The Holy Family: Joseph – 12/19/2021

Matthew 1: 18-25

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. 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 fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Sermon Text

Sometimes you have to preach a sermon for yourself, or perhaps a sermon that you would have liked to have heard sometime in your life. Today we celebrate Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father and the one who raised him up in Nazareth. Like the rest of the Holy Family, Joseph is mostly known to us in legends and stories, and not so much as a person revealed in scripture. We know that he was engaged to marry a young woman named Mary, that he was kind and wanted to resolve the scandal of her pregnancy in a way that honored her, and that once an angel set him straight, he was committed to his wife and child.

The only other detail of Joseph’s life which we can say with some certainty is that he died either at the start of or right before Jesus’s ministry. This is revealed to us in his disappearance from scripture after Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem at age 12, and the fact that Mary eventually joins Jesus in his cross Judean ministry. She would only do this, following her itinerant oldest son, if the responsibility for caring for her had been transferred to him after Joseph had passed away. So, anything we say about Joseph has to be fairly abstract. However, as the last few weeks have shown us, the length of a person’s description on a page is not all that there is when it comes to understanding what they meant to those around them or as examples to us today.

Joseph is a pinnacle of love. It would have been easy at any point in his story to jettison himself from the situation he found himself in. When Mary was revealed to be pregnant, he could have publicly announced the reason for breaking off an engagement, but he instead planned to let her go quietly. When he was visited by the angel and told that this pregnancy was an act of God and that he was to raise the savior of humanity, he could have run away, but he submitted himself immediately to this work. Joseph had every chance to be callous, but he always chose love.

There are several legends about Jesus growing up in Nazareth and while some are quite fanciful, there is one that stands out in my mind. The author, imagining what it would be like to have a teenage Jesus around, described Joseph making the wrong cut on a piece of wood he was working on. Jesus, the faithful son, then miraculously lengthens the wood to account for this mistake.[1] While this story is only that, a story, it does let our imagination go a bit more freely. To see the way that Joseph would have embraced Jesus as his own, teaching him wood working and apprenticing him in his artisan shop. Jesus, in turn, using the powers he has as Son of God to help his earthly father. There is something beautiful to this sort of story.

Raising Jesus up probably wasn’t always easy. He had siblings after all, brothers and sisters born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. We know the names of the boys: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (not that one,) but sadly none of the sisters are named. Jesus’s siblings did not always understand him, once actively telling him to stop being such an embarrassment when he came home preaching his message. Jesus then seemed to refuse to go along with the family on pilgrimage. (John 7: 1-10) Scripture only speaks of when Jesus and his siblings were adults, it is hard to imagine what they were like as kids. More than that imagine if your eldest sibling was actually the son of God, and it wasn’t just what your mom thought about them!

Joseph had a big responsibility in raising Jesus. I’m not sure how much of Jesus’s earthly self was reflective of the way he was raised and how much was from his essential God-ness. I do like to imagine that sometimes he would say things that made his neighbors eyes roll, “Say what you want about the kid, he’s Joe’s boy now!” There must be something in the humanity of Jesus that reflected the man who raised him, and I often wonder what that looks like. Of course, I’ll be wondering until the day of resurrection about that, we just do not have information otherwise on that kind of mystery.

As with much of scripture, the thing that Joseph did, loving a child that was not biologically his own, was not unique. The miraculous quality was not in the act itself. Instead, the grace and mercy of Joseph is shown in the example he gives to us today, to love people even when we do not have an immediate relationship with them. We can count people as family without them sharing genomic markers with us, we can love people we have only just met because they bear within them that image of God we discussed last week in Elizabeth’s story. Joseph does something mundane; he loves a child he is raising, but the example he sets echoes through eternity and equips us to do the same.

In particular, I want to take time today to speak to blended families. They are so often left on the sidelines of church discussions of “Family.” We still treat as normative the idea of a father and a mother and their children and act as if any deviation from that is not worth talking about or somehow a diminishment of what could otherwise be. Perhaps to an idealist that is true, but in my own life, both as someone who grew up in a blended family, and as someone who knows a great many blended families, I do not think it is worth speculating on ideals when the beauty of what God can do in what is, is right in front of us. There is a blessed quality to blended families, a lesson and a blessing innate to them, that is not worth ranking above or below any other arrangement.

To speak to my own experience, I am blessed to have loving family on all sides. I have a loving mother, a loving father, and loving grandparents all by blood. I was raised fairly normally by sometimes normal people. My parents split up when I was ten and while that caused its fair share of trouble, it also introduced a blessing. Sometime after my parents had parted ways, my father met and married a woman named “Robin.” She had two kids of her own, a son named Brady who was a year and half older than me and a daughter named Jordan who was about a year younger than I am.

A lot changed with the expansion of my nuclear family. I came to live with father and stepmother and now shared a room with a brother, something I had never had before then. I was introduced to new grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles that were now, fully mine. All of this was an addition into my life and while it all caused some friction like any change will do, it was ultimately a blessing revealed again and again. It was this move that saw me attending church for the first time. First United Methodist Church of Berkeley Springs became my home and soon enough I was deeply involved in that congregation and well… The rest is history.

I can point to a lot of things about my blended family that made me who I am, however, there is one thing that no one can deny. That it that my stepmother is one of the best influences I’ve ever had. Beyond getting me into the church, Robin immediately showed she was an overwhelmingly loving person. She never for one moment treated me like I was any different from her own children. Sure, she knew them longer and did birth them, so things were never going to be identical. Yet, there was never any doubt in my mind that she saw me as her child, and that she wanted everything good for me that she could possibly give. She got me active in my school and in my church in ways I don’t think I otherwise would have. Things were never perfect, and I will never claim to have been a perfect child to any of my parents, especially perhaps her, but the sainted qualities of my stepmother is something no one will ever deny.

We who live in blended families know that it is not always easy to keep a balance going. We bristle at each other; we negotiate custody when kids are too young to drive themselves places. Holidays are divided up and negotiated over. You will never know anything messier than a blended household. Yet, when we take on stepfamilies, the attitude we should have is that the family we are taking on is just as important as the family we already had. We marry into, not just the person we love, but all the people attached to them. Children are, of course, less involved in that decision, and so it falls on adults to accept that reality and work to make it come true.

Blended families are the primary thing that comes to mind for me, but it goes beyond this particular kind of family dynamic. In-laws are also people we bring into our family, and we should treat them like family. That may get more difficult as the circles go wider and wider, but generally the pattern we put forward should be a more expansive definition of family. My siblings have married two wonderful people, my wife has two wonderful siblings, one of whom got married very recently. All these people are my family. Likewise, I have friends who are family to me, people who might as well be my sisters and brothers, whom I love fiercely.

Family is what we make of it, no matter how people come to be a part of it, we celebrate them. The Church is, in itself, people who found one another and decided to live as siblings, united in the identity Jesus has given them as Children of God. Today we celebrate Joseph, and by extension we celebrate family.

I speak so openly about my own family and experience today because Joseph will always be near to my heart. I love this member of the holy family, because every Christmas my stepmother’s eyes would light up when he was mentioned. The ultimate stepparent, who raised Jesus as his own, was the one she most aspired to resemble year after year. I can tell you today, she did that and then some. So let us all follow the example of Joseph, and as Christmas bells ring, only a little way off, let us see our family all around us. – Amen.

[1] The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. XIII

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