Christmas for the Average Joe

st-joseph-infant-jesus-344x400Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV

This past week, I went to the post office to purchase some Christmas stamps for our Christmas cards.  And this year, like every year, I am asked the same question from the postal clerk that goes something like this:  “Do you want the gingerbread house, or do you want the religious stamps?”  Last year, it was either “the snowman or the religious stamps?”

Of course I want the religious stamps! It’s Christmas, and I’m a preacher, and I’m supposed to be religious!

“What kind of religious stamps to you have?” I asked.

And every year it’s always the same. In the Christmas religious category, you always have the same number of choices—one.  Said the clerk: “It’s the Madonna and child, you know, the portrait of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.”

Have you ever wondered why there are no stamps of Joseph holding the baby Jesus?  In all of your born days, have you ever seen such a stamp?  Have you ever even heard of such a stamp?

Now, I understand that way back then, in a male dominated society, men probably didn’t do a lot of baby holding.  That was the woman’s job.  But why hasn’t there ever been a postage stamp of Jesus and Joseph hard at work in Joseph’s workshop building something together?  Why can’t we find a postage stamp of Jesus and his carpenter father building a new pew or a pulpit for the local synagogue?

And along the same lines, how many Christmas carols or a Christmas hymns have you ever heard that are about Joseph?  If you look through any traditional hymn book, you’ll find, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child Lowly in a Manger;” “That Boy-Child of Mary.” “What Child is this, Who, Laid to Rest on Mary’s Lap;” “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary.”  Then of course there’s “Silent night, Holy Night, All Is Calm All is Bright Round Yon Virgin Mother and Child!”  Why isn’t it “round yon father, mother and child?” Why is it never “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary and Joseph?”  The truth is: you’ve got to look high and low, do a lot of googling, to even find one mention of Joseph’s name in any Christmas carol or Christian hymn!

Now, I realize that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.  Yet, without him there would be no nativity.  Have you ever seen a nativity scene without Joseph?  Even the very small ones, the ones without all of the animals and the shepherds and wise men, have Mary, the baby Jesus and Joseph!

His role in the Christmas story is so important that he, like Mary is also visited by an angel. He is told that his wife, Mary, is going to have a baby, but he is not the father. However, he must accept the baby as his own.  And then, although he is asked to claim the child, raise the child, and provide for the child, Joseph will not even have the privilege of naming him, as he is told by the angel call him “Jesus.”

He must shoulder the demands of fatherhood. He must support Mary in her awkward situation before the child is delivered. And then, when the child is delivered, he must be born in a barn! Then, soon after, he must be protected from the horrors of King Herod. He must save the child’s life by fleeing to Egypt until it is safe to come back home. But still, Joseph has no postage stamp, no hymn, no carol.

They belong to Mary. Maybe it is because the church has traditionally called Mary “the first disciple.”  And well we should, for she was the first one to be visited by an angel, the first one to hear the call of God on her life, and she is the first one to faithfully say: “yes!”  When the angel told her that she was going to have a baby, she replied with obedient, grateful confidence with the beautiful words: “Let it be to me according to your will.”

Amen, Sister Mary! That will preach!

But what is there about our brother Joseph that will preach? Yes, he does go through extraordinary lengths to care for and protect the baby Jesus. But, really, who wouldn’t? When it comes to innocent babies, no matter who they are, most of us have a soft spot.

So what is it about Joseph that preaches, that speaks to us, that reveals something about who God is, how God acts, and who God is calling us to be?

Mary was the first to receive the good news, the first to be called by God to participate in the movement of God, and Mary was the first to say “yes,” but Joseph is the second to the get the news:  The good news, the gospel, the word that God was pouring God’s self out, emptying God’s self and becoming flesh to save all people through a child to be named Jesus. Joseph is the second to be called by God, which kind of makes Joseph the second disciple. And, Joseph was the second to say “yes!” Maybe that is what preaches about Joseph!

