“Joseph is the noble defender of woman and child that Jesus be given to us” Vigil of Christmas 2023

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24. December 2023
Vigil of Christmas
Matthew 1:18-25

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

All Scripture is Spirit-breathed that you may know and believe Jesus Christ is your savior and that, by believing in Him, you have life in His name. Jesus asserts that all Scripture testifies of Him. This is most obvious in the prophecies we hear this time of year: the virgin birth, the Davidic king, or the star in the east. But Jesus would have you go further to see Him in Abel, Melchizedek, the burning bush, the Commander of the Lord’s army, or the one like the son of the gods in the fiery furnace. That’s still doable, but how about seeing Jesus in the ram caught in the thicket, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the manna from heaven, the water from the rock, or the bronze serpent on the pole? Again, Jesus says keep going. All (Old Testament) Scripture testifies of Me. 

Thus, the Apostle describes Jesus as the Second or New Adam. As one man brought sin and death into the world, so by one man, forgiveness and life come. The correspondence between Jesus and those people or things that came before can be one-to-one, lesser-to-greater, or even by way of opposites. The Apostle describes what came before as a type or shadow of the things of Christ. And our present resurrected life is a dim reflection of the glory to be revealed. All that Scripture gives is for our learning, edification, training in righteousness, and ultimately, to receive Christ, believe in Him, and remain steadfast in the faith until the day of the Resurrection.

At Christmas, we meet other figures surrounding Jesus, like Mary, shepherds, kings, priests, widows, and murderous tyrants. They often have those they represent from the Scriptures. And we can often see ourselves in them, too. We don’t take our eyes off Jesus for faith and life, yet we also take comfort in learning that their story is ours. For example, Elizabeth is like Sarah and Rebekah. And everyone can receive hope in them, knowing God can cause life to spring up, even in the barrenness of this world. And another example: Mary resembles Hanna and typifies the Christian Church in receiving Jesus. 

Unlike St. Luke’s Gospel, which we’ll hear this evening, St. Matthew focuses on Joesph. We pay so little attention to Joseph. He’s rarely mentioned. He’s in every nativity scene yet almost as a bit part, as significant as the ox and ass. Jesus and His mother are the focus, and rightly so. But what of Joseph? Is he second-fiddle? What do we make of him? Indeed, we don’t know much about Him. He is directly of the lineage of both Abraham and David. Later in Matthew, he’s called a skilled artisan, perhaps a carpenter. And after twelve-year-old Jesus gets into trouble, Joseph disappears from the Gospels, presumably dying. 

Part of the problem with Jospeh is that his story doesn’t sound familiar. He doesn’t appear to repeat a story from one of the Old Testament saints. He’s not an icon of the priesthood like Zechariah, prophets like John, or the church like Mary. In human terms, he’s an ordinary guy who is given a bum deal. So, can he serve us and lead us to Christ? How does he testify of Jesus? For this, we should consider his name and namesake, Joseph

We recall the Old Testament Joseph, who, despite not being given the promise of His brother Judah, is instrumental in preserving His family. His brothers first decide to kill him and then relent and sell him off as a slave. Joseph is tested and tried, falsely accused of rape, and imprisoned. Despite saving the life of a fellow inmate, he’s forgotten and left alone again. But all the while, God uses these evil acts to establish Joseph to prominence in Egypt and bring it about that his family, seventy souls in all, are saved from famine. He preserves the promised Savior affixed to His brother’s line, God using Him to protect and defend the future Messiah in the loins of Judah.

OT Joseph is also a one-off figure with a role to play and disappears from the scene. He has his role to play and then departs. His descendants aren’t notable to the narrative, being half Egyptian and some of the first to descend into idolatry if they ever left it. Sound familiar? And yet, the New Testament mentions old Joseph as an example of faith (Hebrews 11:22). We commemorate him in our churches on March 31st. But there’s more. 

We can’t help but hear in the story of Joseph the story of our Lord. Jesus, too, was rejected by His brothers, sold, handed over to arrest, and even to death. Yet, the Father has raised Him, exalted Him, and all so He could bring blessing, saving many lives. In the biblical account of the Old Testament, Joseph is a powerful prophecy of our Lord and His salvation.

But what about New Testament Joseph? In our Gospel for today, Joseph is described as a just man and unwilling to put Mary to shame, resolving to divorce her quietly. Being betrothed is a legally binding relationship, the first stage of marriage, lasting about a year. To marry Mary, Joseph would have had to receive permission from her father, publicly declare his intent to be Mary’s husband, demonstrate his ability to provide for her while living apart, and abstain from sexual intimacy. He has been faithful to the 6th Commandment, living a chaste and decent life. 

Then, Mary broke the betrothal and violated the command. Such a conception would normally mean that Mary had been unfaithful and Joseph had every right to make her a scandal. Yet, in mercy, he resolves to divorce her quietly so that she doesn’t receive the penalty of the Law for infidelity, death by stoning (Deut 22:23-24). While we confess divorce to be contrary to God’s good order, Joseph operates according to God’s Law. He is a just man, fearing and loving God, seeking to protect her reputation and defend her (8th Commandment), even before he learns of her faithfulness.

Then, St. Matthew interrupts the story to show us the connection to old Joseph: the dreams. God spoke by way of dreams and their interpretation to both men. This time, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream and directs new Joseph to take Mary as his wife because the Holy Spirit conceived the child. This same angel will appear again in the next chapter to warn Joseph to flee to Egypt to avoid murdering Herod. Then, the angel will warn Joseph not to return to Bethlehem but instead turn aside to Galilee. God appeared in dreams by His angel to preserve Jesus safe from the violence and death of the world. 

Old Joseph’s dreams and their interpretation were instrumental in preserving Jacob’s lineage for the sake of Christ. And God used the new Joseph to preserve Christ who has come, again by the Word delivered by an angel in dreams. Both old and new remained faithful even as they faced loss, poverty, and death. Joseph set aside his right by Law and acted boldly in faith under God’s Word of the Gospel, showing grace and mercy. And in so doing, like old Joseph, new Joseph preserves, protects, and provides for Jesus as every loving father of his own son. This is his cross to bear for the sake of the salvation of all people.

God’s good calling to every father is to teach the faith, defend, protect, love, and show mercy to the children entrusted to him. At first glance, it may seem as if Joseph’s role is second-fiddle to Mary, the mother of God, and her Son, Jesus Christ. But there is no bit part within the Christmas story. He is the noble defender, bold confessor, and sacred protector of woman and child that Jesus be given to us. From him, we learn that everyone is given vocations by God by which the Word made flesh, Jesus, is given, preserved, and protected. All of you are knit together into one holy communion, the mystical body of Christ, joined in love for love. May God illuminate your hearts with the gracious visitation of Jesus, reveal to you by His angels what He would have you do, and give you the Spirit to strengthen you in your sacred calling to confess Jesus.

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin