Joseph's first Christmas

Matthew 1:18-25

11 December 2005

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


Did you read the survey this week that asked people what they would most like to find in their Christmas stockings? In first place predictably, was an iPod Nano. In second place was tickets to Robbie Williams at Wembley. And in third place was what my kids will be getting this Christmas: a satsuma. It restores your faith in human nature, doesn't it?

Intriguingly, in sixth place came an engagement ring. What do you make of that?

Well, I'm sure that an engagement ring was one thing that was not on Joseph's shopping list as the first Christmas approached, since he was already engaged to be married to Mary.

Our passage this morning is the only one in the Bible that largely concerns Joseph. And I have to say that I've found myself really blessed as I've studied him. I don't know about you, but I've never really given the man much thought before.

It has to be said that we really know very little about him. It is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who gets most of the press, isn't it? Especially in some church traditions, and especially at this time of year. Joseph is very much a background figure.

We have no recorded words that Joseph said; we never hear him speak. This short passage is the only place where we really find out much about him at all.

As the gospel accounts continue, Joseph fades even more into the background. He is mentioned when Jesus is twelve and his parents look for him in Jerusalem, but after that we don't see him at all, despite Jesus' mother and brothers making a number of appearances. It's quite possible that he has died by the time Jesus begins his public ministry, and certainly by the time of Jesus' death when from the cross Jesus asks John to look after his mother.

We're told elsewhere that Joseph was a carpenter, perhaps more correctly a building contractor, and that he passed this trade on to his son. But it doesn't seem that he was a super-saint, just a quiet and just man who strove to live a godly life.

Yet, this is the man into whose care our God entrusted his very own Son. This is the man to whom God entrusted himself as a helpless baby, as a vulnerable child. God trusted this man with one of the greatest responsibilities in the history of the world. I think we can learn a lot about what God values and desires by looking at the character of Joseph, the man he trusted to adopt his son.

In this passage, Matthew chapter 1 verses 18-25, we see God giving Joseph three surprise gifts around that first Christmas time, not all of them, perhaps on Joseph's list. We see God giving Joseph a pregnant fiancée, a plan to follow and a prophecy fulfilled.

A pregnant fiancée

First, a pregnant fiancée. This is verses 18 and 19. Perhaps a suitable subtitle for this section would be "Joseph, your girlfriend is pregnant, and it isn't yours!" .

One thing that is indisputable about Joseph is that he is a righteous man. We are told as much in verse 19, but it is also evident in Luke's gospel where we find him and Mary presenting Jesus in the temple and offering the correct sacrifice. We also find them going up yearly to Jerusalem for the Passover. Joseph is religious, and he always tried to do the right thing.

So, it is hard to imagine the depth of his horror when he discovered that Mary was pregnant. It is inconceivable that this upright and righteous man could have been responsible for it himself. Joseph would have known full well what the Law of God said about a situation like this. Deuteronomy chapter 22.

If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man's wife. You must purge the evil from among you.ref

It's hard to for us to understand in this day and age what a serious business it was. Today, this would be tame for a story-line in The Archers or Eastenders, but then, adultery—and that's what this looked like—was a matter of life and death. Oh, Mary might have had some story about a virgin pregnancy and the visit of an angel, but who could believe that?

No, for Joseph to marry Mary now would be unthinkable: she is defiled; she is under God's judgement. A righteous man could have nothing to do with her. At the very least she should be publicly disgraced, and let the people decide how to deal with her.

Joseph's world has fallen apart. His plans are in tatters. What is he going to do about it? As a righteous man he could not marry her; as a just man he ought to hand her over to be judged. But in his inner struggle, as he prayed to God about it, and wrestled internally, the quality that prevailed was not justice, but mercy. Verse 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.ref

Relationship troubles usually bring out the worst in people, don't they? The kindest and sweetest of people can turn bitter and vindictive and twisted; we've all seen it many times, and perhaps experienced it ourselves. But not so in Joseph's case. Here was a man full of mercy in the most trying of circumstances.

This is the kind of man to whom God entrusted himself. A man who was not hot-headed, who did not rush rashly into judgement. A man who strove to do the right thing, but strove to do it guided by mercy, in whom mercy triumphs over judgementref.

