O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight
This popular hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” speaks of a peaceful, tranquil, and wondrous event that occurred in the well-known town of Bethlehem. Last week we talked about Mary of Nazareth, the one chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Her shock at discovering she was to be with child was only tempered by her faith in God that in spite of all the enormous obstacles she was about to face, God would prevail. Today we turn our attention to the other half of this holy couple – Joseph of Bethlehem. We find Joseph’s story in the gospel of Matthew, whereas we read Mary’s account in the gospel of Luke.
We often think of the progression of events as all taking place in Nazareth. We know that Mary’s announcement from the angel Gabriel occurred in her hometown of Nazareth. It is natural to assume that Joseph lived there as well. The assumption continues that when Mary informed Joseph of her pregnancy, and Joseph receives his reassurance in a dream, the two were married in Nazareth and only proceeded to Bethlehem for the census as noted in Luke chapter 2. But if you were to read the gospel of Matthew by itself, Nazareth is not even mentioned until Jesus is about 2 years old. Bethlehem appears to be Joseph’s hometown, and this is corroborated by the gospel of Luke. This begs the question – if Bethlehem is Joseph’s hometown, and they had to return to Bethlehem for the census, why did Joseph and Mary have to stay at an inn? Why didn’t they go to Joseph’s family home? I’m afraid I will leave you hanging with these questions until Christmas Eve when all will be revealed!
Consider the possibility that since Mary’s hometown was a 9-day journey from Joseph’s, they were most likely engaged in a long-distance relationship arranged by their families. So when did Mary most likely tell her fiancé that she was with child? We know and will explore next week that Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth immediately following the annunciation. Tradition locates Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home in a town called Ein Karem, which was only four miles from Bethlehem. Perhaps Joseph visited Mary there, at which point she calls him in for the “We have to talk” speech.
Bethlehem was a small town of about 500-1,000 people but was very well-known. The story of Ruth is based in Bethlehem. Rachel, Jacob’s wife was buried near here. Ruth’s great-grandson David was the young boy from Bethlehem that Samuel anointed as king over Israel. Bethlehem became known as ‘The City of David.’ Considering the crowd that gathered the night of Jesus’ birth, it is fairly clear that a lot of folks claimed Bethlehem as their hometown.
While Bethlehem was a well-known, famous little town, it was believed to house working class folks who would serve the needs of those living in Jerusalem, just a short walk away. Joseph was a carpenter – a simple laborer. He was not known as a master carpenter, but just a basic needs carpenter who most likely worked with wood and stone. He undertook a humble profession, and we note God’s repeated pattern of using those who embody and display true humility. Clearly Joseph was a man of few words – he is never quoted in scripture. In fact, so little is known about Joseph that traditions have developed over the years. Catholic and Orthodox traditions portray Joseph as an older man, possibly a widower, when he agreed to his engagement to Mary. Protestant traditions see Joseph as a young man similar in age to young men seeking marriage – about 15 years old. [Nativity]
Picture the scene if you will of Mary’s stunning “We need to talk” speech. Joseph comes to visit his betrothed and she literally drops a bomb on all his plans – Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows for a fact that he is not the father. When we look at Joseph’s initial reaction, we can read a lot into his character. Matthew 1:18-19 notes: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” What this verse tells us is that Joseph did not believe Mary, otherwise he would not have looked for a way to break the engagement. He couldn’t believe that she received a visit from a holy messenger and her pregnancy was of God. He didn’t take Mary at her word. But let’s face it – this is a bit of a bizarre story, is it not? It sounds a bit like some of the rather creative accounts our children present for not completing homework assignments! As we picture the scene, we can imagine Joseph storming out of Elizabeth’s home, hurt, angry, betrayed; and we can envision Mary weeping at the sight of his retreat.
Have you ever felt the sting of betrayal? Have you ever felt completely blind-sided from someone you knew and trusted? Can we relate just a little with Joseph? Sometimes our feelings of betrayal come from odd angles – like an unexpected illness or accident that leaves a dark and lonely path in its wake. Maybe it comes in the form of a job loss or a sense of uselessness over attempting to do some good in this world only to have our offer of help brushed aside. Despair and betrayal can be depressing companions.
Yet God does not leave us in despair just as he did not leave Joseph. While I do not believe God causes bad things to happen to us, I do believe that God will somehow wield good out of evil. Otherwise, how can we honestly say, “God is good, all the time?” How can we praise God when our world is falling apart around us? How can we find any joy during this season of joy when our hearts are breaking? We cling to the promise of God that comfort is ours and that we may cry through the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Even in Joseph’s obvious state of anger and hurt, he did not want to see any harm come to Mary. Joseph was a righteous man. What does it mean to be righteous? That’s another one of those church words we like to throw around but what does it mean? A righteous person is one who follows God’s will and seeks to deepen ones faith while putting that faith into action. Joseph was not noted as righteous because he followed the law, for this would have allowed him to have Mary put to death. He was found righteous for showing compassion and mercy. We see Joseph’s faith in action by refusing to expose Mary publically. Even in his doubt, and hurt, and anger, and despair, his faith in God shines through in this small glimmer of hope. God does indeed provide Joseph the reassurance he needed to restore his trust in his betrothed and embark on a difficult journey – becoming the earthly father of the son of God. By not breaking the engagement, Joseph is in a sense answering God just as Mary did, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your will.”
What is the take-away from the story of Joseph? We find a contrasting character in another prominent historical figure. Throughout Joseph’s life, Herod was ruler over the occupied land of Jerusalem. Herod was seen in direct opposition to how we understand Joseph to be. Herod loved the flashy and extravagant. He built a huge palace high on a hill for all to see and named it after himself. He ordered his winter palace to be built high atop a man-made mountain in order to look down on his subjects. He was haughty and lavish in every way.
By contrast we find Joseph, a humble carpenter doing an honest trade. He was a working man living off the land by providing much-needed skills and labor. He must have been a man of few words as none are ever quoted in scripture. We find his world turned upside down yet he remained righteous in the sight of God. We also know that children are greatly influenced by their parents. The qualities of mercy, caring, humility, and love are all displayed in Jesus and we have to wonder if Jesus’ earthly parents didn’t have some significant influence on his life and ministry. Take heart parents, your children are still listening. God follows a distinct pattern of using the humble to do great things. We are to see a beautiful example of humility in action in the person of Joseph.
Today we lit the candle of peace. Finding peace during this busy time of year can be a tough one. I encourage each of us to find a place and quiet time to commune with God. Reflect with a new understanding of all that God has done for us. As we continue on our journey toward the miracle of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem, we are given the promise of hope, peace, joy and love in the person of Jesus the Christ. Let us be mindful of the journey set before us and seek to reveal God’s love to all through our words and actions. Amen.