December 22, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
CHRISTMAS JOY: HIDDEN FROM OUR EYES
The third in a series of three.
Last week we talked about Mary. Mary gets all the attention in the telling of the Christmas story. Maybe it has something to do with that saying: “Give a child a good mother and any old stick will do for a dad.” We don’t know a lot about Mary, but from what we do know we know she was a good mother. She was there when Jesus was born. Obviously. She was also there when Jesus died. She was there at the foot of the cross. She was there every step in between.
We know much less about Joseph. In fact, I wonder if you realize he doesn’t speak a single word in the entire Bible. Not one. So we have to use our imagination more with Joseph than with
Mary. We have to take what little the Bible does say about him and do something dangerous. Speculate.
One detail about Joseph is well known. He is not the biological father of Jesus. At least that’s the way the Bible tells the story. It’s a virgin birth. So Joseph had no real responsibility to raise this child. He was under no obligation, either to the baby or to Mary. But his inner character is revealed in that he was right there for them both. Proving he was not just “any old stick.” He was a caring, loving, devoted father and husband. And therefore a lot of men have a special reason to look up to Joseph. He is the patron saint of fathers raising children who are not their own.
There is one very good reason to conclude that Joseph was a great dad. I’ll bet you can guess it before I say it. When Jesus talked about God, what word did he use? What one word would he always use to describe what God meant to him? Father. I’m pretty sure if Joseph were a bad father, Jesus would have found some other way to describe God. He would never have used a human father in his parables to help us understand what God is like.
So we’re going to live dangerously today, as we continue to speculate about Joseph based on what little the Bible says about him. Joseph is mentioned seven times in the Bible. That’s all. But we’re going to milk those seven for all they’re worth.
I’m borrowing here from Catholic tradition. They speak of the seven sorrows and seven joys of St. Joseph. They have a devotional guide you can follow that will lead you through each of these. As we’re going to see, there is a rhythm here of sorrow and joy. Life has plenty of both. And life has that rhythm between the two. We go through seasons of sorrow punctuated by joy. And we go through seasons of joy punctuated by sorrow. See if you identify with Joseph as you relate his experiences to your own.
His first sorrow was a broken heart. Mary had been unfaithful to him. At least, it sure looked that way. Put yourself in Joseph’s place. You are engaged. You’ve talked it over. You’ve decided that sex will wait until after you are married. And then this woman you dearly love comes to you to inform you that she is pregnant. “But no, it’s not what you think. I have not been with another man. It’s the Holy Spirit.” How would you react? Shock. Disbelief. Sorrow. Anger.
The scripture we read today tells us that an angel appears to Joseph in a dream to confirm that Mary’s unbelievable story is really true. But how long had he been left hanging before the angel told him this? We don’t know. It must have been very difficult. What is he going to do? He wants to believe Mary, but he can’t. The best option seems divorce, which is confusing to us because they aren’t married yet, but in that day a broken engagement required a divorce. He didn’t want that. He loved her. But how could he believe her?
Some people today have a hard time believing the virgin birth. Isn’t it interesting that even Joseph had a hard time believing the virgin birth! He’s not just the patron saint of fathers raising children not their own. He’s also the patron saint of doubters and skeptics.
I know there are a lot of people today who are on the fence when it comes to believing what Christians are supposed to believe. If that’s you, you have good company sitting on that fence right next to you. His name is Joseph.
But then he had this dream. And his sorrow turned to joy. His doubt turned to faith. He believed Mary. They weren’t going to have to get a divorce after all. This child whose paternity had so troubled him he now knew would be the Messiah. The Savior of the world. He hadn’t been born yet. Joseph hadn’t yet laid his eyes on this little boy that would be his to raise. But he felt joy at that moment, even though the reason for that joy was hidden from his eyes.
When the time came for Mary to give birth, Joseph had taken her on this long journey to Bethlehem. The timing is terrible. Here they are far from home. And worst of all, there is no room for them in the inn.
It brings back memories of a trip long ago when we were passing through Denver. It was late. We were exhausted. We couldn’t wait to find a room and get some rest. But motel after motel had no vacancy signs. We ended up in Colorado Springs and it was after midnight before we finally found a room.
