A family I knew when I served in the British Methodist Church many years ago told me this story. It seems the youngest daughter, Trudy, came home from school with the announcement that she had a part in the upcoming Nativity play and she was so proud. The problem was, she couldn’t remember which she had. She knew it started with a “B.” Her family spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what that part might be, but finally had to admit that they were stumped. At least until they arrived at the school for the performance and discovered that Trudy was a “bystander.”
I’ve often wondered if that meant she played Joseph. Certainly, in Luke’s version of the Christmas story, Joseph has a less than starring role. He hardly appears at all, except when it is his name that gets them shipped off to Bethlehem by Rome’s goofy decree. Then later, when they come to Jerusalem for what many assume to be the Bar Mitzvah, Joseph appears as another bystander while Mary does all the scolding. Oh, she does include him when she says, “Your father and I,” but that seems to be a plot device that allows the boy Jesus to make a statement about his true origins. “Did you not know I must be in my father’s house?”
Poor Joseph. We don’t know what happens to him, but he disappears quickly from the stories. Legends have grown up around him, as they always do. But nothing definitive has appeared to let us know that he was more than a bystander to Christmas.
Okay, in Matthew’s version Joseph is more than a bystander; he has a central role. It is Mary who gets short shrift in the story. Yet, even here, it all seems to be happening to Joseph. He is a responder, not a producer. I believe that is why Joseph doesn’t figure into our stories all that often. We want to be in control of our lives; we want to take charge.
At least that is what the world around us tells us. That is why the shelves of our bookstores and maybe even our homes are filled with “self-help” titles. We want to map the direction; we want to hold the reins of our lives. We get frustrated when things happen to us that are beyond our control. And when you think about it, things always happen to us that are beyond our control. Always.
Too often, we feel like bystanders in our own lives, let alone in the whirlwind that is Christmas. We had plans. What happened to them? Well, life happened to them; life happened to us. Everything has gone out of control; everything slips from our fingers. We feel helpless and put upon, watching the world go by at times.
That is just when we need Joseph. Things were happening to Joseph, no argument there. His plans were out of control— out of his control. Something or someone else had taken charge of his life. So, now what? Well, he had a choice. That’s the thing that we often forget at times like this. That is the perspective that we can lose sight of when life gets overwhelming. There is still a choice to be made. We still have input to give.
Joseph had to decide what he was going to do when life happened to him. He thought about it and decided that he would do the kindest thing he could think of. He would divorce Mary quietly. Jewish law gave him a range of options in cases like this one. He was allowed to consider how to punish Mary for this breach of the covenant. He could have had her publicly humiliated to restore his status since he was the wronged person in this relationship. He could have had her stoned to death or driven from the community. He chose the lightest of the options open to him; he was simply going to set her aside. The covenant was already broken;, the marriage that was legalized, if not yet celebrated and consummated, was over. It is best to just get out. He was, as Matthew tells us, a righteous man.
Righteousness is a great biblical concept. In our minds, it means pious, or holy, or a do-gooder. It has taken on a level of meaning that makes it impossible for most of us to comprehend, let alone live out. In many of our minds, it is now half a word – he’s a righteous ____. You fill in the blank.
But in the Bible, righteousness is the highest of concepts. In fact, in various places, it is used as a descriptor for God. The Bible even goes on to say that no one but God is righteous. Except Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man.
Righteousness simply means being faithful to our covenants. When we keep our promises, when we fulfill the law, when we are obedient, we are righteous. The story of the Bible is the story of the keeping and the breaking of covenants. Joseph was a keeper of the covenant. What he needed was other options. And God gave them to him in a dream.
Did you notice that Luke says that Mary got an angel in her living room? Matthew says Joseph got a dream. I don’t know about you, but an angel in the living room seems more convincing than a dream that might have been the result of a stressful night and not eating right. How was he to know that this wasn’t an upset stomach or traffic noise? How does he know this is God speaking and not him grasping at straws?
How did he know? Because he was a righteous man. Here was a way he could keep the covenant that he had made. Here was a way he could honor the commitment and honor the woman that he had come to love in this process. I know that marriage was a different sort of phenomenon in that world. And that our romantic notions of love and marriage don’t really fit in that cultural mindset. Yet, it seems to me that if there were no emotional connection here, the choice would have been easier for Joseph. The kindness he shows in his first choice would be unusual. The acceptance of a wild possibility coming from a dream seems almost unthinkable unless he could see the big picture.
