This past sunday I preached on Matthew 1:18-25. Maybe it is because I am an expectant father, I’m not sure, but I found myself really drawn to Joseph in this passage. I started out with a basic question: What difference does Joseph make in this passage? Is he necessary? I found that he was necessary and had an important role to play. Here is the sermon:
Have you ever heard of the phrase “third wheel?” Well, allow me to explain. A third wheel is someone who finds themselves in a situation where they are basically totally unnecessary. And it isn’t just that they are unnecessary, they feel awkward even being present. It isn’t that their presence is neutral, it is actual negative. It is when you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb in a situation, because it is just that obvious that you shouldn’t be there.
Now, if you will allow me to borrow your imagination for just a second I will illustrate this for you. Let’s go back in time about 4 years. Melissa and I were engaged to be married, but I was going to seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and she was finishing up her last year of college at Oklahoma State University. Now, some of you are more aware of this than others, but this is the time of year when college and seminary students are finishing up their work for the semester and they are going home to be with their families for the holidays. For instance, this past Friday my brother in law Darren finished his last final exam and went back to Norman. So this time 4 years ago, I was on my way back to Tulsa to be with my family and Melissa was on her way back to Norman to be with her family. But here’s the thing, when you are engaged, and if you are honest, you are probably more interested in being with the person whom you are engaged to than anyone else. Especially if you have been separated for months by more than 1,000 miles!
Well, I won’t speak for Melissa, but I know that is how I felt. Ok, so I really wanted to spend time with Melissa. So, let’s say I flew into Tulsa my parents picked me up at the airport, drove me home, and then I unloaded all of my stuff. What do you think the next thing I did was? Yep, called Melissa. And before long I was probably asking if I could borrow a car to drive to Norman. Ok, but we still haven’t explained what a third wheel is. Now, imagine that right after I call Melissa and I tell her I am on my way to see her, imagine that she gets a phone call from her best friend and Melissa finds out that her best friend has just been dumped by her boyfriend who she had dated all semester. Say Melissa’s friend asks Melissa if she is doing anything. Melissa says that I am on my way over to see her and she is really excited. But then she feels sort of guilty because she remembers that her friend has just been dumped. So she asks her if she wants to come over and says, we are probably just going to go to dinner, why don’t you just come along? So, to make a short story long, the friend eventually decides that she will come to dinner with us.
So I get to Norman, excited to see my bride to be. I want to give her a big hug, a big kiss, and I want to just stare at her and rejoice at being in her presence. And Melissa feels the same way, she thinks to herself, man he is even more handsome than when I last saw him. I am the luckiest girl in the world! (Hey, this is my story, I will tell it how I want to.) And then there is Melissa’s friend. We have sort of forgotten she is even there… How do you think she feels? Thankfully, this story never actually happened, but if you can imagine that situation actually happening, that would be the textbook example of a third wheel.
The only person who I can imagine may have felt like even more of a third wheel, than our imaginary friend in the story would be Joseph in this morning’s Scripture reading. Matthew’s Gospel introduces Jesus birth this way, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” Now, let’s go back to our story for a moment. Imagine that I arrive in Norman excited to see my bride to be again, and she looks like she does this morning. Stunningly beautiful, and with that amazing glow of pregnancy about her. Well, first I would want an explanation. Second, if her explanation was “I was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” I have a feeling that would be a tough explanation for me to accept. It might be understandable if Joseph’s reaction was not one of joy when his betrothed is found to be with child, and the only thing he is sure of is that he had nothing to do with it.
We sometimes get so comfortable with the Christmas story that we forget how strange it is. We forget how much it interrupted some people’s lives. In fact, if we read the story carefully, it interrupted everyone’s life who was paying attention. The people who noticed came from miles away to worship, or they went to great lengths to see that the threat to their authority was destroyed. But so many of these stories we know so well, but it seems that one of the stories that we sometimes forget to tell is the story of Joseph.
First, we are told that Joseph is a righteous or just man. So when he finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that it was not his doing, instead of seeking to disgrace her publicly, which is what most people would have done then, and would still do today, Joseph decides to divorce her quietly. That is such a simple statement, but it seems to me to be a great insight into Joseph’s character. Many people, even understandably, if they found out that their fiancé was pregnant by another man or had impregnated another woman, well they would probably vent their anger, frustration, and pain by talking about it. For many of us, part of working through our grief at being hurt by someone else seems to be talking to other people about what they have done to us. And that doesn’t just occur with affairs, it occurs with the biggest and the smallest wounds. But that is not Joseph’s reaction. I am reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that he really must love Mary deeply, because it was very easy for a man in Joseph’s position to obtain a divorce and to be absolved of any wrong doing. In other words, those around him would have been on his side. He could have ruined Mary, even had her executed, if he had wanted to.