That’s nothing compared to what Mary was going through. It must have been terrifying for her. And I put myself in Joseph’s place. He must have felt terrible that he could do no better for his wife than outdoor accommodations next to farm animals. And the first crib for this precious newborn? A feeding trough filled with hay.
It might be a male thing. Being a good provider has always been important to me. And when my wife or my children have needs that I am not able to meet, it hurts.
I think Joseph felt that kind of hurt that night when there was no room in the inn. I think he felt a little something of the pain his wife was about to experience in childbirth, feeling so helpless to do a thing about it, and so guilty that he couldn’t even provide her with a decent place to lay her head.
That was the second sorrow. But there was also a second joy. It was hidden from his eyes at that moment, but even at that moment this joy was getting closer and closer. Wise men from the East had started their journey, guided by a star. They would provide generously for baby Jesus. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The third sorrow was the circumcision of Jesus. In Jewish tradition, the father presents the baby for circumcision. It happens on the eighth day after birth. And there is no anesthesia. Even today for orthodox Jews.
Here is what a modern Jew wrote about this:
I’m in the shower at 6 am with a sick feeling in my gut. Today my eight-day-old son is going to be circumcised. It feels real alien to choose to inflict pain on my son, to put him through the trauma of a minor procedure without anesthetic. “Just call it off! Stop the whole thing!” I find myself thinking. I put him on the chair and the prayers begin, and then there is blood and there is screaming. I still feel sick as everyone comes to wish me “Mazel tov!” I can’t help but let them know that I’m not happy about it – that I’m seriously shaken up by what has just happened.
I imagine Joseph had similar feelings. His wife had gone through the pain of childbirth, and he could do nothing about it. His son had gone through the pain of circumcision, and he could do nothing about it. He was “seriously shaken up.”
But out of the sorrow came the joy. This was the day for naming the child, and the father got to do this. Joseph remembered the name the angel had given him in that dream. Jesus. “For he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That was in the future. It was still hidden from Joseph’s eyes. But giving the name and knowing what that name meant and would mean gave Joseph joy. Salvation would come through his son. The baby bled when he was circumcised. He would bleed as he died on the cross to save his people from their sins.
The fourth sorrow comes soon after that. Joseph and Mary take their son to the Temple to be dedicated. There was a strict timetable for these ceremonies. Circumcision on the eighth day; dedication on the thirty-third day. The parents would offer a sacrifice to God – two small pigeons in this case, because they were poor. This would have been a joyous occasion, but then an old man named Simeon held the baby and spoke some prophetic words. He turned to Mary and told her that he saw tragedy on the horizon. “A sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35).
That would have been a Debbie Downer moment. Imagine presenting your child to be baptized here at church and one of our long-time members comes up to you and says, “I have a word from the Lord I need to share with you. I really hate to tell you this, but I’m going to anyway. This child is going to die young.” That would be really weird, and I’m sure it was for Joseph and Mary. This joyous moment for them had become for a sorrowful moment.
But there also was joy in what Simeon had said. He said that Jesus was the Messiah he had been waiting to see before he died and that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to . . . Israel” (2:32). Anna, also old, said much the same thing. This was in the future. It was still hidden from their eyes. But the joy this brought them was not in the future. It was in the present. They felt it right then.
The fifth sorrow comes as Joseph has another dream. An angel gives him a warning. Herod is after his child. Herod is killing all the boy babies in Bethlehem two years old and younger. He must take his family and flee to Egypt. There is no time to lose.
You’ve heard that story before, but have you really thought about it? The pain, the sorrow, the terror that had to have been involved? We feel bad for Mary because there was no room for them in the inn. But now here they are sleeping under the stars night after night, through the most barren wilderness you can imagine, scrounging for the food and the water to keep them alive. And a tiny helpless baby traveling with them.
They were refugees. Did you know there are 19.5 million refugees in the world today? Half of them are children.
Here’s one story. This is Sayara Samadi, her husband, and their child. I wonder if Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus may have looked something like this.
Sayara was a journalist for the BBC working in her native Afghanistan. They started getting death threats. They fled to Turkey, but the death threats followed them. So they used the last of their savings to pay smugglers to get them to Greece. But these smugglers did not provide a very good boat. It capsized in the Aegean Sea. They were in the icy waters for hours before they were rescued. Mom and dad survived, but their son did not. He died in his father’s hands.
