgrimages of the Jewish faith.
Jesus had Brothers and Sister?
The Bible seems to indicate that Joseph and Mary had other children after Jesus was born. Not everyone agrees on this leading some to conclude, instead, that either Joseph had children by a previous wife, so that Jesus had only half-brothers and half-sisters. Others suggest that Joseph had no children and the brothers and sisters of Jesus to whom the Bible refers are really Jesus’ cousins.
There, that about sums up the facts of Joseph’s life as recorded in the Bible. When plays are written about New Testament stories, Joseph’s name never appears on the marquee. If he shows up at all, he’s always part of the supporting cast.
John The Baptist
When it comes to Advent, John the Baptizer is the leading man. He is the Advent prophet. He is the one who comes to prepare the way of the Lord, and he proclaims a fiery message of repentance. John is flashy. John may not be worthy to untie the sandal of the One who follows him, but he is clearly a central part of the Advent narrative.
When it comes to Advent, Joseph is a peripheral character indeed. He usually isn’t mentioned at all until we get to Jesus’ birth narrative on Christmas Eve. After all, somebody has to lead the donkey that Mary rides into Bethlehem. (Oh, wait a minute, the donkey is a legend, too.) Well, somebody has to find the manger.
So why am I writing this article about Joseph just before Christmas? Let me tell you why. You see, Joseph isn’t flashy. He isn’t the central part of any narrative. He doesn’t proclaim anything. He’s an ordinary guy who’s just doing his best to live an honorable life. A Man who is faithful to his God and his family and respected by his peers.
That’s why. That’s why I am writing about Joseph. Because, metaphorically speaking, most of us are more likely to find ourselves quietly leading a donkey over an uncertain path, wondering what the future might hold, than standing on a ridge, shouting at sinners. Most of us spend our lives as peripheral characters in the Gospel narrative. Most of us aren’t flashy. Most of us are just ordinary folks doing our best to live honorable lives and trying to be faithful to our God and families, and hopefully respected by our peers.
Besides, at Christmas we all could use a time of preparation and repentance, and it turns out that Joseph’s story has a few things to teach about those very things. In Part two you will read about Joseph and the fact that he was preparing his life for a future that was not what God had in mind for him. We are all like that, more often than not.
Sometimes the future you think you are preparing for is NOT what the Lord has in mind for you. Have you noticed that? Has it happened to you? How should you handle that?
When we first hear of Joseph in chapter 1 of Matthew, he is, indeed, preparing. He is preparing to bring Mary home as his wife. He and Mary are engaged. This was a more serious thing in that time and place than it is now. They did not yet live together, but to break off the engagement now would require more than returning rings and canceling the wedding arrangements. It would require a divorce. They did not yet live together, but they were legally bound to one another.
Joseph was preparing a place for Mary to come and live as his wife. If he was an elderly widow, perhaps this entailed rearranging his existing home to accommodate her. If he was a young man, probably this entailed building an additional room onto his parents’ house or perhaps building a new house.
Joseph was preparing for a future of settling down with Mary to raise children while continuing his carpentry trade in his hometown. He expected his leisure time to be rearranged and he expected his social calendar to be different. Joseph expected to worry a little more when business was slow. He expected to know new joys when his sons someday read Torah before the congregation and his daughters someday gave him grandchildren.
Joseph did not expect to be having dreams full of messages from God Almighty. He did not expect to raise a boy that he did not father. He did not expect to be traipsing around the countryside on the run from Herod’s soldiers.
Joseph did not expect to be responsible for the religious training and upbringing of the Son of God and Redeemer of creation. Can you imagine? How would you like that responsibility?
Sometimes the future you think you are preparing for is not what the Lord has in mind for you and sometimes it turns out that you are better prepared for what the Lord has in mind for you than you thought you were, and it’s only in obedience that you find out.
Before Mary turned up pregnant, Joseph had every reason to be confident about his anticipated future. He was a skilled craftsman, known in his community for his righteousness, which certainly included honesty and respectability. He knew the responsibilities ahead of him. They might not always be easy, but they were well-defined, and the community was structured to support him as he carried out his duties as husband and father.
I’m pretty sure that Joseph’s self-confidence was considerably more shaky when he found out that his responsibilities would be a little more complicated. I mean, what does a carpenter know about traveling to foreign lands? What does a small-town craftsman know about outwitting the armies of the king and protecting the most precious baby ever born? What does an ordinary Joe know about raising the Messiah?
