Joseph: A Star On The Christmas Stage
December 4, 2005 | PROVIDENCE Presbyterian Church | Matthew 2:19-23
A friend I know set out to try to make Christmas an especially significant faith experience for his family one year. So three weeks before Christmas, he bought a manger scene to use in teaching his children the real meaning of Christmas. He selected one with inexpensive and unbreakable figures so that his children could feel free to pick them up, examine them, play with them, arrange them as they wanted. It worked like a charm! His children spent hours playing with and talking about the figures in that nativity scene. Well a couple of weeks passed, and then came the “acid test.” The father went in one day, sat down with his children and asked them to tell him about the characters in the scene. With great excitement they pointed to the shepherds, the wise men, the angels, to the barnyard animals and the desert camels, to Mary and the baby Jesus. The father said, “That’s great, but didn’t you forget somebody? Who is this man standing by Mary?” For a moment there was silence. Then suddenly the 5-year old piped up, “Oh, I remember now. That’s old Joe what’s-his-name!”
Well those children inadvertently put their finger on a fascinating phenomenon of Christmas, namely that we tend to forget about Joseph. Joseph is, as I like to say it, “The Forgotten Man of Christmas.” In the Bible, Joseph stands silent. He is spoken to, and he is spoken about but not a single syllable crosses his lips. Therefore we tend to view him as just a bit player—just an extra in the Christmas drama. Over the years, we have unconsciously and, I suspect, unintentionally ignored him and pushed him into the background. Today, however, I wish to bring him front and center to the place in the story which I think he deserves. While Joseph never spoke a word in Scripture, what Joseph did in Scripture speaks volumes. His faith and foresight, his courage and compassion, his strength and sensitivity, his devotion and determination, and his unwavering obedience to the will of God speak more eloquently of Christian thought and Christian lifestyle than we have been willing to acknowledge. Remember please that that first Christmas was not a time of sweetness and light—it was a time of storm and darkness. We have so romanticized the whole story that it has lost its bare, brutal impact. However, that bare, brutal impact is exactly what Joseph had to face. Here he was just an ordinary workingman suddenly caught up in a swirling confluence of events and circumstances that, apart from God, might well have destroyed him. He faced emotional distress—how to deal with the potentially disastrous consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. He faced physical challenges—how to escape the vast military machine unleashed by a jealous king bent on snuffing out the life of Joseph’s infant Son. However in the face of all of that, Joseph’s faith, courage, compassion, obedience, and strength sustained him. That is why I believe that we need to see Joseph not just as some bit player but rather as one of God’s stars on the Christmas stage. In fact, the way Joseph combined toughness and tenderness in his life can serve as a powerful lesson to us all.
Joseph was tough.
Tough enough to make tough decisions. Tough enough to face down tough opposition. Tough enough to obey the Lord even when it cost him something. We see it right from the very first moment we meet him in the Bible. When he found out that Mary was expecting a child, he faced a real problem—a profound dilemma. The Bible says, “He considered this.” That sounds so simple, so easy, so quick, but really that is the Biblical way of saying, “He agonized, he grappled, he struggled, he deliberated, he wrestled, he grieved, he prayed …” Joseph was tough enough to face the tough problems, and out of his struggle came God’s answer. So let me ask you something today. What do you do when you face a difficult problem in your life? Do you lash out, or run away, or feel sorry for yourself, or do you, like Joseph, face it and wrestle it through?
I was reading recently about a politician who made a rousing and powerful speech to some prospective voters. He ended the speech in dramatic fashion and then cried, “Now I want you to go to the polls on Tuesday and vote for me.” Just then a heckler in the audience yelled back at him, “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were St. Peter!” Quick as a flash, the politician responded, “If I were St. Peter, you wouldn’t be in my district!”
I wish I was as quick as that in response to my problems, but I’m not. I have to go down a lot of painful roads seeking answers which are sometimes hard to come by. When I have a problem I need all the help I can get to stay strong and tough in the face of it. Dr. J. A. Hadfield, the noted British psychologist, has written “When four people run up against the tough times in life and find it too much for them, one swears, one gets a headache, one gets drunk, and one prays.” Well when life gets hard, what do you do? Do you swear, lash out in hostility, try to find someone to blame, cave into bitterness, run away, drug yourself… or do you pray? You see, it is when, like Joseph, we turn to God in the midst of the storms of life that we find the toughness we need to stand strong and true in the face of those storms.
