There was a family which like many of our families has a Nativity set, and each Christmas season they would set that Nativity set up beneath the Christmas tree. There was the obvious cast of characters. There was the baby Jesus in the créche. There was Mary. There were assorted animals—donkeys, cows, and chickens—arranged around. There were wise men. You could tell who they were because they were carrying gifts and wore crowns. There were shepherds of various ages and sizes, some of them older, some of them younger. But just as it is with some Nativity sets there were some extra figures and no one knew exactly the identity of those extra figures. This particular family of children played a game every Christmas. Which one is Joseph? Some of them said that it was an old man leaning on his staff. More romantic souls in the family said Mary wouldn't want a crotchety old man like that, so it was a young shepherd with broad shoulders. And they would debate which one is Joseph. In reality Joseph is the forgotten man of Christmas. He is silent. Surprisingly, Joseph doesn't say a word in Scripture. He is like an extra, a kind of minor character that gets a credit in the cast of characters, but no one has ever considered him central or significant to the story of Christmas. He says nothing. He is silent but obedient.
It should not be that way with Joseph, for he is a significant part of this story. It was Emerson who said, "What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say." If that is true, what Joseph did speaks so loudly that it wasn't necessary for him to say anything. He is remarkably simple in his obedience, but he is also simply remarkable in what he was willing to do by hanging everything in an immediate obedience on a word from God which on the surface of it seemed to be absurd. Joseph is remarkably simple and simply remarkable.
Joseph is obedient
When you look at the forgotten man of Christmas you see this: Joseph models the influence and the consequences of an immediate, simple obedience to the command of God. I'd like for us to look at Joseph in real life, because the forgotten man of Christmas shows us obedience to the word of God regardless.
If we stop romanticizing and idealizing Joseph in Nativity sets or on Christmas cards and look at him as things actually were, we ought to have a great deal of sympathy with him. He was betrothed or engaged to a young woman who was suddenly and strangely pregnant, and an angel says this is an act of God. Then this northern Palestinian cabinet maker has to drop all of his tools and go to Bethlehem for a census. Shortly after that there's another warning in a dream and he flees to Egypt where he has no network, no connections, no job, no place to stay. If you look at the life of Joseph, the man who says nothing, you can summarize it in a single, simple word. There was in his life an immediate obedience to the word of God.
Look at that word immediacy. If you look at the forgotten man of Christmas you'll learn that it is possible to obey God with a breathtaking, unquestioning immediacy. God spoke through the angel, and Joseph married Mary. In that regard, he acted with an obedience that outran any of the other major characters in the story of Jesus' birth. In Luke 1:18 when the announcement came to Zecharias, the aged father to be of John the Baptist, Zecharias said to the angel, "How shall I shall I know this? I'm an old man. My wife is well advanced in years." He was struck silent because he said that. Zecharias met the command of God with a denial. Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:34, met that command with doubt. Mary said to the angel, "How can this be since I know not a man?" Interestingly, Joseph did not respond with a recorded denial or doubt but, rather, with an immediacy of obedience. "He took her to be his wife and did not touch her until that holy thing was born." In fact, Joseph has an obedience that outshines many of the luminaries of the Bible.
There's Moses called upon as an eighty-year-old shepherd to lead an exodus. What do you hear from him? Four consecutive excuses before he finally submits to do the will of God. There is Isaiah seeing God high and lifted up in the temple of Jerusalem. And what does he give? An excuse. "I'm a man of unclean lips." There's Jeremiah called to be a prophet, and he gives God two excuse. "I'm too young. I can't speak." There's Amos, the keeper of sycamore fruit and keeper of sheep, and he says, "I don't have the credentials to be a prophet."
Here's Joseph, who leaves this record never having said anything. When God spoke to him an astonishingly difficult word, he responded with an immediacy of obedience. I'm reminded of those words in 1 John which give us a test of salvation. "By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep on habitually cherishing his commandments." Joseph was marked with an immediacy of obedience. God is not interested in our gold or our giftedness or our guilt-ridden excuses. He wants to be obeyed. Obedience is better than sacrifice.
Obedience in pain
The forgotten man of Christmas models an immediate obedience, but also he shows us that we can obey God in painful circumstances. He was betrothed or we would say engaged to Mary. In that Jewish culture when a girl was only twelve or thirteen years old her parents signed a consent that she would be betrothed or engaged, and that was a legally ratified, binding marriage covenant, even though she lived with her parents for another year. The second phase of that ceremony was the transferral in which the husband would go get her and take her to his house to be his own. In Joseph's experience between step one and step two Mary was with child. She was pregnant. He couldn't deny it. The evidence became clear. It became brutal. It became manifest. I'm sure, like most of us in the face of unpleasant circumstances, at first he wanted to deny it, not even see it. But there came a day when it was obvious.
