January 6, 2019
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph
(Borrowed heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Faithful”)
Epiphany of the Lord
The Rest of the Story
There are all kinds of Christians. There are the Holy Day Christians. Those I see faithfully every Christmas and Easter. There are the fair-weather Christians. If the weather is not too bad, or for that matter not too nice, and if their favorite ball team is not playing within an hour of the time church will be out, there’s a chance they’ll join us for worship.
There are the folks who are faithful in worship but never internalize the good news and it has little impact upon them. And then there are those whose faith runs deep, who daily offer their lives to Christ, who are being shaped by the Spirit; their lives reflect their faith in all that they do. Jesus spoke of all of these categories of believers in his parable of the sower.
So, what about Joseph? At every mention of Joseph in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, we see Joseph’s faithfulness. Matthew, in his Gospel, tells us that Joseph “was a righteous man” and recounts how Joseph demonstrated his compassion and mercy toward Mary. We have heard about his faithfulness over the past few weeks during our Advent messages. But in the weeks after Jesus’ birth, Joseph once again demonstrated his faithfulness. Would you pray with me?
In Leviticus 12, we find directions to the Israelites regarding what was to happen after a child was born. On the eighth day after birth, male children were to be circumcised. God commanded Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised as “a symbol of the covenant between us” and a pledge by the parents to raise the child as a “son of the covenant.”
In the Christian tradition, infant baptism has replaced the circumcision covenant. In infant baptism God enters into a covenant with the child, and the parents, on the child’s behalf. Likewise, there is a parallel between the Jewish act of bar mitzvah and the Christian act of confirmation.
Now from our scripture, it sounds as if the circumcision, cleansing, and dedication occurred at the same time. It didn’t. The circumcision was eight days after the birth of the male child and completed by the father and the rabbi. But when a woman gave birth to a boy, she was ceremonially unclean for forty days after his birth. So, Jesus’ dedication in the temple, the blessings given the child by the elder Simeon and Anna, and Mary’s offering for her purification occurred forty days after Jesus’ birth.
So, forty days after Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph offered a pair of turtledoves or pigeons for Jesus’ dedication, in the Temple in Jerusalem, the sacrifice offered by those who were too poor to offer a lamb. Luke mentions these things in his gospel so that we know that Joseph and Mary fulfilled the Law of Moses as all devout Jews would have done. These events show the kind of faith Joseph had, which will be demonstrated again as the story continues. Joseph truly was faithful.
As he continues the story of Jesus in his gospel, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus came to express God’s love and mercy not only for the poor, but also for the rich. Jesus came not just for the uneducated but for the educated. He came not just for the Jews but for the entire world. Jesus was not simply the Jewish messiah but the world’s savior and king. We can see this emphasis as the magi from the east come to pay homage to the infant Christ and bow down before him. This is the day we celebrate on this Sunday, Epiphany, the day the wise men came to see Jesus. Here is how Matthew introduces the story in Chapter 2.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
It is most likely that the magi came from Persia, modern day Iran. They were likely part of the priestly class within the Zoroastrian religion. They were respected court advisors, scholars, sages, devout believers in God, and scientists of a sort. They studied the stars and looked to them for signs of God’s plans and world events. Zoroastrianism originated in Persia in possibly the last seventh or early sixth century before Christ. The prophet Zoroaster was to Zoroastrianism what Moses was to Judaism. Both religions shared a belief in one good and all-powerful God. God intentionally chose to invite a group of foreigners, priests of a different religion, to share in the joy of Jesus’ birth. And God provided what would prove to be much-needed help for the Holy Family.
In response to their sighting of the star and their deduction that a king of the Jews had been born, these wise men traveled twelve hundred miles across the ancient highways from Persia to Judea in order to see the child, bring him gifts, and pay him homage.
Their arrival and announcement of a newborn king unnerved the aging and paranoid King Herod. His legal experts found in the scriptures where the prophet Micah foretold of a messianic ruler that was to come from Bethlehem. So, Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem to search for the child, saying, “When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”
Matthew 2:9-11 says this: When the (magi) heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Now Jesus could have been anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half old by the time the magi arrived in Judea, spoke to King Herod, and made the trip to Bethlehem. Imagine what was going through Joseph’s mind as he watched the wise men, one by one, open their extravagant gifts and bow before his infant son, hailing him as the one “born king of the Jews”?