The child that is conceived in her IS of the Holy Spirit. What an amazing act of faith for Joseph to wake up and not shake his head at the outrageousness of that claim. What was real, what was more earthly, more concrete was the betrothal, signed, sealed, and almost delivered. What would Joseph have to endure to accept this incredible, world-changing notion that somehow God had chosen Mary, his Mary. to be the vessel, the portal into our world?
That’s another thing we don’t know. We don’t get the juicy details of what happened in between the nighttime visitation from an angel of the Lord and the flesh and blood infant born to Mary and named by Joseph. We don’t know what happened to them, or in them.
But here is something to consider in this story, or at least in the blending of the two stories. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because that is where Joseph is from. His family is there. And yet, no one would take them in. Taking care of your family is high on the list of the responsibilities of hospitality for this culture. But there was no room for them in the inn. And an inn was not a Motel 6, where they would keep the light on for you. An inn was usually a family home that had an extra room or two for travelers or for family. For family. That innkeeper that we portray in our Christmas pageants might not have been a businessman, but a member of Joseph’s family. A family member who shut the door in Joseph’s face and sent him and his suspiciously pregnant wife out into the dark, cold night.
Our choices are not always easy to make or to keep. The consequences are sometimes painful, but there are always choices. We need not be bystanders to our own lives. We can, like Joseph, make the hard choice to believe that God is at work, that God is present, even in the most troubling of situations. We can choose to be obedient to the call to commit ourselves to follow, to commit ourselves to honor, to commit ourselves to keep our covenants, even when it becomes difficult to do so.
In the end, the role that Joseph played in this story was to name the child—a significant part in the drama. You could say that Joseph played the part of the sign. Or maybe became a sign to the sign that was the baby in the manger. But because he chose to enter into the drama, to be more than a bystander to the story, he becomes a sign for anyone with eyes to see that God is at work in the world.
Signs are messy business. Just ask Ahaz. Isaiah tells us King Ahaz was invited into the story as well. Ask a sign of the Lord (Isaiah 7:11.) Or maybe it was “become a sign of the Lord,” not because that’s what the text says, but because that is what would happen. When you start messing around with signs, when you start seeing God at work around you or even in you, things happen; and you lose control – as Joseph discovered. No wonder Ahaz doesn’t want anything to do with this sign business. Oh, he tries to pass it off as being humble, “I won’t put the Lord to the test” (v. 12). What he really meant was, “Keep me out of this.” What he meant was, “I’m content where I am; I’m in power; don’t threaten the status quo.” Because that is what God tends to do when showing up. Things get turned upside down or inside out, and Ahaz wanted nothing to do with that. Unfortunately, God was not to be deterred. You don’t want a sign, well, you’re getting one anyway. Here it is.
We can argue what Isaiah was referring to in chapter 7, whether it was something immediate to challenge the security of Ahaz on the throne or something distant like a child being born and left in a manger. Maybe both. But it was a sign. Signs of God’s activity in the world are around us. We need eyes to see them and the faith to look for them. But Joseph would tell us that it takes even more to be one, to be a sign of God’s action in the world. He became one for us when he decided to go all in on this crazy, world-upsetting drama and then to name the presence among them. It is a role he chose to play.
But one that we can play too. When we name Christ as the reason for our choices to love and to honor and to serve, then we, like Joseph, have moved from being a bystander to an actor, a co-creator with God, the theologians call it. We, at the direction of God, call things into being. Things like family, things like hope, things like peace. It is within us to name these things into being. It is within us to be obedient to the vision of the kingdom that God has given us, and we dream into reality by the choices we make every day.
There are two names for the child that are given in this passage. The most common one, of course, is Jesus. This name comes from the Hebrew, Yeshua (sometimes written as Joshua) and translates as “God saves.” This is the name that appears throughout the rest of the gospel. But the other name, which appears only here, is Emmanuel – God with us.
We love that name and ought to remember it more than just at Christmas time. The name itself is a sign. We certainly ought to remember it when it comes to making choices about how we respond to what happens to us and around us. We are not alone. We are not simply bystanders to our own lives. And maybe we ought to pay more attention to our dreams—the waking ones and the sleeping ones. Who knows, an angel may be talking to us.