Saved by a Step-Father

December 27, 2015


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Dec. 27, 2015

“Saved by a Step-Father”
Matt. 1:18-25; 2: 13-15

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 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.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Matt. 1:18-25
Several years ago, we had five young boys over to spend the night at our house to celebrate Adam’s birthday. The morning after the party, one of the boys asked Eric, “Is that lady Adam’s step-mom?” and he pointed at me. Since Eric knew that I had overheard, he teased me a little in responding to the boy, “No, Adam doesn’t have a step-mom, yet!” But the little boy kept pushing, “How many step-moms does Adam have?” It was incomprehensible that someone 6 years old didn’t have at least one step-mom. We often associate this as a modern problem.

But, let’s consider the predicament of Mary and Joseph, new parents two thousand years ago. Usually our attention has been focused on Mary, a young girl who finds herself pregnant with no husband. But, according to Jewish tradition and law, it was Joseph who was really in trouble. Legally, Joseph was already regarded as Mary’s husband. But the law required a one-year waiting period before the couple could consummate their marriage. It was during this one-year-period that Mary “got herself pregnant,” as the phrase goes. The gospel tells us that the child was from the Holy Spirit, but since this hadn’t happened before, what was Joseph supposed to think? Everyone would assume that Mary had committed adultery, or more believably, that she and Joseph had broken the law and had been together before they were allowed.

Under these circumstances, Joseph had two choices. He could divorce her or he could consummate the marriage, and admit that he had broken the law. The gospel tells us that Joseph was a righteous and considerate man. He saw no choice but to divorce Mary, but he wanted to do that privately so she was not humiliated publicly. Had he followed through with this plan, no one would have blamed him. But after the angel let Joseph in on what was happening, Joseph took Mary as his wife. This explanation of Joseph’s behavior makes it clear that he is not the father of Mary’s child, he is the child’s step-father, so to speak.

And here’s the most significant thing: by keeping Mary as his wife, Joseph claimed public responsibility for her and the child. More importantly, by naming the child, Joseph acknowledged him as his own son and gave him an ancestry. Without Joseph, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child in a world hostile toward children, especially children without male parentage.

In the scripture, the ancestry given for Jesus in the Bible is from Joseph’s side, not Marys. It was Joseph who legitimized Jesus as a child and as the promised Messiah from God. Without Joseph’s lineage, Jesus would not have fulfilled the heritage prescribed in the Bible for the coming Messiah. Amazing! Jesus, the Son of God, was saved by his (more-or-less) step-father!

All Joseph was asked to do was to take Mary as his wife and to be the father of her child. That sounds simple, but it is no ordinary act. To understand why he obeyed that angel, we must speak of faith, of trust, of confidence in God’s power and goodness to accomplish miracles. Sometimes God’s miracles come in really strange packaging – who would have thought that God’s plan for the redemption of the world would hinge on a step-father? God’s miracles are found in the unpredictable – unwanted and unexplained pregnancies, step-parents, stables.

Ann Weems wrote this poem about Joseph, entitled “Getting to the Front of the Stable”:
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the crèche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?
God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of the stable?
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings.
When he wasn’t in the doorway,
he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,
gently covering her with his cloak,
assuring her that he would watch the Child.
Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.
This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed the Christ Child.
As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance
at this Child
who brought us life.

Just when we think we’re full of unbelievable, strange stories about Jesus’ birth, his parentage and those who came to recognize him as the Messiah, we are told another story about Joseph’s role in saving Jesus. Again, an angel appeared to Joseph (not to Mary or even to both of them) and told him to take Jesus to Egypt instead of home to Nazareth.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matt. 2:13-15

Joseph did this and the holy family became immigrants, foreigners, aliens, in a country with strange beliefs and practices. Although we aren’t privy to any information about Jesus’ young life in Egypt, it would be logical to believe that those years had an impact on his values. Later in life, he demonstrated great understanding and acceptance of people from other places and life circumstances. By going to Egypt, Joseph’s decisive action saved the child, Jesus, from a life-and-death situation. Because back at home, Herod killed all the children younger than two, purposefully eliminating a whole group of children just for the sake of killing one.

It is through Joseph, the unlikely step-father, that Jesus received his heritage, his name, his experience, his passion for others. Are you the Joseph in a child’s life? Are you the one an angel might ask to give of yourself for the sake of another? Are you being asked to take responsibility for a child, not your own, who is in need of you? Could you be that child’s savior, mentor, friend, or teacher? Are you open enough to believe in the miracles God can create through the strange and unexpected?

If Joseph, a young man from Nazareth – hurt and confused by his young wife’s unexpected pregnancy – can risk his reputation and his life by taking on an infant, moving to a foreign place and offering legitimacy, who are we to say “no” to those who ask us?

The children of UCC need mentors. Are you the Joseph who will see the need, value the children and say “yes”?

The Christian Education Board of UCC needs assistance. Are you the Joseph who has faith enough to step forward and say “Yes”?

Our church needs people to call on our visitors, witness to our guests, and mentor our prospects. Are you the Joseph who will step out of your comfort zone and volunteer?

There are children in Wichita who need foster parents, adoptive parents, and families to nurture and guide them. Are you the Joseph who will legitimize these children?

There are hungry, poor, hurting children who need assistance in our country and in the world. Are you the Joseph who will put aside personal feelings and offer them hope for the future?

Because of a man named Joseph, Jesus our Christ was not killed before he was born. Because of Joseph, Jesus was not left in the street to die like other illegitimate children. Because of Joseph, Jesus was given a birthright, a name, a family, and a home. Because of Joseph, Jesus was not a victim of the government or a ward of the state.

Could you be a Joseph?