Joseph's first Christmas

Matthew 1:18-25, Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew 2:19-23

15 December 2013

Woodley Baptist Church

Reflective service


One of the things I particularly enjoy about the Christmas story is the way in which we continually find the ordinary colliding with the extraordinary. Time and time again, the glorious breaks into the mundane lives of normal people just going about their business.

An astonishing choir of heavenly angels appears—a glimpse into the very throne room of heaven—the glory of the Lord shines around. Who is the audience for this lavish show? Kings? World leaders? People who've paid a fortune for tickets? No: a bunch of shepherds tending their flocks.

A team of wealthy noblemen undertakes huge, difficult and dangerous journey; a diplomatic delegation carrying precious and lavish gifts. Which palace did they end up in? None: Just an ordinary, humble Jewish home.

An ordinary priest, not even the high priest, is going about his business one day, preparing to burn some incense. Suddenly, a terrifying angel appears with an astonishing prophecy about the son his middle-aged, barren wife was about to bear.

Again, and again in the story we find the glorious breaking into the ordinary, don't we. And it seems to me that in the whole Christmas story, there is really no-one more ordinary than Joseph.

Ordinary Joseph

You may have guessed from our Bible readings, that Joseph is our subject this morning. And these three short passages are pretty much the sum total of what we know about him.

We don't have a single recorded word from Joseph. He may have been a carpenter—at one point in Matthew 13, Jesus is referred to as the carpenter's sonref—but even what that means is unclear. It could have meant anything from a common-or-garden chippy to the boss of a building contractors.

He was, of course, a faithful Jew. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary had Jesus circumcised at eight days, and they took him to Jerusalem for the Passover every year.

The only other thing we can deduce is that he almost certainly died sometime between Jesus' twelfth birthday and the start of his ministry at age thirty. Although Jesus' mother, Mary, appears several times later on in the gospels, Joseph never does. And then from the cross, Jesus asks John to take care of his mother. Presumably she was a widow by then.

That, aside from what we have in front of us today, is all we know! A religious carpenter who died in middle age. So far, so ordinary.

Yet, as is the pattern with the Christmas story, in the passages we read, this very ordinary life of Joseph suddenly collides with the extraordinary glory of God.

Of course, there are one or two things that set Joseph apart a little.

For one, in verse 19, he is described as righteousref. This doesn't mean that he was perfect, simply that he tried to do the right thing. And this righteousness was severely tested when news reached him that Mary, the woman to whom he was betrothed was expecting a baby.

Now, I'm mindful that we have one or two younger ones with us this morning, so I'll skip some of the details (although I think they cover all this pretty early on in school these days). The point is that to make a baby, a man and a woman have to get quite friendly. Joseph and Mary were betrothed to each other, which was a legally binding commitment to get married, but they were not allowed to get close until after they were married. The baby wasn't Joseph's.

Therefore it was someone else's. Joseph could have made a huge fuss about this. It looked like Mary had committed adultery against him: even for a betrothed woman, the penalty under Jewish law was to be stoned to death. But Joseph wanted to do the right thing; so he resolved only to divorce her quietly, to spare her some shame.

So, Joseph was righteous. And Joseph was obedient. After he has resolved to do this, an angel appears to him and instructs him to marry Mary after all. So, Joseph is asked to bear the disgrace of everybody thinking that he and Mary have behaved inappropriately during their engagement; Joseph is asked to bear the burden of bringing up a baby that isn't his.

And he obeys, verse 24: he did what the angel of the Lord commanded himref.

Actually, as we heard in our readings, this is the first of four times that God speaks to Joseph dreams, and each and every time it means a huge upheaval for him and his family. Yet he obeys without a word. If it were me the angels were appearing 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 Joseph just gets on with it.

So, that's Joseph: a sound fellow; obedient to God; but fundamentally quite ordinary. Pretty much a background character, right?

Yet, into this ordinary life, the glory of God breaks through. I want to look at this by looking at three names that Joseph's adopted son is given in verses 20 to 23. Usually only two get a mention: Jesus, of course, in verse 21, and Immanuel in verse 23. But I want to start with a different one.

Extraordinary Jesus

If anyone is taking notes, the heading I gave to the last bit is just Ordinary Joseph. And the heading for the next bit is, Extraordinary Child. And the first of his names I want to look at is, Son of David.

Name 1: Son of David

In verse 20, the first words the angel says to Joseph are, Joseph son of Davidref. Does that ring any bells? At the Triumphal Entry, the crowds cry Hosanna to the Son of Davidref; the blind men cry out as Jesus passes, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!ref and so on. Jesus came to be known by this title: Son of David.