But when the magi left, they, like Joseph, had a dream in which God spoke to them. In the dream they were warned not to return to their home country through Jerusalem but to return by another route. In Jerusalem, remember, Herod was waiting for news of the child’s birth and hatching a plan to kill him. In earlier years, Herod had already had three of his sons killed for fear they were plotting to take over his throne. This baby was not about to get his throne either. So, the magi heeded the warning and returned to Persia. Once Herod realized the wise men were not going to report back to him, he ordered that every boy child in Bethlehem under two years of age be killed.
Once again in a dream, God warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod would soon be coming to look for Jesus. Joseph gathered his little family, and they made the several-hundred-mile journey to Egypt. Thanks to the gifts from the Magi, Joseph and his family were able to make the trip and survive once they were in Egypt. It is thought that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for one to three and a half years before returning to the Holy Land shortly after Herod’s death.
After Herod’s death, once again in a dream, an angel told Joseph to take his family back to the land of Israel. The angel said, “Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” I’m sure Joseph planned to returned to his ancestral home in Bethlehem in Judea, but was warned once again in a dream not to go there, so Joseph settled in a city called Nazareth in the northern part of the land of Israel.
After this, the gospels tell us nothing else about Jesus’ childhood, with the exception of when Jesus was twelve years old. The story begins, “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.” Once again, we see Joseph and Mary’s faithfulness. They took Jesus to Jerusalem for the feast. What we know from the story is that as the caravan was returning home to Galilee, there was a mix up and Jesus was not among them. Joseph and Mary hurried back to Jerusalem searching for their son and found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers and asking them questions. Joseph’s love for Jesus could be seen in his worry and in his frantic search for the child. This incident at the temple was Joseph’s final appearance in the story of Jesus.
Joseph must have died sometime when Jesus was a young man. The Gospels tell us nothing about this event, but I am sure that Jesus was with Joseph at his death. I’m sure Jesus felt the same pain as we do when a loved one passes away. After all, Joseph raised Jesus as if he were his own son.
There was an apocryphal book written in the second century called The History of Joseph the Carpenter. An apocryphal book is a book that may be true or not, but people in the second century were yearning to know more than what was written in the gospel. Adam Hamilton in his book “Faithful” writes this.
“In the account, as Joseph was dying, Jesus sat at his bedside, holding Joseph’s hand. Mary sat on the other side of the bed, holding his other hand…. Joseph fixed his eyes on Jesus’ face. Though Joseph couldn’t speak, he wept. Then Jesus prayed to God for Joseph, that God would send the great angels Michael and Gabriel to welcome his father to heaven. The two came, just as Jesus had requested, and took the soul of Joseph. Jesus, lying across Joseph’s breast, ‘bewailed his death for a long time.’ The scene may well reflect the kind of sorrow Jesus felt as he bid his father goodbye.”
Folks, Christmas was God’s way of coming to find us and to be found by us. We sometimes run from God. We pretend God can’t see us. We pretend God isn’t there. But all the while, somewhere deep down inside, I think we want to be found, and we want to find God.
At Christmas God came to us in a way that we can understand, with human flesh and bone, so helpless that first Christmas, and so beautiful, that shepherds and magi took delight in seeing him. And God chose faithful Joseph to be Jesus’ earthly father. A father that would love him, look after him, look for him, and whose love would never let him go.
That is the kind of father we all want. And we have that Father in God, who will always look for us, and find us, and whose love will never let us go. Imagine Joseph saying, “Son, that’s why you are here, why God blessed me with you, so that you can show the world this truth, and so that all people might find and be found by God.”
This is the gift of Christmas; being found and finding, being held and holding, being safe in God’s arms and being saved by God’s arms. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus first experienced this gift in the loving arms of Joseph.
Prayer: Lord, at times we feel lost. At times we feel afraid. Come find us. Hold us close. Thank you for coming so that, as you find us, we might find you. Dry our tears. Comfort us. Save us. Thank you for Joseph, whose life and faith are a picture of faithfulness and whose love guarded and shaped you. Jesus, that you might shape us. Thank you, Lord, for Joseph. Amen.