Joseph was tough yes, but Joseph also was tender.
We see his tenderness in the loving and sensitive way he dealt with Mary, and we also see his tenderness in the way he dealt with Jesus. Don’t miss this please. When Jesus grew up, He called God, “Father.” When Jesus wanted to say the best and highest thing He could think of to say about God, He said, “God is like a loving and understanding Father.” Is it not reasonable to assume that what Jesus learned about being a father, He learned from Joseph? Reach back into your mind and recall the cliches. “A twig grows in the direction it is bent.” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” The words remind us of the relationship Jesus must have had with Joseph, and something about that relationship moved Jesus then to refer to God as “Father.”
How it must have been: Jesus as a little boy would crowd His way into the workshop, and Joseph would always stop what he was doing to talk a spell about whatever the boy wanted to talk about, or to pick Him up and playfully roll Him in the piles of soft sawdust until the bits of wood mingled with His dark Jewish curls. Maybe it was this ready access to Joseph’s shop and Joseph’s attention which led Jesus later on to say, “Never prohibit a child from coming to Me.” Did they go for long walks in the fields around Nazareth, stopping occasionally to pick flowers for Mary? Was it then that the seed was planted in Jesus’ mind which later moved Him to say, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow… Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”? As they walked together, did Joseph tell the Boy how they had escaped Herod’s armies by taking that long, demanding, hazardous sojourn in Egypt? Was it then that Jesus began to tie into the concept of fatherhood the noble virtues of courage and bravery? As they climbed higher into the nearby hills and came to the places where flowing streams turn that desert-like place to lush green, was it then that Jesus began to imagine what it would be like to have streams of living water welling up within? Reaching the summit where they could see caravan routes stretching out in all directions toward the horizon, was it then that Jesus began to mull in His mind the idea which later He would put into words, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations …”? The lovely tenderness which Jesus saw Joseph give to Mary—was that what led the Master to exalt womankind to the highest level possible, a level never known before or since? When Jesus spoke of talents—both money and ability—and the way we are to use them, were his thoughts shaped by the fact that He had seen Joseph develop his carpenter’s skills to virtual perfection and that He had watched Joseph pour everything of which he was capable into everything he did? Was it Jesus’ appreciation for Joseph’s work that led Jesus later on to say so beautifully, “Take my yoke upon you, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light”? Yes, I think that is how it must have been.
Visit the Louvre in Paris, and you will see a 17th century painting by Georges de la Tour called “St. Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop.” The painting shows a rugged, sturdy Joseph hard at work. The only other figure there is the boy Jesus aged 10 or 11. Jesus holds a candle which provides the only light. He looks attentively at the graying Joseph taking intractable material and shaping it by hand. It is a lovely painting but what you might miss, unless you look for it, is that in the shadows at the bottom of the painting you can see what Joseph is building. You can hardly make it out in the deep amber tones, but Joseph is building a cross. I wonder if it may have been in that carpenter’s shop, as He watched Joseph working, that Jesus was marked with the obedience to His Heavenly Father that led Him ultimately to the cross.
Don’t forget that when Jesus wanted us to know what God is like He said, “God is like a tender, loving, understanding father.” I think it’s safe to say that Jesus learned that from Joseph.
At this Christmas season let me share with you a thought I keep tucked away in my heart. I sometimes envision myself standing before the throne of God. Before me is a great scale—a balance. On the left side of the balance, the Devil has heaped all of my sins. On the right-hand side, the angels are desperately looking for something to balance the scale. No use. The scale drops to the left with a thud. All seems lost. But then suddenly, there is a sound—a small sound, a small metallic sound—a nail is dropped on the side of righteousness, another nail, and then another. I know not whether those nails come from a manger in Bethlehem or from a cross on Calvary, but this much I do know: the balance is tipped. By the Grace of Jesus Christ, I am saved. What’s true for me can be true for you, as well.
What was it that King Lear said? “It is the stars, the stars above us, that govern our condition.” No, Lear, you are wrong! It is one star, one single star, the star of Christmas, God’s star, shining in the midst of our storm tossed world—that is what governs our condition, shapes our lives, and determines our destiny. For that star speaks to us of God, our tender, loving, saving Heavenly Father. We learn about that Father from Jesus, and Jesus learned about that Father from Joseph.
That is why I think Joseph needs to be a star on the Christmas stage.