Jesus’ First Papa 12/23/18 (Advent 4C)

DECEMBER 23, 2018



Two hours’ walk from Jerusalem lay a little village of maybe five hundred to a thousand people. It was home to laborers and sheepherders, to farmers who grew wheat and barley, and to the millers and bakers who turned those grains into bread. Hence its name: Bethlehem, or “House of Bread.”

Though it was a small village, Bethlehem held a place of some note in Israel’s history. The patriarch Jacob (as in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) buried his wife Rachel near Bethlehem after she died giving birth to their son Benjamin. Later, a young woman named Ruth would live there with her mother-in-law Naomi and her new husband Boaz. And Ruth’s great-grandson, a child named David, a shepherd boy whom Samuel the prophet anointed to be king over Israel, was born and lived there too.

Around the turn of the first century, a man named Joseph lived and worked in this small but significant working-class village. Now, very little is known about Joseph of Bethlehem. In fact, by the end of the second century, Christians began to develop traditions about him just to fill in some of the uncomfortable blanks. These traditions – that he was a widower, or elderly, or had children by a first, now-deceased wife, and so on – are just that: traditions. It’s unlikely that much in these later traditions is historically accurate. But the traditions point to the human longing for details and stories and the ability to really picture what’s going on in the stories we’re told. If only the author of Matthew’s had been concerned with our insatiable curiosity about the Holy Family!

What we do know – and this from Mark’s Gospel – is that Joseph was a carpenter. The Greek word used to describe him in the New Testament is tekton, which can mean woodworker, craftsman, and possibly stonemason. You might recognize tekton as part of the word “architect.” An arch-tekton was a “master builder,” just as an “archangel” was a lead angel. Yet Joseph was not an arch-tekton, only a tekton – not a master builder, but simply a humble woodworker.

Since most homes in Israel were not built of wood, Joseph’s work would probably primarily consist of constructing doors and roofs. He may also have built and restored farm tools. Whatever the precise details, we know this: Joseph was a man who worked with his hands, who understood the material world, who relied on his senses of sight, touch, and sound to engage his craft.

SCENE II: THE BETRAYAL (Matthew 1:18 – 19)

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.

Marriage, as we learned last week when we heard Mary’s story, was a two-step process in first-century Judaism. The first step was the betrothal. The couple became engaged in front of two witnesses, and from then on were called husband and wife. Should one die, the other would be known as a widow/widower. Should things fall apart and the engagement need to be broken off, it would be called a divorce. It wasn’t until a year of this engagement time had passed that a man and woman would move in together and consummate their marriage in the marriage bed. To be sure, some couples couldn’t wait that whole year before they gave in to their physical and emotional desires. It was certainly not unheard of for a woman to become pregnant before the time of engagement was over. But generally that was discreetly overlooked and the marriage stayed intact.

Joseph was engaged to a young woman named Mary. But before the year-long time of engagement had concluded, before the long-awaited moment when they would live together and consummate their relationship, Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant. Apparently he knew for absolute certain that he could not have gotten Mary pregnant, and so he came to the only logical conclusion he could: she had had sex with someone else.

Unlike an accidental pregnancy resulting from the interactions of the two who were betrothed, this adulterous act was grounds for divorce. Indeed, it was even grounds for death by stoning. So when Joseph discovered what he understandably assumed to be incontrovertible evidence of Mary’s infidelity, what did he feel? What would be do? What should he do?

Now, the text tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. In one sense, this means that he lived according to the religious laws of his people. And because he was a man who lived according to the law, he knew that it would be perfectly acceptable – and some might argue required – to have Mary stoned. That would have been considered righteous – that is, faithful to the law.

But although Joseph was righteous, he didn’t push for punishment. He wanted to “dismiss Mary quietly” – to divorce her without fuss or public shame. And although she would soon be discovered to be pregnant – you can only hide that for so long – and there would be shame and she would have a very hard life, at least she’d be alive. And if he dismissed her quietly, without accusing her of adultery, it’s even possible that people would blame him for leaving her pregnant and alone and look on her with pity and on him with disdain or anger. It’s possible Joseph intended to sacrifice his own reputation in order to spare Mary – even though she had hurt him so badly.

Of course, Matthew’s account is pretty sparse, so we don’t know what Joseph was thinking. All we know is what he planned on doing: saving her life and probably her reputation by divorcing her without accusation.

When the author of Matthew’s Gospel calls Joseph righteous, I think he meant something more than following the letter of the law. He was faithful to the law, but he tempered his actions with compassion and mercy. Loving and kind interpretations of the law and acts of forgiveness and generosity are the marks of righteousness for the author of Matthew.

