Manger Scene: Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25

Manger Scene JosephDuring Advent we at Andrews UMC are building a manger scene, adding a piece each week until Christmas Eve.  Today we begin with Joseph… which means, today we’re talking about Jesus’ earthly dad.

I have always been a daddy’s girl.  I aspire to be like Dad in all important things, from the way I sink a basketball (sometimes) to the way I drink my coffee (black, always).  I love my daddy.

But like many daughters, I was closer to my mom.  Being the only two girls in our five-person family meant that Mom and I naturally logged more hours together.  We’d shop all day, laugh late at night, and talk on the phone each morning until I was late for work.  I’ve always adored my dad, always felt close to him… but for much of my life, I knew my mom in an intimate, best-friend kind of way that I didn’t know my father.

I think many of us are like this with Joseph and Mary.  We might admire him, but we don’t know him like we know Mary.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth tells us a whole lotta details about the Messiah’s mom:  her shared pregnancy with Elizabeth; her song; even some of her thoughts on things (“How can this be?”).  Mary shows up in the story of Jesus’ adult ministry (notably, around the cross); Joseph is only mentioned later as part of Jesus’ identity (“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”)

Who is Joseph, really?

Today’s Scripture tells us Joseph’s reaction to Jesus’ birth in just 8 verses… but those 8 verses tell us a very important thing to know about Jospeh:

Joseph is just and righteous.

 Matthew uses the word dikaios, which can be translated either way.  It means means “righteous” as in a right relationship to God by being obedient to God and God’s commands.  It means “just” as in a right relationship to others by treating people fairly, with justice.  Joseph obeys God.  Joseph treats others fairly.

In 8 verses we see those qualities at work.

Joseph learns that his fiancée is pregnant.  In the ancient near east engagement was a binding arrangement; although Joseph and Mary weren’t living together, they were legally committed to marry within the year.  If Joseph hasn’t yet “been with” his fiancée and she shows up pregnant, the natural conclusion under any normal circumstances is that she has been unfaithful.

Before any angel shows up to tell Joseph the right thing to do, he makes the decision that causes Matthew to describe him as dikaios:  he determines to dismiss Mary quietly.  This is “righteous” because it followed the law of the Torah, which made provisions for a man to hand his wife a certificate of divorce (Deut 24:1-4).  More than that, this is “just” because Joseph isn’t going to put Mary to a public trial that, according to Deut 22:23-27, might result in her being stoned to death.  At a moment when Joseph could have acted out of wild envy and heartbreak, he chooses to be righteous and just.

Then an angel comes and ups the ante.

The angel wants Joseph to believe that this baby isn’t the result of infidelity, but the Holy Spirit.  The angel wants Joseph to accept this son as his own – which will also mean accepting Mary’s shame as his own, looking like a cuckhold to the community.

“When Joseph awake from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matt 1:24).

The last few words of today’s Scripture tell us that Joseph named the baby, and that’s no small detail.  For a man in that day, the naming was the claiming.  Joseph accepted this child as his son and this mother as his wife.

Joseph was righteous and just.

After the birth stories we don’t hear anything more about Joseph; but maybe we know everything we need to know.  He was obedient to God.  He treated others fairly.

And although we don’t know anything definitively about Joseph’s relationship with his adopted son, we can see how they in this important way they are alike. 

Jesus would go on to teach about divorce.  “It’s been said that it’s OK to divorce as long as the man gives his wife a certificate,” he told a mountainside crowd (my paraphrase).  “But I say to you, divorce should only happen when something’s terribly wrong, like unfaithfulness” (Matthew 5:31-32).

When Jesus said that, did he remember the story of how his own father stayed with his mother?

Jesus would go on to choose the inconvenient and difficult path directed by God to benefit the people he loved.  He would follow that path all the way to betrayal, all the way to torture, all the way to the cross.  It looked like foolishness; it looked like defeat.

When Jesus prayed, “thy will be done” (Matt 26:42), did he remember how his father was obedient to God’s direction?

Biologically, Jesus was God’s son – so “justice” and “righteousness” were in his DNA.  But we learn things from our parents and mentors.  We watch and observe.  The things we see have the potential to change our actions.  It seems likely that Joseph had an affect on Jesus.

Just like my dad has had an effect on me.

I’ve always been a daddy’s girl – and still am one – but four years ago things changed.  In September of 2013, my father called me and said the words that would change not only our relationship, but everything, forever:

“Your mom has a brain tumor.”

For the next year and a half I watched my father do things I’d never seen him do before.  The man who considers a 50-hour workweek “light” started in the office less and around the house more.  Dad did more of things I’d seen him do only minimally before:  laundry, cleaning, balancing the checkbook.  Dad patiently and gently cared for my mother, who had in an instant transformed from strong-and-spunky to dependent-and-a-little-timid.

I watched that.  And although I hope to God I’ll never need to apply that example directly, I hope to God I’ll apply the example of Dad’s justice and righteousness when Mom was sick.  I want to love my husband and my children and all my beloveds the way dad loved mom.

Not everyone has a dad worth looking up to – that’s just the honest truth.  So if you need someone of your own to watch, watch Joseph.  Watch how he obeyed God.  Watch how he treated his beloveds.

Neither do we all have a dad looking out for us.  Even if we do, our human fathers don’t have angels showing up to help them solve life’s problems.  But we all – every one of us – has the gift of Jesus Christ, the son of a carpenter who gave his whole life so that we might be completely saved.

May you know that Jesus Christ has saved you.

May you follow the example of Jesus and his earthly father in the way of righteousness and justice.

May you open your heart to God and obey his direction.

May you open your heart to others and treat them with justice.




  1. […] from God translates into an unplanned pregnancy… out of wedlock… with God’s Son.  Let’s not forget what the stakes are here.  This isn’t just public shame; it’s mortal danger.  Deuteronomy 22 says unfaithful women can […]

  2. Oh, Dear Mary. This one brought tears to my eyes as you sketched the sweet relationships with your mom and dad. But as you described how your dad cared for you mom in such a tender, caring way was beautiful. It’s a joy to me to make your Sunday’s message be part of my Monday morning quiet time, and today to hear how Joseph was just and righteous–as we all much do–love God and love each other.

  3. Thank you, Anne! It was a special one to write. I’m always grateful for what the sermon-writing process teaches me… and glad when it has something to say to others 🙂

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