Joseph was determined that would not happen to his son. He kept Mary and Jesus safe as they traveled to Egypt, as their lives were at risk. It would have taken them maybe two months. It was a sorrowful time. But then they reached their destination and they were welcomed there. That was the joy.
The sixth sorrow comes after King Herod has died. It’s now safe for them to go home. Again an angel in a dream tells them this. Home for Joseph was Bethlehem, so naturally that is where he wanted to go. The man got to decide where they would live. The woman obediently said, “Yes dear.” But it didn’t work that way this time. As they got close to home, Joseph had another dream in which he was warned that Bethlehem was not safe. Herod was dead but his son, Archelaus now ruled over that territory. He was just as bad. So they had to keep walking, right past Bethlehem, all the way north back to Nazareth, Mary’s home town.
It was sorrowful for Joseph to not be able to go home. To be separated from family and friends. But it was joyful as he found a new home. He set up shop there. A carpentry shop. Jesus was a good helper. It was a good home life. As it turned out, most of the ministry of Jesus took place in this northern region, around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.
The last time Joseph is mentioned is when Jesus was 12. We assume he died long before Jesus began his public ministry at age 30. It’s not in the Bible, but there is a tradition that he died when Jesus was 18.
So here we have Jesus, age 12, traveling with his parents the 65 more or less miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover. It’s a great celebration lasting several days. When it was time to go home, the women were traveling with the women. The men were traveling with the men. Mary thought Jesus was with Joseph. Joseph thought Jesus was with Mary. They were a day-and-a-half into their journey when it dawned on them that Jesus wasn’t with either one of them.
It reminds me just a bit of the movie “Home Alone” that has become something of a Christmas classic. The family is flying across the Atlantic Ocean for their Christmas vacation when it dawns on them that little Kevin is not with them. He is back home, alone.
Jesus was also home. He was in the Temple. That’s where he felt at home. In the house of his Father, capital “F.” His parents experienced sorrow before they found him, joy after they found him, and probably more than a little anger and irritation in between.
So let’s recap. Joseph life included a broken heart from a girl, the shame of poverty, the fear of people wanting to kill you, the frustration of not being able to go home, the panic of thinking he had lost his child. Many sorrows. You might say his was a very sad life. But it wasn’t. Because on the back side of every one of these sorrows was joy. Usually a joy that was hidden from his eyes at the time. It was a joy that was disguised as sorrow. But it was joy, nonetheless.
So here is my parting question for you. Think back over your life. Think back to some of the really hard things you have had to face. Are you able to identify the joy on the back side of each and every one? You couldn’t see it at the time. It was hidden from your eyes. But it was there. And looking back, you can see it now. Or can you?
Normally we would close worship on the Sunday before Christmas singing some Christmas carol. Next week we will sing several. I promise. But today are going to close with something else. Why? Because I’m going to tell you the story of this hymn, “Hymn of Promise” right now.
It was written by Natalie Sleeth. It has to do with the kind of joy we’ve been talking about . The kind of joy we see in the life of Joseph. The kind of joy we see in our own lives. But the trick is we might not be able to see it quite yet. It might be hidden from our eyes. I love the way each verse ends: “Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
Natalie Sleeth wrote this hymn. She wasn’t sure if it was any good. It wasn’t getting much attention. Nobody seemed particularly interested. And that was fine. Then her good friend Bonnie Jones heard it.
Now here is a bit of Watts family trivia. Bonnie Jones gave Helen voice lessons while I was going to seminary. Bonnie knew her music, and she knew immediately that her friend, Natalie had written a brilliant hymn. It so happened, Bonnie was on the “Hymnal Revision Committee” that was working on our current hymnal. And so at Bonnie Jones’ urging, #707 was added. And it’s become a favorite.
There’s a song in every silence,
Seeking word and melody.
There’s a dawn in every darkness,
Bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future,
What it holds, a mystery.
Unrevealed until its season,
Something God alone can see.
O God, help us to trust where we cannot see. Joseph did. Mary did. Jesus did. As we approach another Christmas, another birthday celebration for our Lord, we pray for everything those four Advent candles represent: Hope. Peace, Love. And we pray for joy. Especially for those who know only sorrow. Christmas joy, so much deeper than mere happiness. And better. And more lasting. Surely it gives you joy to see your sons and daughters experiencing the joy for which we were made. So may it be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.