One of the questions that church history has asked, and it's a very real question, Did Joseph suspect Mary of sin, of infidelity? Justin Martyr, who wrote at AD 170, said yes. So did Jerome and Chrysostom, and even Augustine of Hippo Regius. The great St. Augustine said that Joseph positively expected that Mary had been guilty of sin. However, Jerome, the church father, and these men all wrote closer to the event than we are, said that "Joseph knew Mary's holiness and that it hid in silence a mystery he did not understand."
Really Joseph didn't have a choice. You read the famous phrase "He was a just man." That has two meanings. That word dikaios means, first of all, he was a righteous man, and that meant that under the law he had no choice but to put her aside. For according to the law of Moses she was classified legally as a prostitute for what she had done, and as a righteous man living in the law he had no choice but to put her aside. But, that word dikaios, "just," has another meaning. It means to be prudent, to be discreet, to be magnanimous, to be big-hearted about it. That's what he intended to do. He intended privately to take two other men to her family and, as the custom was, put her away. He didn't have to do that. He intended privately with magnanimity and with that kind of prudent and discreet justice, to end it, when suddenly he had this shattering, intruding dream from God. "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."
Here he is night and day with this dilemma, and he had a dream. I can see him as he paces the floor of that carpenter shop night and day dialoguing with himself. What kind of dream is this? What does this mean? Night and day asking himself and wanting to go to Mary and ask her, but the words stuck in his mouth. There was nothing but a question mark in his heart. This was not easy. A carpenter's business in Nazareth depended upon building up the good will of people over a long period of time, and he would be subjected to the backstreet gossip and the malicious slander that would characterize any little town like Nazareth when Mary was found in the condition she was with no explanation as she was a betrothed woman. Joseph shows us that we can obey God in the midst of painful and difficult circumstances.
Obedience in the face of fear
I have seen men volunteer for the ministry whose family rejected them for their choices. I have recently spoken with a daughter going to a foreign mission field whose father turned his back on her because she said yes to the call of God. Many of us have seen those confess faith in Christ and put him on in Christian baptism and lose their world because they did that. Joseph models for us that we can obey God in the midst of painful, difficult, inexplicable circumstances. He was willing to do so. And we can obey God in spite of fear.
When the word came to Joseph, the word was this "Fear not." The message wasn't "Do not be too proud to obey God; do not be too disgusted; do not be too angry; do not be too hurt; do not be too ashamed." The word that came to him was "Stop being afraid of obedience." For you see, Joseph was terrified by the virginal conception of Mary. God had come close, very close, and it had created a situation that scalded him with fear and humiliated him with awe at the power of God. You see that again and again in the fifth chapter of Luke after that miraculous catch of fish. It doesn't say that Peter was overcome with gladness or that Peter was overcome with joy. What does it say? Peter was overcome with fear, and he got down and said, "Depart from me. I'm a sinful man."
When God draws close and invades our world with his supernatural power it can create in us a sense of fear. Joseph would much rather have gone back to his carpenter shop and played with his tools than have to be the stepfather of the Son of God. It would have been easier for Peter to go back to the Peter, James, and John enterprise of fishing than to have to become the big fisherman and preacher of Pentecost. So he said, "Depart from me. I'm a sinful man." The truth is in the face of God's commands it's easier for us to go back to our comfortable, safe, cozy, predictable round of activities than it is to obey God in a radical way.
Joseph models for us that with immediacy and in spite of painful, confusing circumstances, and in the face of fear we can abandon things and obey God. In fact, we can obey God by staking everything on his Word alone. That word came to Joseph in a dream.
Obedience and trust
Have you ever had a dream when you thought God spoke to you? The rabbis were divided about the value of dreams. Some of them said they were worthless. Other rabbis, though, said that dreams were a mild form of prophecy. Even then the rabbis said you had to discriminate between a false dream and a true dream. I'm sure Joseph in prayer struggled with just that. He didn't have any bishop, preacher, or counselor to talk to about this matter. He had to decide is this a false or true dream. He interpreted it and he acted on it. He was just like that other dreamer, his namesake, Joseph, hanging his life and destiny on the dreams that he had in that Egyptian prison. When Joseph heard that word of command he burned things behind him and set out to Bethlehem and to Egypt, obedient to the word of God.
From this remarkable, forgotten man of Christmas we can learn obedience that stakes everything on one word from God. We can also learn from Joseph that obedience always has its consequence. There was a recent President of the United States that a frustrated press nicknamed "the Teflon President." The reason they called him "the Teflon President" is that nothing seemed to stick to him. Regardless of what he was alleged to have done or said by mistake, the public loved him and nothing stuck to him. It seemed to have no consequences. Well, Joseph was not Teflon in his obedience. There really isn't any Teflon obedience. Obedience always has consequences. And it has a very personal and very immediate consequence for Joseph. That is in verse 24 and 25. "He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary to be his wife." That is, he took this woman with child from her parents' home and transferred her to his home, but he did not know her. He had no sexual relationship with her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son, and called his name Jesus. That was the immediate consequence.