When we see Jesus later dealing with the woman caught in adultery, preventing her from being stoned, but sending her away to go and sin no moreref, would it be fanciful to imagine that we are seeing an echo of his earthly father's character?

If we want to be people to whom God will entrust more of himself then we should seek to learn from Joseph. It is easy to rush to judgement; let us more often seek to find the way of mercy. Even when we are right, when we have every cause to extract judgement, let us seek to find the way of mercy.

Perhaps Christmas time is the ideal time to resolve to value mercy rather than judgement. It's a sad fact, but it's well known that the Christmas season is the peak time for relationship breakdown. This Christmas, if you feel your blood start to boil because a loved one has wronged you, remember: be like Joseph. Without his mercy there would be no Christmas at all.

A plan to follow

The second surprise that God had in store for Joseph that first Christmas was a plan to follow. This is verses 20 and 21. A suitable subtitle for this section would be "Joseph, marry her anyway, it's all part of the plan" .

One of my favourite proverbs says Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails.ref And that certainly is true in Joseph's case. He has resolved to divorce Mary quietly, but God has other ideas completely.

What happens in verse 20 is that God intervenes by sending an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream. This is actually the first of four times we're told that God speaks to Joseph in a dream, and each time it means major upheaval for Joseph and his family. If it were me being appeared to I think chapter two verse 19 might read "an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Ben, and Ben said, "oh no, Lord, not again""

But this was the first of Joseph's angelic visitations, and what God does is vouch for Mary, and tell Joseph to marry her anyway. 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.ref

This is a real test for Joseph. He might now believe, having heard it from the mouth of an angel, that Mary had not been unfaithful after all, and that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. But who else would believe it? By marrying Mary he would be effectively admitting publicly that the baby was his; that he had broken God's command by sleeping with her before their marriage; that the baby had been conceived in sin.

For a righteous man like Joseph this was a lot to ask. Was he prepared to lose his reputation in the community, his reputation in the synagogue, his loyal customers for his business, on the say-so of this angel? To do what God required meant potentially losing a great deal of what he had gained.

Of course, the Lord knows his dilemma. He could have just ordered Joseph to marry Mary, but in his grace he goes on to explain why it matters so much. 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.ref

God's got a plan, and Joseph is part of it. It's a plan that has been in place for a long time: notice how the angel addresses Joseph in verse 20, Joseph son of Davidref. God had been promising for a thousand years to raise up a new king, a descendant of David, to liberate God's people and unite them in his kingdom. And, at last, he was announcing to Joseph that the time had come. This boy, entrusted to Joseph and Mary's care would be that king, the saviour of God's people.

At that time there was a great expectation amongst God's people of a saviour to come: the promised Messiah, or Christ. But the expectation was very much that he would be a kingly figure, a liberator, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the nations around them and restore to them the promised land. The one they were looking for might have been called The Great, or The Conqueror, or The Bold, or the Magnificent.

But the name "Jesus" that Joseph was to give the boy is a Greek version of Joshua, which simply means "Saviour". This boy would save God's people: not from the oppression of the nations, but from the oppression of sin itself.

It is deeply ironic, like so much in Jesus' life, that the one who would appear to the world to have been born in sin would now save that world from its sin.

So the question for Joseph was, are you prepared to deny yourself, to lose your life and reputation? Are you prepared to bear the shame that will come your way? Will you give yourself for a baby who isn't yours? Will you give up what you have for the sake of the salvation of others? It wouldn't be far from the mark to say that Joseph had to face the demands of the cross before the crucified one was even born, would it?

Of course we know what happens. God entrusts his son to Joseph, because Joseph already understands what Jesus would later teach,

Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it... If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. ref

If we want God to entrust us with more of himself then like Joseph, we must be prepared to lose more of ourselves. We have many plans, ambitions, wants and desires, but God will entrust himself most to those who desire him above all.

Christmas has become a time when all our worldly desires are pandered to, hasn't it? The devil has well and truly won that battle. How are you going to make sure this Christmas that God feels able to entrust you with more of himself? What is it that you need to deny yourself in order to receive more of him?

A prophecy fulfilled

God has already given Joseph two great surprises for that very first Christmas: a pregnant fiancée and a plan to follow. But there is one more surprise for Joseph in verses 22 and 23: a prophecy fulfilled. This section could be subtitled "Joseph, God is moving in with you!"