Well, actually, typical of Joseph, he did not say anything, at least nothing that we know of.  In all of our encounters with Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, we do not hear him utter one word.  Did you know that?  Maybe that is the reason the postmaster told me that yet again this year, that if I did not want the Gingerbread House, and wanted something in the religious department, I only had one choice.

But you know something?  Most of us are a lot like Joseph, aren’t we?  No one is going to find a postage stamp with any of our faces on it either. Most of us are a lot like Joseph in that all the news we have about Jesus is really second-hand news. We were not the first to get it.  Mary’s first-hand news was dramatic, causing her to become involved in the movements of God in the world in the most profound of ways, literally with her body and soul.

It’s just not quite the same with Joseph, and it is not quite the same with us.

And, like Joseph, most of us are not big talkers. We are ordinary, quiet folks. When Mary was visited by the angel, she burst into song, singing one of the most beloved songs in all of scripture and the church: her lovely and powerful Magnificat. But Joseph, he never sang. And as far as we know, he never even said anything.  He was a simple man, a quiet man, a rather ordinary man, an average Joe.

Now, I’m a big talker, but you have to pay me to do it! Most of you would be very uncomfortable up here doing what I do in this pulpit this morning. You have faith, but you don’t like to make a big show of it. You believe in Christ wholeheartedly, and you have committed yourselves to follow Christ faithfully, but you don’t have a lot to say about it. You are a faithful disciple, but you are a quiet disciple.

You go about serving your Lord every day, faithfully answering his call, courageously following Christ wherever he leads, albeit quietly.

And like Joseph, sometimes the call of God leads you to do things that you do not want to do. Sometimes it calls you to go to places that you do not want to go. Sometimes it calls you to accept and love people that you would rather not accept and love.

And every ordinary Joe who strives to live as a disciple for the sake of others sacrifices and suffers.  And you do it because something or someone who is greater than yourself is constantly persuading you, encouraging you, leading you. And you follow. You persevere faithfully and courageously, albeit quietly and ordinarily.

You are just an average Joe, minding your own mundane, everyday business, when suddenly your life is caught up in the extraordinary purposes of God. You wake up one day realizing that you need to serve God more by serving others more selflessly—forgive those who have wronged you, care more earnestly, love more deeply, follow Christ more closely.

You wake up with a desire to bake cookies and deliver them to the oncology floor at the hospital on Christmas Day. You awake and feel led to make a donation to the food pantry, serve a meal in the soup kitchen, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, and purchase a coat or a toy for a child.

And you don’t talk about it. You just very faithfully and quietly act.

The Bible is full of stories of average Joes minding his or her own business, and then, out of nowhere, comes a call. And usually the person being called is speechless.

Do you remember the call of Abraham?  When God called Abraham in the middle of the night, he was too dumbfounded to speak!  Do you remember the call of his wife Sarah?  When she was called, she could not talk either. All she could do was laugh!

When Moses was called, he spoke, but all he said was that he was not a very good speaker. We learn throughout the Bible, that this is simply the way God works. God specializes in calling ordinary people, average Joes, to become caught up in the unexpected and extraordinary movements of God in our world.

Therefore, we remember Joseph on this Sunday before Christmas.  And although we will not sing one carol this day about him, we thank God for him nonetheless. Because in Joseph we can see ourselves:  ordinary, average Joes.

Like him, we mind our own business. But then, into our ordinary lives, God intrudes. God comes to us, and God comes upon us. God calls us.  And even if we are not good with words, even we couldn’t burst into a hymn if we had to, even though we will never be on a postage stamp, if we will at least whisper, “yes,” then like Joseph, we will be faithful disciples, a people willing to follow the movements of God in Jesus Christ wherever it takes us.

And the good news is: that will preach!

PS: I found this poem after I wrote and delivered the sermon:

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see? 

It is important,
crucially important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,

Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It’s far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, ‘Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see?[1]

[1] Shepherd, J. Barrie. Faces at the Manger. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.

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