The first command Joseph received in his dreams was to go ahead and take Mary as his wife. Did he have the personal resources to live down the public disgrace, the shame of his peers, the rebuke of his family? Apparently, he did. But he only found that out after he obeyed the command.
The second command Joseph received in his dreams was to flee to Egypt with Mary and the child. Did he have what it would take to travel such a long journey with a new mother and an infant? Would he be able to provide for them in a foreign land? Apparently, he did and he would. But he only found that out after he obeyed.
The third command Joseph received in his dreams was to return to Israel. He ended up settling in Galilee to avoid the attention of Herod’s son and it turned out to be a good thing. It was something that fulfilled prophecy. But he only found that out after he obeyed.
What are You Waiting for?
Sometimes it turns out that you are better prepared for what the Lord has in mind for you than you thought you were, and it’s only in obedience that you that find out.
Just an Ordinary Joe
Once you understand the Joseph Principle you will have to repent of being too convinced that you are just and ordinary man and have no particularly important part to play in God’s plan for creation.
Joseph was an ordinary guy, from an ordinary family, living in an ordinary town, with an ordinary job. And God chose Joseph to be the earthly father to his Son. God chose Joseph to be provider and protector, teacher and guide for Jesus as he was growing up. God chose Joseph for a supporting-cast role that was tremendously important.
Have you ever been convinced that you are too ordinary for God to use in any particularly important purpose? Have you ever doubted the influence that you have on your children or your friends? You never know, your influence might be key in shaping someone for God’s purpose for them. Have you ever reached out to someone in need, someone you didn’t know and you never saw again, and then doubted that it really made any difference in the long run? You never know, that one conversation, that one experience of compassion from a stranger might turn out to be a turning point in that person’s personal journey. Or, it might turn out to be a turning point in yours.
Plan it out
Once you get the Joseph Principle, you will have to repent of being too convinced that you are just an ordinary man and have no particularly important part to play in God’s plan for creation. And then you will have to repent of having your life too well-planned. Planning is a good thing. Goal-setting is a good thing. But if our own plans begin to stand in the way of God’s plans for us, then we have begun to move from prudence and responsibility to idolatry.
Joseph was in the midst of planning for the future he expected when God confronted him with a future he did not expect. Joseph’s plans had to be laid aside. Long-term planning gave way to living year-by-year, day-by-day according to God’s grace and guidance, never quite knowing what danger to his family might come next.
Yes, sometimes you will have to repent of having your life too well-planned.
We have always done it like this!
When you understand the Joseph Principle, you will be confronted with the surprising actions of God. And when that happens, you will have to repent of doing things the way they have always been done and thinking that faithfulness to God and family is always obvious.
You see, when Joseph found out that the woman betrothed to him was expecting a child, Joseph knew the right thing to do. He was a righteous man, after all, and a kind one. He knew that the right thing to do was to divorce Mary, and to do it quietly so that he might not add to the attention and shame that she was already experiencing. Joseph knew the law. Surely this was the right thing to do to be faithful to his God and to his family.Well, in this case, it wasn’t. In this case, Joseph found out that being faithful to God meant doing something entirely different from what at first seemed obviously right.
The Right Thing to Do
Once you get the Joseph Principle you will have to repent of being too careful in being proper and thinking that gaining the respect of your peers is always a natural consequence of faithfulness to God.
Again, Joseph knew the right thing to do, the proper thing to do, the thing which would maintain his good standing in the eyes of his community. But Joseph was wrong. In this case, it turned out that faithfulness to God required Joseph to violate the customs of his culture. In this case, faithfulness to God required acting against conventional propriety and risking the loss of the respect of his peers.
I Don’t Think So!
Finally, when you get the Joseph Principle, you will have to repent of having perfectly reasonable expectations that are too low.
Joseph didn’t expect anything particularly out of the ordinary to happen in his life. He was familiar with the circumstances of his life. It was perfectly reasonable for him to expect to get married, settle down, have children, work hard in his craft, and grow old in the same town in which he grew up. It is likely that that is what his father did, and his father before him, and his father before him. Perfectly reasonable.
But God had other plans. Plans which were utterly unimaginable and beyond any reasonable expectation. God had plans that were downright impossible! Plans that called for a small-town carpenter to leave everything he had ever known to care for and protect a newborn baby with an earth-shattering mission.
Sometimes we have to repent of perfectly reasonable expectations that are too low. God has a plan and a purpose for you. Are you ready for it? God’s destiny for your life is at your fingertips. Just follow Joseph’s lead and amazing things will happen in your life and in the life of those around you.
Praise to the God who is able to do far more than all we can ask or imagine. Amen.
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