At any rate, I think it’s fair to guess that Joseph went to bed that night broken-hearted, betrayed, and prepared to have a very hard conversation with the woman he thought he’d make a life with.


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.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

“Do not be afraid” – the thing angels always say when they appear in front of someone in the Bible. Do they say it because people’s immediate response to any angelic interaction is fear? That seems likely to me! But I wonder if, in Joseph’s case, there’s more to it than that. The angel isn’t addressing a kind of generalized fear or a fear of the angel in particular.

No. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” the angel says. Joseph is being asked to set aside his pride, his shame, his pain, and remain married to Mary. By staying with a woman whose belly is going to grow steadily bigger long before their marriage has become a completed transaction he is risking ridicule and humiliation as people whispered and gossiped and wondered whether he’d been cuckolded.

Moreover, he is being told that the child Mary is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He is being told to believe it, as impossible as it might be to believe or understand, and to act accordingly.

It’s as if the angel is saying, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph! There’s just a little unscientific, completely unprovable, certainly weird and supernatural stuff going on. Don’t be afraid – jump on in!”

It’s as if the angel is saying, “Now that you know who this baby’s Father is, it’s up to you to be this baby’s papa.”

SCENE 4: JOSEPH ACTS (1:24-25)

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This is but the first time Joseph hears an angel, takes a deep breath, and leaps into the unknown. We don’t know if he was scared, or excited, or angry, or worried, or hopeful, or completely at ease. All we know is what he did.

This time, this first time Joseph dreams of an angel, he is told to keep Mary as his wife and raise the baby as his own. And he does.

Soon, Joseph will dream of an angel who will tell him that King Herod is in a murderous rage and that Joseph must gather his little family together and flee to Egypt. And he does.

Some time will pass, maybe as much as two years, until Joseph again dreams of an angel, who tells him that Herod has died and it’s safe to bring his little family home. And he does.

But then, a fourth dream: an angel tells Joseph that the new king is as dangerous and deadly as Herod had been; Bethlehem won’t be safe for them after all, and they’d better head to Nazareth instead. And he does.

Joseph: another biblical dreamer who trusted God even in the face of bizarre and incomprehensible news. Joseph: the man who would not divorce – let alone condemn to death – the woman he thought betrayed him. Joseph: the man whose actions would Jesus that the Law is meant to protect and serve life, and that sometimes religiosity is not the same thing as righteousness.

Joseph: the man who would hold a tiny baby in his arms and see not a stranger unrelated to him, but only see his true son. Joseph: the man who would face the uncertainties and perils of refugee life as he traveled with his tiny, vulnerable family from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth.

Joseph: the man who helped Jesus learn to walk. The man who let Jesus pull on his beard, poke at his eyes, eat off his plate. The man who held Jesus’ fingers as he learned to walk, who showed him how to take care of the house, and who taught him the skills of a tekton.

Joseph: Jesus’ first Papa.

And he’s also Jesus’ model when he’s looking for language to teach us about God.

References to the divine as father are old and span religious traditions. Jesus didn’t invent the idea. But he was, it seems, the first – at least in the Jewish context – to make “father” such an intimate and personal title for God.

This is not “the Father of all of creation” so much as it is “my father.” Jesus, raised by Joseph, the compassionate, merciful, faithful, deeply loving man, knows God as “Abba,” “daddy,” “papa.” And like a loving human papa, God is still in the business of establishing rules, placing guidelines, offering corrections, setting boundaries, but is also loving and playful and forgiving and just and merciful.

God is like a man who showed mercy to his wife and who showed compassion to her in hard circumstances.

God is like a man who fell in love with a tiny baby and raised him as his own.

God is like a man who would risk his own safety in order to keep his loved ones safe.

God is like a man who tenderly sings to a newborn, knowing that the road ahead would be hard but singing him to sleep for now.


And we…? Who are we like?

On this final Sunday of Advent, we consider the people we’ve walked with over the last many weeks.

Are you like Zechariah – uncertain but full of joy at the thought that God’s promises are about to be fulfilled?

Are you like John the Baptist – desperately wanting to be close to God – and wanting others to be there with you?

Are you like Elizabeth – crying out with amazement when you recognize God in our midst?

Are you like Mary – saying yes to the unknown, trusting that God is at work all around and within us?

Or are you like Joseph – humbly working and serving, loving fiercely and faithfully, taking a quiet but critical role in the divine drama happening among us?

Whoever you are, trust this: you are exactly who God needs in this time and in this place.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Information for this section is from Adam Hamilton, The Journey. pp 39-42. Some sentences are verbatim.

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