But maybe Joseph loved Mary deeply. Maybe he was deeply hurt by this discovery, it may have felt like his heart had been ripped out of his chest and all his dreams of the perfect life with his wife destroyed. But still, he loved her, and so he decided to remove himself from what appeared to be an adulterous relationship, but he did not feel the need to do so in a way that caused her any more problems than necessary. Somehow, he seems to have been able to have compassion for someone he believed to be a deep sinner in the midst of his pain, hurt, anger, and disappointment.
And if that isn’t enough, once he has made this decision, he is visited by an angel, or a messenger from God. The message comes to him in a dream and it is this: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And then Joseph woke up. Have you ever had a powerful dream? Here is what I think is so interesting about this, how did he know that it was God? I mean, guys, think about it, if your fiancé got pregnant, and you knew it wasn’t you, would a dream convince you that God was really the Father? And even if it did, how would you react? It seems to me that Joseph still had a choice. He could have woken up from the dream and said, man that was a weird dream! But there is no way that could be true. Or he could have woken up and been even more freaked out and said, I am getting out of here. He still had a choice. He could decide that this was in fact from God and be obedient or he could do something else. We have already been told that Joseph was a righteous man, but now he shows it because v. 24 tells us “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”
Now here is one more very interesting thing I want to point out about his story. During this time, the role that a father played in naming their child was very important, it was part of how they came into their lineage. Have you ever noticed what is strange about the lineage that Matthew gives just before this passage? It starts out: “This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. But when you read through it, notice how the genealogy ends: “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called Messiah.” Did you notice that? This is Joseph’s lineage, not Mary’s! But we have just been told that Joseph aint the daddy! So what in the world does this mean?
It means that Joseph has a much more important role to play in the story than we usually realize! I often don’t like the headings that are included that mark off different passages of Scripture, and it is a pet peeve of mine when people are reading Scripture and they read the heading, because the heading is not part of the Scriptures. When Matthew’s Gospel was written, there were no headings. They are added by the people who do each translation. So if you compare different translations of the Bible they will have different headings. In other words, headings interpret the passage that they come before. That means that they can prejudice you to what the passage of Scripture says before you have even read it. But the heading in my TNIV Bible I think gets this one right. It reads, “Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son.”
Isn’t that interesting? But Jesus is God’s Son! But, Jesus’ lineage is through Joseph not Mary. He would not be connected to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and on and on if he were not connected to Joseph. So it is important that Joseph accept Jesus as his son. And so the story from the Scriptures this morning ends, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had not union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” And he gave him the name Jesus. In naming Jesus, Joseph was signaling his acceptance of Jesus as his own son. We don’t have time to fully flush it out this morning, but surely that has some important implications for families who are not able to have children of their own flesh and blood and choose to adopt, or families where a marriage occurs where there are already children that are the result of previous relationships. In a time when this is more and more common, we would do well to look at the model that Joseph provides for being the father to a child that is not genetically your own.
As I read this morning Scripture reading throughout the week, maybe it is because more than any Christmas present that I will get this year, I am looking forward to receiving the gift of a daughter in April. Maybe being an expectant father has changed the way I read this story, but I can imagine Joseph feeling like a third wheel. Feeling like he is unnecessary, left out, and even in the way. Maybe even after deciding to stick around he still had to fight that feeling from time to time. And I have to confess, as I read this passage the first few times, I sort of thought, what is the point, what difference does Joseph make?
And it is in the connection of Joseph giving Jesus his name, which means the Lord saves, and thereby accepting him as his son that I realized why he matters. At many levels Jesus was an unpleasant surprise for Joseph. He challenged his hopes for his life, raising a child that was not his own was probably not on his list, not to mention trying to understand that this was God’s Son. And life can surprise and challenge all of us. In fact, it isn’t that this can happen- it does happen. The challenge that faces us, is when God interrupts our life with gifts that aren’t always immediately easy to receive, will we be able to trust God? Will we be able to receive not the gifts that we want, but the gifts that God gives? This is the challenge of Christmas that Joseph illustrates so well, because he shows a faithful example. Because what at first seemed like very bad news, Joseph came to realize was not just a baby, but one who would save his people from their sins. So like Joseph, may you during the Christmas season be able to recognize the hand of God in life’s surprises and interruptions and may you be able to accept the gifts that God chooses to give to you, receiving them with faith and trust.