I carry still a memory of my dad which goes back close to fifty years now. It was early December. I was five years old and I was suddenly ill and my mother called him home from work to take me to the hospital.
Now I was the oldest of four children. I had been ‘too big’ to be carried for some time by then. But I was so very sick I was literally unable to walk and so they bundled me up and laid me down in the back seat of the family station wagon. When we reached the hospital, he lifted me up in his strong arms and cut across the frozen grass to the emergency room entrance of Rochelle Community Hospital. Even as sick as I was, I can remember the protest in my heart, “But I’m too big for to be carried!” And then I just gave in and knew I was safe in that place in his arms.
I offered that image in a sermon many years ago now. My dad was sitting in the pew that morning, and was a little embarrassed I think. That’s not a feeling he was much accustomed to, it seems to me, as he was such an extrovert that he always rather enjoyed being at the center of things. Not that time though — for, in fact, later he took me aside and quietly said to me, “But Janet, that’s just what a dad does.”
We have a story before us now about what dads do. Only in Joseph’s case, it really is quite extraordinary. In Joseph’s case, rather, it was a matter of life and death. In the matter before him now, though he could not have fully known it then, the future of the world hung on the decision it was his to make.
Now you wonder, don’t you, why God didn’t take an easier way to come to us, for surely this path was just about as risky as it could be. For not only does God risk the danger of childbirth where anything could go wrong, but God entrusts this child to a very young woman and her fiancée, expecting that they would believe that the conception of this child was of God. God took the risk that very human Joseph would be able to get past the stone of betrayal that settled in his stomach when he first heard the news of Mary’s pregnancy and came to the very rational conclusion that she must have been unfaithful to him. God had to trust that Joseph could set aside his own pride and step into a role, into a life, which would begin in a way he had not yet dreamed. Oh, one would have expected that dream included children, but it could not have included a child in this way. It seems to me that God risked a lot, trusting that Joseph would be open to the urging of a night-time messenger, this angel who told him not to be afraid. Who assured him that he and Mary were to be part of some thing much, much larger than even the very good life they must have dreamed together. Who urged him to name the child, sealing his adoption as his own son. You would think God would have taken an easier way. But God did not. And somehow that deepens our understanding of how very much God will risk for all of us. As Joseph risked then, too.
Because as you know, Joseph did precisely what the angel told him to do. We don’t know what doubts and misgivings he later entertained along his way, for we don’t hear all that much from him after this, but we do know that Joseph did what he was called to do then. He did not leave. He did not cast Mary aside. Rather, he stood with Mary. He claimed that baby boy as his own and gave him a name. That name of Jesus which means “God saves.” And we know that he must have been an awfully good dad to this boy, that he ‘just did what a dad does’ for this one who was destined to be the source of our hope and salvation. Indeed, it seems to me we know this through the stories Jesus later told.
For where do you think, except from Joseph, that Jesus got the idea that a father always gives good gifts to his children? Where, do you imagine, did he get the image of the father running to welcome home his prodigal son? Where do you think the tenderness in his voice came from when he said we were to address God as ‘abba’ or ‘daddy’ if not from his own experience of an earthly dad? I have to believe that Jesus drew from his own experience growing up with Joseph as his father here. Joseph who abandoned his own pride, his own long-learned sense of right and wrong. Who set aside his fear and worked through the stone in the pit of his stomach. Who stretched his own sense of what and who he was responsible for, to ‘just be a dad’ to Jesus. To give earthly legitimacy to this child of Mary’s from the Holy Spirit and to help shape Jesus’ life and his vision in such a way that some of his best teaching was informed by his own experience of an earthly, loving dad.
It was the decision of a lifetime for Joseph. It was one he could never have expected to make and yet, it is also a dilemma which will parallel one we will probably all face at one time or another as we are called to sort out how we are called to do the right thing in a situation that at first seems all wrong. And when you do that. When you step up and do what is right and good in the face of earthly ‘wisdom’ or advice which would urge you otherwise. When you act with forgiveness and hope and trust, well then, the world changes. It surely did with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. And it does every other time, too.
For I’ve seen it happen. So have you. This story of Joseph gets lived out again and again and again.
Indeed, I saw it play out once in a waiting room outside an intensive care unit long ago on a late summer’s night. Sixteen year old Nathan and his friend had gone to the mall — driving from their own small town into the city. They had taken a shortcut they had taken with their parents take dozens of times before. It wasn’t that late. They hadn’t been drinking. They even had their seatbelts on, but the paved road turned to gravel before they remembered and the car rolled. Nathan’s friend walked away from the accident with no more than a broken leg, but Nathan was in intensive care with a brain injury.
I stood with his step-mom late that night. His dad had stepped out for a minute when she told me this story, relaying to me that in his first marriage, her husband’s wife had been unfaithful. When Nathan was born, his dad, the only dad he had ever known, claimed him as his own. Raised him as his own. Loved him as his own. And when his first wife left them, he continued to do just that. And now he kept vigil with him, and from what I’ve heard, supported him right through the years of therapy that followed. He did the right thing, like Joseph. In the middle of a situation which was ‘all wrong’ where he wouldn’t have had to, he stepped above and beyond what anyone would have reasonably expected him to do. And Nathan’s world was never the same. And neither was anyone else’s who knew them.
Such as this will come to us, too. It may not be that big and difficult, although chances are it will be. And it may well be that the real challenge will lie then in the long term simply getting up every day and ‘just doing what dads do.’ And we know this for sure. It may not seem like it at the time, but it is often on those seemingly small things that the future hangs.
So this is what we have today. The gift of one dad and one child who lived in one particular place in one specific time. Just like all of us in so many ways. It makes you step back and wonder, doesn’t it? What might God just be doing here and now with all of us? Where might we see God at work in something that seems all wrong where we still try to do what’s right? And what might that mean for tomorrow?
- What is most surprising to you about the story of Joseph? Why do you think God chose to ‘risk’ in this way to come to us?
- Can you think of examples where someone ‘just did what a dad does’ and it made all the difference? In your life? In the life of the world?