The quiet teacher

Wednesday night we watched and listened as the children performed their wonderful Christmas pageant. What a great story… it changes year to year and yet remains the same, generation to generation. This year we followed Gloria who had just moved to California from Vermont, and her new friends and co-conspirators, all of them determined to show Molly Hollywooder, the Mayor that wanting to keep Christmas out of her town was not only a bad idea, but also impossible. We heard happy songs and funny lines, and saw some exquisite acting and even dancing, all in celebration of the birth of Jesus the Savior.

I thought of Christmas pageants past, many years ago when I was a kid and we didn’t even dream of wearing a microphone over our ears. I don’t know how many times I had a part in a pageant, but I remember playing a sheep (no lines to learn), a shepherd (just do what the older kids do), and one of the angels (we sang Gloria and worried about our wings falling off). The high point for me was the year I got to play Joseph, and the girl who played Mary and I got to sing harmony in response to an unkind inn keeper who told us he had no room for us.

Imagine that, Joseph, the strong, quiet type had a few lines of dialogue and even a song! Usually, you know that, all the attention is “round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild” and Joseph gets to hold the lantern. When Mary birthed Jesus, ‘twas in a cow’s stall, with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all – what about Joseph?[1] Can you think of a carol that has Joseph in it? There are few, very few; in our hymnal, just one.[2] Compare that to twelve with mother Mary. Last night at the choir Christmas party, when it was again, “Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day…” I turned to Micah and said, “Somebody needs to write a song about Joseph.”

The Christmas story is big, with plenty of room for details from Luke, Isaiah and Matthew. In nativity scenes and pageants it got bigger and bigger, proclaiming year after year the good news that there’s plenty of room in God’s inn for all to come home. Kimberly Richter is a colleague from North Carolina who wrote about her family’s nativity set:

We delight every year in unwrapping each figure and arranging the scene. But every year, just which figure is Joseph is a matter of personal opinion. Any one of five or six shepherds is a likely candidate for Joseph. Every year, I’ll admit, I look in that stable and wonder if I have the right man as the father of the baby Jesus. … of course, that was Joseph’s question, too. Who’s the father?[3]

Of the four gospels, Matthew is the only one that deals with the question of Joseph at all. Otherwise, he just disappears among wise men and farmers and shepherds and all. Luke barely mentions him. And even in Matthew, he appears in chapter one, disappears by chapter two, and never says a word. But watch him listen.

Joseph and Mary were married but not yet living together, and Mary was pregnant. Matthew tells us that the pregnancy was the work of the Holy Spirit, but Joseph didn’t know that; all he knew was that the child wasn’t his. Matthew doesn’t tell us what thoughts went through his head or Mary’s. In the entire passage, neither one speaks a single word. Matthew does tell us that Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose his wife to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Being a righteous man, a man who always sought to act in accordance with God’s commandments, he could have chosen to condemn Mary to life-long shame by publicly demanding a divorce. He could even have chosen to have her stoned to death for adultery – he could have, it was perfectly legal, and some of his friends and neighbors, had they known about the situation, probably would have expected him to do just that. But from among the limited options the law provided Joseph didn’t just do what the book says but chose the path of kindness. Joseph listened to the commandments of scripture with his heart inclined toward mercy.

There are of course other inclinations, other paths. Fred Craddock was reflecting on this short scene with Joseph when he almost lost his temper recalling how some people read scripture,

I get sick and tired of people always thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the Bible says. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.’ It’s in the Book. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths shut.’ Do you want me to find it for you? It’s in there. I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three pound Bible and say, ‘Just do what the Book says.’ [4] 

Righteousness is not as simple as just do what the Book says. Joseph could have read the law with his heart inclined toward anger and vengeance, but instead he read it with an unwillingness to expose Mary to public disgrace and chose to follow that path. And just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and Joseph listened:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The law against adultery didn’t apply at all, no matter what inclination one brought to it, because Mary wasn’t an adulteress. The child in her womb, the angel said, was not a violation of God’s holy will, but an expression of it, a gift from the Holy Spirit.[5] Joseph was to keep his marriage to Mary and he was to name Mary’s child ‘Jesus,’ thus becoming his adoptive father and crafting the baby into the tree of Jesse. Did he tell his family about this or his neighbors? Not according to Matthew, which I take as a strong hint that our question might be beside the point. Matthew wants us to watch Joseph listen. When he awoke from sleep he didn’t say anything, but his life became a faithful response to the revelation received in his dream. He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and through his obedience the child became a son of David.

In Matthew, the story of Jesus begins like the story of creation, with the stirring of God’s Spirit. This child is entirely God’s initiative, and through this child, God is making all things new. Now the law and the prophets must be read, understood, and obeyed in light of this newness – not to be left behind as old, but to be illumined from within with the light of Christ.

Joseph’s righteousness is in tune with the living and saving God. Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who reads the scriptures in light of what God has done in Jesus. According to Matthew, Joseph is the first person in the world to hear the word God is speaking in Jesus as the culmination of God’s promises and saving purposes. He will save his people from their sins and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. In Jesus the Savior God is with us, teaching, healing, and forgiving, serving, pleading, and reconciling.

Joseph is a quiet teacher, but he shows us what righteousness rooted in God’s mercy looks like. He shows us that doing what is right and in accordance with God’s will involves more than looking up a rule in a book, even if the book is the Bible. It involves listening for and responding to God’s will for us in light of Jesus’ life.

Joseph is a quiet teacher, but he tells us the gospel truth, “If in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself,”[6] you better think twice if that really is what God wants you to do. You better sleep on it, or better yet, pray on it, and let an angel from heaven remind you of what God has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do.

The impression we’re getting from our Christmas pageants, paintings, carols, and Christmas cards is quite accurate. All the attention is “round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild” and Joseph gets to hold the lantern. Some say he’s just a regular Joe trying hard to make himself useful.

Maybe, but I see a man who quietly directs our gaze to the new beginning this child embodies for the world.


[1] I Wonder as I Wander, Chalice Hymnal #161

[2] Chalice Hymnal #155 Angels We Have Heard on High (v4 Mary, Joseph lend you aid, while our hearts in love we raise). Joseph, Dearest Joseph Mine is a lovely lullaby/carol, but it’s not included in Chalice Hymnal. The Cherry Tree Carol presents a Joseph very different from Matthew’s!

[3] Kimberly Clayton Richter, “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship”, Journal for Preachers Vol. 28, No. 1 (Advent 2004), p. 8

[4] Fred Craddock, “God is with us,” The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 5

[5] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 13

[6] Craddock, pp. 5-6.