Now, Matthew is super, super keen to show us how Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecies that had been made hundreds of years earlier. And here is a key one. The people were looking for a king, and a king had to be descended from David: royalty is hereditary. The genealogy that Luke gives is usually taken to show that Jesus is physically descended from David through his mother's family line. The genealogy Matthew begins his book with shows that Jesus is legally descended from David through his adoptive father's line. Whichever way we look at it, Jesus, Son of David, is the coming king.

Glory has broken into Joseph's life: royalty is moving in!

Name 2: Jesus

The second name we hear is to be the boy's given name: Jesus. This is simply the English version of the Greek version of the Hebrew name we read as Joshua: Jesus; Joshua — they are the same name.

Why Joshua? Because, verse 21, he will save his people from their sins.ref The Hebrew name Joshua literally means, "Yahweh is salvation" , and harks back to the Joshua of the Exodus who led God's people into the Promised Land.

But what is this saving king going to save people from? From the occupying Romans? From their enemies? No. From their sins. The people of the time might have thought their greatest problem was that their country was under the occupation of the invading Roman army. But God knew what their real problem was, and what our greatest need is: we need saving from our sins.

We need to be saved from the penalty of sin; we need to be saved from the power of sin; we need to be saved from the presence of sin. Joseph could not have had the faintest idea at the time how this baby was going to do this, could he? But we know. A little later we will share communion together and remember Jesus' death in which he bore the penalty of sin, in which he broke the power of sin, in which lies the promise of an escape one day from the very presence of sin. Even before Jesus was born, his death was firmly in view.

Name 3: Immanuel

The third name by which the child will be known is perhaps the most associated with Christmas. Verse 23 is a quotation from Isaiah chapter 7, written around 600 years earlier. The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuelref. And Immanuel literally means, "God with us" .

Once again, Matthew is keen to highlight the fulfilment of prophecy in the birth of Jesus Christ, which is his focus throughout these first few chapters of his gospel account.

The prophecy in Isaiah chapter 7 is of a sign. The birth of this child will be a sign of God coming to visit his people: first in judgement and then in protection. God will be with his people, with all that that entails. Immanuel: God with us.

Together, these three names tell us both who this child is, and what he does. The name Jesus tells us what he does: he saves. The name Son of David tells us who he is through his human nature: king. The name Immanuel tells us who he is through his divine nature: God with us.

In this baby, human and divine are united: fully human; fully God. Son of David; Immanuel. God come to live amongst us. And this is why he can can be Jesus, saving us from our sins. No mere human could do this, only God offering himself as a sacrifice in our place to bear his own wrath.

I hope I don't need to say this, but we've got to hold on to the doctrine of the virgin birth! Sometimes it seems a little odd, a little embarrassing and hard to defend. We'd rather not talk about it. But when God comes to be with us, nothing is impossible.

The virgin birth both fulfils the prophecy, and shows us how Jesus can be God with us: divine and human in one. And Matthew is extremely keen that we are in no doubt as to its truth: verses 24 and 25, 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 no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.ref


So, Joseph's first Christmas turned out to be something pretty special didn't it? God reached into the life of this ordinary man, and came and lived with him. Son of David: a baby born to be king; Jesus: a baby born to save; Immanuel: a baby, God with Us, God with Joseph growing and learning under his care, under his roof.

It strikes me that our world desperately wants Christmas to be special. Just look at the idyllic picture painted by the adverts on television. We talk about "the magic of Christmas" and "the wonder of Christmas" . For months and months people pin their hopes on Christmas being the highlight of the year.

The world desperately longs to inject something special into Christmas. How can we make it magical? How can we make it wonderful? But the reality of it is that Christmas has just become more and more of the ordinary: more shopping; more spending; more stuff; more eating; more drinking; more washing up; more television; more squabbling; more arguments. Christmas can never be made special just by doing what we normally do, only more intensively and a with a bit of decoration.

No, If we want Christmas to be special, we need an intervention by God. At that first ever Christmas, Jesus—king, saviour, God with Us—moved in with Joseph and transformed the ordinary into the glorious.

Let's spend a few moments reflecting on how we can make Christmas special this year. How are we going to let the glory of God in Jesus break into our ordinary daily lives this Christmas?

If I'd thought of it early enough, I would have suggested that we sing "O little town of Bethlehem" : apologies to Grace for that. But it gives us the answer: "But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him still, The dear Christ enters in."

Let's pray and continue afterwards in reflection.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel