Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

St Joseph
March 19, 2010, 11:58 am
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Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 19th March 2010

We are given a choice of two Gospels today, the story of how Joseph was reassured by God that he should take Mary as his wife, and the story of Mary and Joseph together finding the child Jesus in the Temple. Each one teaches us something important about Joseph’s character.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, the first adjective applied to Joseph is “just”, or “righteous”. The Jerusalem Bible says “man of honour”, but that hardly does justice to the original Greek. The just or righteous man is more than simply honourable. He is someone whose principal concern is to do what is right; and that means to act in accordance with God’s will. In a Jewish context, that means following Torah, the Law, the way of life revealed and commanded by God. “Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path. I have sworn and have determined to obey your decrees.” So said the Psalmist (Ps 118/9.105f), and so would have said Joseph. That is an immense thing.

Then the angel addresses him as “son of David.” The only other person in the New Testament given this title is the Messiah himself. Joseph is put in the line of the shepherd-kings of Israel, even though he is only a humble craftsman. Even though Jesus will not be physically descended from Joseph, he will at the human level receive his royal patrimony through this man. This too is an immense thing.

Finally, Joseph is described (if not called in so many words) obedient. He did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do. Much later, a woman would invoke a blessing on the womb that bore Jesus, the breasts he sucked- in other words, on his mother Mary. Jesus replied, “More blessed those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Joseph heard, and he obeyed. Perhaps this is the most immense thing of all, the well-spring of his righteousness, the expression of his royalty.

When Jesus was twelve years old he was lost for three days, before being found in the Temple. Mary applies yet another adjective to Joseph (and to herself). “How worried we have been”, says the Jerusalem Bible, but again the word does not do justice to the original. “We have been in pain and distress,” or “we have been grieving,” would be closer. Joseph took his responsibilities seriously. For twelve years he had been the guardian of Mary and her Son. Had he now failed in his stewardship? All was well. Jesus himself, having come of age as far as the Law was concerned- bar mitzvah- had learned to distinguish the business of his heavenly Father from that of his beloved foster-father. In a sense, he was saying to Joseph, you have done your work. You have shown me a father’s care. I now know who I am. I see the reality to which your example pointed me. Even so, he went down to Nazareth and continued to be under their authority- Joseph’s as well as Mary’s. How immense was that!


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