The Story We Thought We Knew: The Father We Wish We Knew
I wish to read for you just a portion of The Story of the First Christmas as we find it in the Gospel according to Matthew. This is the Word of God.
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. But before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he considered 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 home as your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.’ All of this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call Him Immanuel, which means God with us.’ When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son, and he gave Him the name Jesus.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest, just give me Jesus. Amen.
He is, as I choose, to call Him “the forgotten man of Christmas.” I refer to Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth. Think about it, please. Our Christmas cards portray the Babe in Bethlehem, the mother and the manger, the herdsmen out on the hillsides, the wise men and the angels. But what about Joseph? Or our Christmas carols, we sing A Virgin Mother and Child, Angels From the Realms of Glory, Shepherds in the Field Abiding, We Three Kings of Orient Are, and even Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem. But what about Joseph? He is the forgotten man of Christmas.
Now, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that, to be sure, Joseph in the gospel accounts of the first Christmas stands absolutely silent. He is spoken to. He is spoken about. But never does a single syllable ever cross his lips. He is absolutely silent. And because of that, I think, we have come to regard Joseph as, well, really nothing more than just a bit player, just an extra as it were in the unfolding drama of the first Christmas.
Through the years, we have unconsciously, I presume, unintentionally, tended to ignore Joseph. To just shun him off into the wings of the Christmas stage where, if he is visible at all, it is only just barely. Now, I will tell you that, to my way of thinking, I believe that to be absolutely wrong. I believe that Joseph, the Carpenter of Nazareth, deserves to be front and center with Mary and the Christ Child in the full Christmas story. For, you see, when you take a really close, hard look at Joseph as we find him in Scripture, you discover that he is absolutely vital to everything that transpires on that first Christmas primarily because of what God said to him and what God did through him.
Though he never utters a word, at least as far as the Bible records, the fact of the matter is that Joseph’s courage and compassion, his determination and devotion, his faith and foresight, his strength and sensitivity, combined with his unswerving obedience to the will of God in his life, all of that combines together to actually make a more profound impact upon Christian thought and Christian living than we, up to this point, have been willing to acknowledge.
Now, it’s worth remembering also that that first Christmas, no matter how we may try to romanticize it, was not a time of sweetness and light. Quite the contrary. It was a time of stress and storm. A time of darkness and despair. A time of trouble and tragedy. A time of testing and trial. And yet right at the center of it all we find this ordinary working man, Joseph, who is suddenly caught up in a swirling confluence of events and circumstances over which he had no control. Events and circumstances which, apart from the power of God, might well have destroyed him. And so here we see this amazing man right at the center of the Christmas story. And his faith, his strength, his courage altogether strengthened and sustained him in the midst of it all.
His story is actually an incredibly powerful story. And I believe that it is incumbent upon us to expand our understanding of the Christmas story to incorporate the great story of Joseph, the Carpenter of Nazareth. Yes, I believe we need to see Joseph in a new light, not as some bit player but rather as one of God’s stars on the Christmas stage.
Remember, please, Joseph was tough.
Oh, was he ever. He was tough enough to make tough decisions. Tough enough to face up the tough problems. Tough enough to face down tough enemies. Tough enough to obey the Lord even when it cost him something, or for that matter when it cost him dearly. Oh, yes, he was tough. And we see that right off the bat, the very first moment we’re introduced to him on the pages of Scripture. For there, he has to confront the reality that his fiancé, Mary, is suddenly with child.
How does he respond? Well, I don’t know if you heard it in the reading or not but the Bible says he considered this. He considered this. Don’t let those English words fool you, not for a moment. You see, well, he considered. This sounds so simple, so quick, so easy. Doesn’t it? But that’s actually a very poor translation of the original language. You see, in the original words, the meaning is that Joseph agonized profoundly. He grieved. He struggled. He wrestled. He grappled. He prayed earnestly for all he was worth. He fought and fought and fought with the circumstances, trying to determine what would be the best outcome. Here, at the center of this story, we see this amazing man engaged in a titanic struggle and the whole thing gets covered over by those innocuous little words: he considered this.
Don’t ever read those words without understanding what’s really behind them. Joseph had to face the terrible emotional distress of dealing with the profound consequences, catastrophic consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. And in the face of this tough problem, he turned to God. That’s the point that you got to catch. He turned to God in the tough times. So let me ask you, what do you do in your life when you encounter those hard times that sometimes come our way? The noted British psychologist J.A. Hadfield has written these words: “When any four people encounter tough times which seem too much for them, one curses, one gets a headache, one gets drunk, and one prays.”
Well, how do you respond when the tough times come? Do you turn the air blue with your curses? Do you lash out in anger and hostility? Do you look around for someone else to blame? Do you let the acid of bitterness and resentment begin to eat away at your soul? Do you try to drink or drug your way into insensibility? Or do you pray? Do you turn to God in the tough times in life? Understand, please, it is when we, like Joseph, turn to God in the toughest times of life that we then, like Joseph, gain the toughness and the strength to stand straight and tall and true in the face of life’s most difficult times. Joseph was tough, yes. The Carpenter of Nazareth was one tough man.
But remember also that Joseph was tender.
We see that incredible tenderness in the way Joseph treated Mary all the way through the whole sequence of events surrounding that first Christmas, and it’s a beautiful thing to see unfold. But I think it’s also worth our noticing that we see the tenderness of Joseph, I believe, in the way he apparently related to Jesus. Don’t miss this, please. When Jesus grew up He said God is like a strong, tender, loving, understanding father.