But it also had a lifetime of consequences. Obedience does. No sooner had he married Mary they had to drop everything and go to Bethlehem in obedience to that census which arranged events so the Son of God could be born where the prophet said he would be born. Then they had to go to Egypt. I think we could understand this story better if we contemporized it, took it out of the olivewood Nativity sets and off the front of Christmas cards and put it in contemporary language.
Suppose there was a young man today engaged to a young woman and suddenly she was found to be pregnant, and he had a dream and God surprised him by saying, "Stay with her." After he was staggered by that kind of confusion he had to face his parents and explain to them what was going on. He had to face her parents and explain to them what was going on. He had to face the gossip that would come from those circumstances. As he began to settle his heart down some government bureaucrat said everyone in the United States had to go back to his hometown to register for a special tax. So he got in his old car and drove across the country, and when he got to his hometown all of the motel rooms are full, all of the hotel rooms are full, and the only place he could stray was in a garage. He took this woman to whom he was engaged and not married, who was pregnant, and in the garage a baby was born, and they set the baby down on a workbench. When the young man wonders What else could happen to me? a group of street people come in banging on the garage door and say, "Let us in," and these street people fall down on their knees and say, "Glory to God in the highest. We've come to worship this baby."
As the young man's eyes grow wider, not long after that, three stretch limousines pull up and ambassadors to the United Nations get out and bring Krugerrands and lay them at the baby's feet. Then the governor of the state calls up the National Guard to kill all the babies in that town, and he has another dream and God tells him "You better get out of there and go to South America in a hurry." Can you imagine?
If you contemporize this story you can understand viscerally what happened to Joseph. There wasn't any Interstate 30 going to Egypt. There were no McDonald's, no hotels, no restaurants. There wasn't a branch of the carpenter's shop in Egypt. He didn't have a job or a network. He found himself there in obedience to God, and he accepted the consequences. Joseph models to us that when you obey God there is always ultimately the highest joy in that obedience. But immediately and for a lifetime there are consequences.
When I was sixteen years old I was sitting in a teenage vacation Bible school in the Conhill Baptist Church in Fort Worth, and a word from God came to me. It said "Preach." For twenty-seven years I have lived with the consequences of that word that so surprised me. You may have decided recently to tithe, and you've lost your job or it looks like your company may close down. Your obedience has consequences. I've watched theological students for years quit jobs, move to another town, go to seminary or divinity school or Bible college, and when they got there it seemed that everything suddenly turned against them. Obedience has consequences. This story leaves us wide-eyed that when you say yes in obedience to God that obedience has immediate, ultimate consequences.
Joseph as a father
But there's another positive word here, and it is this. The forgotten man of Christmas reminds us of the influence of obedience, for Joseph was the father figure in the home of Jesus. All of those old clichÉs about fathers and sons must be true. The twig does grow in the direction that it's bent. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And when Jesus started preaching what did he call God? He didn't call him emperor. He didn't call him sister. He didn't call him brother. He didn't call him camel driver. He called him Abba, Father. The Aramaic word for papa, for daddy, a word of hearth and home. In all of Jewish literature no one had ever called God that before. If you get out the writings of the rabbi you don't find it. Only Jesus called God Abba, Dad, Papa. Why? It was said of Martin Luther, the Reformer, that his relationship with his father was so terrible that all of his life he had difficulty calling God Father. Not so with Jesus, the Son of Joseph. I think that it is because of the remarkable, simple obedience that he saw in the life of Joseph that he was able to take that life and lift it up and see a word to use of our heavenly Father.
My favorite painting in the Louvre is a painting by Georges de La Tour. It's called Joseph the Carpenter. Every time I've been there I've gone back and stood in front of it. de La Tour, among other things, had an incredible ability to paint light. It's a picture in the carpenter's shop, and there is Joseph, older, sturdy, and there's the boy Jesus ten years old. He's watching. He appears to be content. He is holding a candle; a candle is behind the hand of Jesus. So as you look at the painting the hand looks translucent. You can see the light coming through the hand. I'm dumbfounded at the way he could paint that. It looks more real than real. Jesus is holding the candle shining through his hand, shining in that carpenter's shop. They are working on some intractable material on the floor, and it looks as if Joseph is trying to meet a deadline. When you look the shadows illumined by the candlelight in the hand of the boy Jesus, you see that what's on the floor is really two pieces of wood in a cross shape. For in de La Tour's painting, Jesus and Joseph are putting together a cross.
And our Lord, who saw that remarkably simple obedience in Joseph learned obedience himself, even to the cross.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.