What Joseph Knew
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We don’t know a lot of details about Joseph, the guardian of Jesus. We know he was a carpenter. We know he was descended from David. But anything beyond that is going to be from deduction and educated guesses. But we do know that Joseph was not dumb.
Joseph was a practical man. He was a carpenter. He worked with his hands—wood, nails, tools. He knew that things were often exactly what they seemed. Good timber was good timber because he could see it was so. Good tools were good tools because they formed good products. Cause and effect, reason and experience—these are the things that determine reality.
So when Joseph found out that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, Joseph knew what had happened. They hadn’t been together. Jewish custom required that they live separately before the wedding, long enough to prove that any children born would have been conceived within wedlock. It was a good, practical custom, by Joseph and everyone’s standards. It spelled out simple, plain truth. Joseph knew that virgins don’t conceive all on their own. It was impossible. And since he had not been with her, now Joseph knew that Mary had been unfaithful.
But Joseph also knew what that would mean for Mary. He knew the laws. They were harsh against adultery. And he knew why. Lineages were important. The Lord had told Israel which lineage the Messiah would be born to. So it was important to be sure who someone’s parents really were. To violate that, to lie about it, risked everything. So there were harsh penalties for adultery—public shame, being ostracized, sometimes even death.
Joseph knew what this could mean for Mary, and in spite of knowing she had been unfaithful, he still had feelings for her. So rather than subject her to public shame, he decided to divorce her quietly, to shield her from as much harm as possible. She would be someone else’s problem down the road, but he would see to it that she could make it down that road if at all possible.
Joseph thought he knew a lot about how the world works. But so do we. Before we come down too hard on Joseph, we need to recognize that we would have assumed the same things that Joseph did. We also think we have a firm grasp on reality. We also behave as if our reason and experience were the only ways of learning the truth about the world. Our behavior proves that.
For instance, how often do we turn to prayer only as a last resort, after we’ve tried everything else. That’s because we know that we have to do something to make things happen—we can’t trust God to act, can we? Surely we can’t leave everything up to His hands. Or the attitude that’s growing, even among Christians, that despises when other people say that they’ll pray for a situation. And yes, while that phrase can be used as a cliché, what lies beneath that disdain is knowing that the world doesn’t operate that way—prayers don’t accomplish anything real. How often do we want to judge reality based on outcomes, on results, so that if we don’t have as much money, as many people, as nice of a house, as successful a career as someone else, that it means there was a failure somewhere along the way. And worst of all, how often do we hear something from God’s Word, from Scripture, and then smugly know better—knowing that the universe isn’t really the way the biblical authors describe, or that they’re just superstitious fools, or that we’ve progressed to a newer, more enlightened time that understands the world better. Whether it’s the activity of angels and demons in the world, or heaven and hell, or forgiveness, or prayer, or how God always hides life under death, peace under tribulation, body and blood under bread and wine—whatever it is, it grates against the way we know the world works.
And if left up to our own devices, we would be stuck with a poor, narrow, and dull view of the universe. We would go on, acting as if the world was no more than what we see, what we experience, what we can weigh and measure and judge. But thankfully, God does not allow things to go on that way. When Joseph thought he knew how things worked, when he thought he knew the situation with Mary, the Lord stepped in and readjusted Joseph’s sight, his understanding. As Joseph considered how best to dismiss Mary with minimal damage, the Lord sent an angel to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Then Joseph recalled all that had been foretold about the coming Messiah: His virgin birth, how He would be born of the lineage of David. And so, because the Lord revealed the truth to Joseph, because he was reminded of God’s Word, he took Mary to be his wife, he named the child Jesus, and protected the infant with his life, as the earthly father and guardian of the Messiah, the true heir of King David.
The Lord still readjusts our vision and understanding of His creation. Yes, we can learn much about His world through observation, reason, and experience. But when it comes to the things of God—faith, life, the Church, all those visible and invisible things we talk about in the Creed—with those things, we need something else than our natural abilities. We need revelation. We need God to teach us how things really are, how He governs all things, how He still intercedes and takes an active hand in every situation here in this world, how He intensely cares about every aspect of our lives.
And so, as He did for Joseph, the Lord points us to the place He reveals these things. He directs us back to His Word. He reminds us of the words of the prophets. He calls us back to the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles, who recorded the life of Jesus, from conception to death, resurrection, and ascension. He tells us time and again what He has done for us, what He’s doing for us even now. He shows us all the best things: forgiveness, peace, eternal life, even when our eyes tell us it’s not there. He tells us what we’re receiving from His hand: His true body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, adoption in the waters of Baptism, forgiveness through the words of those He sends to us, an answer to prayer, even if we have to wait.
Our season of Advent, the season of hope and expectation, is coming to an end. It’s coming to its fulfillment. We know, of course, that this means Christmas is almost here, the celebration of Jesus’ birth to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, just as the prophets had foretold for centuries before. But it also means that we’re expecting the fulfillment of another hope we have—the hope of Jesus’ return. Our senses and experience will tell us that it’s no use to expect or hope in this—things will go on as they always have. But what God tells us in His Word is where we ultimately put our trust. Just as His Word was proven true at the birth of Jesus, so it will be proven true again at the end. So we wait, we hope, knowing that one day it will happen, just as He said.
But for now, we prepare to celebrate. Our Lord is coming to us—at Christmas, in His Word, in His Supper, at the end. We have so many reasons to rejoice, so many reasons to sing and laugh and greet each other with joy. So let’s get ready. Let’s get to where our Lord is showing us His Word, where the Word is teaching us His truth. Let’s celebrate. In the name of Jesus, who is coming to us. Amen.