This surprise was more of a long-term one than the news of the pregnancy and the angelic appearance.

I wonder how long it actually took Joseph to understand what was going on. He and Mary don't quite seem to have worked it out even by the time Jesus was 12 and they lost him Jerusalem. But they must have suspected: Jesus thought it was obvious enough, Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?ref.

We're told in Luke that that Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heartref. How much more must Joseph have puzzled over them. Why a virgin birth, with all the scandal and shame for him? Why couldn't God just have given them a child in the normal way? He'd done it many, many times in the Scriptures; wouldn't it have been so much simpler?

And, how on earth was this boy going to save people from their sins? Surely there is no earthly way. Only God can rescue from sin, can't he?

I wonder if he was reading this prophecy from Isaiah, or listening to it in the temple, when the light dawned: yes, that's it, that explains everything! Jesus is not simply the Messiah, the Saviour, he is God himself, come to live among us. That's why it had to be a virgin birth; only then could deity and humanity come together. Only a God–man could save his people from their sins.

Matthew's great concern in these first two chapters of his gospel is to show how the birth of Jesus fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament, and here he shows that because of Joseph's obedience we can be confident that Jesus fulfils one of the most extraordinary and significant prophecies of all.

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, God with us. ref

That Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us, is one of the foundational teachings of the Christian faith. Without it none of the rest makes any sense at all: we can't be saved from our sins by a Saviour who is anyone but God himself. And the virgin birth is the proof that Jesus is God with us. That's why we need to insist on the truth of the virgin birth.

I don't know about you, but personally I find the virgin birth a strange and slightly embarrassing doctrine to defend: it is just so unlikely, isn't it? It has the odour of myth about it rather than fact. I'd be much happier to relegate it to some kind of second rank of doctrine that fundamentalists could believe, but the rest of us could take with a pinch of salt. It would be much more convenient if the doctrine of the virgin birth would go away. But we must defend it: Christmas matters, not just because Jesus was born a man, but because God was born a man.

Thankfully, Joseph makes it easy for us to defend. His actions show that he was convinced that the baby was God's; his obedience removes all doubt for us.

Matthew goes out of his way to make sure we see Joseph's obedience in action. We know that he had not slept with Mary before the pregnancy was discovered, but for the avoidance of any doubt at all he doesn't sleep with her after they are married until the baby is born. Verse 25, But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a sonref The baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Matthew is in no doubt; Mary was in no doubt; and Joseph was in no doubt. So we need not doubt it either.

In fact, Joseph is careful to do everything that the angel commanded him; verses 24 and 25 mirror 20 and 21. He is obedient in taking Mary home as his wife; he is obedient in ensuring there is no doubt about the virgin birth; he is obedient in naming him Jesus.

And we see in the next chapter that each time God speaks to him Joseph is obedient again, even though it means massive disruption for him and his family.

This is the kind of man to whom God chose to entrust his son, to whom God chose to entrust himself. A man who was obedient; a man prepared to do whatever it took to get God's will done.

His son, Jesus, God with us, Immanuel later said,

If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. ref

This is what happened in a physical, literal way for Joseph and Mary: God himself moved into their house. Christmas time for them literally was Immanuel, God with us.


So now we've met the man to whom God was prepared to entrust the greatest gift of all, Immanuel, God with us. What do you make of him? I reckon it's a shame he is so overlooked. Perhaps we need some icons of Joseph about the place [Joke!]

But it wasn't only that first Christmas that was about Immanuel. The message of every Christmas is about God being among us. And the question I want to ask you this Christmas time is, are you content just to acknowledge the truth that God is with us as an interesting fact, or do you really long to have God with you, in your heart day after day? That is ultimately what Immanuel means: not God with "us" but God with "you", God with "me".

God entrusted himself to Joseph, and he will entrust himself to others who will be like Joseph. People who value mercy over judgement; people who are prepared to deny themselves for the sake of others; people who are obedient to the will of God.

If you are open to God, then these are the commitments you need to make. You need to be prepared to be his man or his woman. To do his will and not your own. It's not easy, but when God comes to live with you, and in you, then it becomes easier as he teaches you how.

That very first Christmas God entrusted himself to Joseph. Wouldn't it be wonderful this Christmas if God were able to entrust you with more of himself?