Summary: Advent is a time of preparation and repentance, and it turns out that Joseph’s story has a few things to teach about those very things.
Joseph…the husband of Mary.
The Bible doesn’t really tell us that much about Joseph. Legend has it that he was an elderly widow. Supposedly that explains why he was able to honor Mary’s virginity during the first months of their marriage and why he quietly disappears from the narrative sometime after Jesus becomes a teenager. But the Bible itself doesn’t fill us in on those details.
We know Joseph was a descendant of King David. We know that when Jesus was conceived, Mary was engaged to Joseph. We are told that he was a righteous man—an observer of the Law of Moses. We can surmise that he was a kind man, since he was concerned about Mary’s reputation and well-being as well as his own.
We know that Joseph spent time living in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth. We know he was a carpenter, and we presume that he trained Jesus in that craft. We know he provided for the religious instruction of his family and fully participated in the rituals and pilgrimages of the Jewish faith.
The Bible seems to indicate that Joseph and Mary had other children after Jesus was born, though this is somewhat ambiguous. Some have chosen to conclude, instead, that either Joseph had children by a previous wife, so that Jesus had only half-brothers and half-sisters. Others suggest that Joseph had no children and the brothers and sisters of Jesus to whom the Bible refers are really Jesus’ cousins.
There, that about sums up the facts of Joseph’s life as recorded in the Bible. When plays are written about New Testament stories, Joseph’s name never appears on the marquee. If he shows up at all, he’s always part of the supporting cast.
When it comes to Advent, John the Baptizer is the leading man. He is the Advent prophet. He is the one who comes to prepare the way of the Lord, and he proclaims a fiery message of repentance. John is flashy. John may not be worthy to untie the sandal of the One who follows him, but he is clearly a central part of the Advent narrative.
When it comes to Advent, Joseph is a peripheral character indeed. He usually isn’t mentioned at all until we get to Jesus’ birth narrative on Christmas Eve. After all, somebody has to lead the donkey that Mary rides into Bethlehem. (Oh, wait a minute, the donkey is a legend, too.) Well, somebody has to find the manger.
So why am I preaching a sermon entitled “Joseph” on the Second Sunday of Advent?
Joseph isn’t flashy. He isn’t the central part of any narrative. He doesn’t proclaim anything. He’s an ordinary guy who’s just doing his best to live an honorable life—faithful to his God and his family, respected by his peers.
That’s why. That’s why, this Advent, I’m preaching about Joseph. Because, metaphorically speaking, most of us are more likely to find ourselves quietly leading a donkey over an uncertain path, wondering what the future might hold, than standing on a ridge, shouting at sinners. Most of us spend our lives as peripheral characters in the Gospel narrative. Most of us aren’t flashy. Most of us are just ordinary folks doing our best to live honorable lives—faithful to our God and families, respected by our peers.
Besides, Advent is a time of preparation and repentance, and it turns out that Joseph’s story has a few things to teach about those very things.
1. Sometimes the future you think you are preparing for is not what the Lord has in mind for you.
When we first hear of Joseph in chapter 1 of Matthew, he is, indeed, preparing. He is preparing to bring Mary home as his wife.
He and Mary are engaged. This was a more serious thing in that time and place than it is now. They did not yet live together, but to break off the engagement now would require more than returning rings and canceling the wedding arrangements. It would require a divorce. They did not yet live together, but they were legally bound to one another.
Joseph was preparing a place for Mary to come and live as his wife. If he was an elderly widow, perhaps this entailed rearranging his existing home to accommodate her. If he was a young man, probably this entailed building additional room onto his parents’ house or perhaps building a new house.
Joseph was preparing for a future of settling down with Mary to raise children while continuing his carpentry trade in his hometown. He expected his leisure time to be rearranged. He expected his social calendar to be different. He expected to worry a little more when business was slow. He expected to know new joys when his sons someday read Torah before the congregation and his daughters someday gave him grandchildren.