This homily will be preached at Grace Anglican Church’s Evening Prayer service on Wednesday evening, the day after St. Joseph’s Day.
This is a story about one of the most righteous people who ever lived. I don’t mean righteous like “self-righteous,” I mean someone who was really “right with God.” This man didn’t just follow God’s laws, praying and fasting at the right times, listening to the teachers and obeying the rabbis, he loved God and invested himself in the laws and religious practices that God had provided for him and his people.
his first story
We don’t know much about this man’s life, but we do know a couple stories. He was engaged to a young woman who also really loved God and followed his law and commandments. They were the perfect Jewish couple; utterly committed to their God and to one another. But disaster strikes suddenly: the man finds out that his fiancée is pregnant! So much for her good godly upbringing! But this man is a righteous man, remember, and he cares about her. So rather than totally shaming her he decided to cut off the relationship as quietly as possible. (You see, in those days, even engagement required a certificate of divorce to end it; it could be no simple breakup.)
But before he can carry out his decision, he’s visited by an angel who tells him not to divorce his fiancée but instead stay with her and name her child. Naming the child is a big deal – it basically means he’d be adopting the kid as his own. Also, to soften the blow, the angel tells him that the child was not conceived in adultery, but by the Holy Spirit, because the child will be the Savior of God’s people! This man knew of God’s promises to send a Messiah, particularly a King through the ancient line of David, just as we read from 2 Chronicles. So he believed the angel and married his fiancée. But, still obeying the laws of purity regarding pregnant women, they didn’t have much of a honeymoon. Now that’s the commitment of one godly gentleman!
his second story
The other story about this man takes place some time after their son is born, perhaps a few months. It starts with an angel appearing to him again. He is now told something just as surprising as the first time: “Go, take your wife and child and escape to Egypt until I tell you to leave.” This was probably the most counter-intuitive thing a godly righteous Jew could hear! Ever since Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, maybe 1,500 years earlier, there were temptations for people return there. Whenever things went wrong: hunger and thirst in the desert, invasion from Assyria, invasion from Babylon, invasion from Greece; Israelites had this tendency to flee back to Egypt for safety. God always told them not to, but some always tried. And most of them paid with their lives. But now God was saying it’s time to flee to Egypt.
And there he and his family stayed for a couple years. While there they escaped a government-ordered slaughter of male children under two in Bethlehem. Several dozen precious lives were lost in that little holocaust, the first of millions who would die for this man’s son. It was a dark day for Bethlehem, and very telling of the condition of God’s people in general. But it highlights all the more contrast between that situation and the righteous man who, against all odds, followed God’s command to take refuge in a land that had formerly enslaved God’s people. Additionally, this story can also be seen as Egypt’s redemption. For two thousand years Egypt had been the living symbol of slavery and sin and death. But now it was redeemed into a place of safety and refuge for God’s people, just as it had been for the patriarchs Jacob and Joseph, so long ago.
who this man was
Oftentimes we feel bad that this man, Joseph of Nazareth, a carpenter, husband of Mary and guardian of our Lord Jesus, never got to see how his adopted son Jesus turned out. The Bible gives no indication that he was around for Jesus’ ministry, as Mary was, and most historians agree that Joseph had already died by then. You’d think Joseph, after all the work he did to protect baby Jesus, would want to see the victory of Jesus’ death and resurrection, wouldn’t you? But in a way, he did. He saw the world coming after Jesus with hostile intent even as a baby. He saw the first of many nations experience the beginnings of redemption through Christ. He heard what the angels and magi had prophesied concerning the future of baby Jesus. He didn’t get to see it all come to fruition, but he could see it getting started.
what this has to do with us
We, too, often don’t get to see the final products of our labor in the Lord. At best we can see the beginnings of the fruits of our labors. The lives we touch, the ministries we support, the churches we plant or build, go beyond our own lifetimes. If, like Joseph, we live righteous godly lives, seeking God and his ways above the fame and teachings of this world, we’ll have a deeper insight into the works of God, we’ll be in a better position to see God for who he is and for what he’s doing. And the better we know and hear him, the more directly and powerfully we can participate in his divine life and work.
This season of Lent is a particularly focused time of year for just that: seeking God in a more focused manner, casting aside the various distractions of this world. The goal is not just to become righteous like St. Joseph, but to become perfect like our Lord Jesus. The better we see him, the better we see his Father. The more we love him, the more we obey him and live like him. And so, as St. Paul prayed for the Ephesians, I pray again for you, that according to the riches of God’s glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
UPDATE: My neighboring parish has a nice brief summary of St. Joseph on their website blog, now, too!