I want you to understand just how amazing that really is. Jesus actually frequently used the word there, “Abba,” which means literally “daddy.” I mean, understand how revolutionary that really is. No one in all of human history, before or since, no one has ever spoken of God or any other deity in such intimate terms. But when Jesus wanted to say the highest and the best thing that He could say about God, He said He is like a strong, tender, loving, understanding father. Given that fact, is it not reasonable to assume that what Jesus knew about fatherhood He learned from Joseph? I mean, reach back in your mind and recall the cliches. “A twig grows in the direction it is bent.” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Is it not reasonable to assume that Jesus, in his growing up years, saw qualities in His earthly father, Joseph, which enabled Him later on to speak of His heavenly Father, God, in the same terms He saw, loved, and appreciated in His earthly father? Is it not reasonable to assume that what Jesus knew about fatherhood He learned from Joseph? I contend with you that Joseph, the Carpenter of Nazareth, was indeed the example that God chose an example for His son Jesus.
Imagine with me, if you will, how it must have been. I wonder. I wonder when Jesus was a young boy, did He regularly come crowding into Joseph’s workshop? And whenever He did, would Joseph stop what he was doing and sit down and talk a spell with his young son about anything the boy wanted to talk about? Or sometimes did Joseph simply playfully pick up his young son and roll him about in the piles of soft saw dust until the bits of wood mingled in his dark Jewish curls? And I wonder if 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”? I wonder.
I wonder if Joseph and Jesus took walks in the fields around Nazareth. And did they stop occasionally to pick wild flowers to take home to Mary? And was it then that the seed was planted in Jesus’ mind which later on led Him to say, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all of his glory was not arrayed like one of these”?
And I wonder, did they climb up into the hills around Nazareth and encounter those places along the way where flowing streams ran and turn that desert-like place to lush green? Was it then that Jesus began to imagine in His mind what it would be like to have spiritual streams of living water flowing up from within?
And I wonder, when they reached the summit of the hills around Nazareth and looked out into the distance to see all of the caravan routes stretching out in every direction to the horizon, I wonder if it was then that Jesus began to mull in His mind what He later put into words, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.”
And I wonder, as Jesus and Joseph spent time together, did Joseph tell Jesus about the extraordinary circumstances surrounding His birth? And did he go on to tell Him about the difficulties of the escape that they made from Herod and how it then required a long hazardous journey into Egypt?
And I wonder if it was then that there was folded into Jesus’ consciousness and His concept of fatherhood, the noble virtues of bravery and courage.
And I wonder when Jesus saw the exquisite tenderness with which Joseph treated Mary, I wonder if later on building on that experience, was that what later on led Jesus to exalt womankind to the highest level possible, a level never known before or since?
And I wonder when Jesus spoke about our talents, about our money and our abilities and how we are to use them, I wonder if He was influenced by in His early years seeing Joseph develop his carpentry skills to virtual perfection, and watching as Joseph poured everything that he had into everything that he did.
And I wonder if it was 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.”
If you ever have the chance to visit the Louvre in Paris, you can find there a magnificent 17th century painting by a man named Georges de La Tour. The title of the painting is Joseph in the Carpenter Shop. It’s an exquisitely lovely painting. It portrays a big, strong, rugged Joseph hard at work. He has some intractable material he is shaping by hand. The only other figure in the painting is Jesus, a boy aged 10 or 11, and the young Jesus is holding a loft, a burning candle; that candle provides the only light for the scene. Yes, it is a lovely painting. But what you may miss if you do not know to look for it, what you may miss is that down at the bottom of the painting, in the dark shadows there—you can barely see it if you look closely—you can see what Joseph is building in those deep amber tones, your eye can just barely make out that Joseph is building a cross.
I wonder. I wonder if it was Jesus’ experience in His younger years of spending that time in the carpentry shop, assisting Joseph in any way that He could, doing whatever it was that Joseph asked Him to do, was that when Jesus’ life became so profoundly marked by a deep unfailing obedience to His heavenly Father? An unfailing obedience to God which ultimately did lead Him to the cross. I wonder.
Dear friends, mark it down. Tuck it away in your heart. Don’t forget it. Add it to your Christmas story Joseph was tender. You see, when Jesus wanted to say what God is like, he said God is like a strong, tender, loving, understanding father. It is safe to say, I think, that he learned that from Joseph, the Carpenter of Nazareth.
Here, in the midst of this Christmas season, I wish to share with you a thought given to me by a friend of mine. He asked me to envision myself standing before the throne of God in the Kingdom of heaven. Before me there is a scale, a balance, you know the kind of scale to which I refer. On the left side of the scale, the devil has heaved all of the sins of my life. On the right side, the angels are scrambling desperately, trying to find some good in my life to add to that side of the scale to offset the weight of the sin. It’s no use. The scale drops to the left with a sickening thud. But then, suddenly, there is a sound. A small sound. A small metallic sound. A nail is dropped on the side of righteousness. And then another nail. And a third nail. And another nail. And the scale tips to the right. I do not know whether the nails came from a manger in Bethlehem, or from a carpentry shop in Nazareth, or from a cross on Calvary. But this much I do know, by the grace of God and my Lord Jesus Christ, I am saved. Yes, I am heaven-bound. And this much I also know, what is true of me can be true of you as well.
How does Shakespeare’s King Lear put it? It is the stars, the stars above us which govern our condition. No, no, no. King Lear, you are so wrong. It is not the stars that govern our condition. It is one star. One single shining star. The Star of Christmas, that’s the star which governs our condition and shapes our lives and determines our destiny. For the Star of Christmas speaks to us of our God; the God who is like a strong, tender, loving, saving, forgiving, heavenly Father. We learn about that father from Jesus, and Jesus learned about that father from Joseph. Oh, dear God, what a man was the Carpenter of Nazareth. Now, perhaps you can understand why I believe that Joseph ought to be seen as one of God’s stars on the Christmas stage.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.