Joseph was an old man
—Gavin Koh, 18 December 2016 (4th Sunday in Advent)
Isaiah 7. 10–16.
Romans 1. 1–7.
Matthew 1. 18–25.
The doctrine of the virgin birth is that Mary was Jesus’ mother, but that Joseph was not Jesus’ physical father, and that Jesus was instead conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The virgin birth is recorded in two gospels: Matthew and Luke. And in those two gospels, the story of the virgin birth is told to us from two completely different points of view.
In Luke’s gospel, we hear the story from Mary’s point of view. In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. Luke leaves us in no doubt about miracle that has occurred.
But in Matthew’s gospel, we hear the story only from Joseph’s point of view. Joseph is betrothed to Mary, and then Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. Joseph knows that the child is not his,
because he has not yet taken her into his own house (to use the words of the gospel writer).
Whose child is this?
Joseph knows that the child is not his child.
In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph knows nothing of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. And let us be honest, even if Mary had told Joseph about the angel’s visit, who among us would have believed Mary’s story?
“I went out to collect water and this man suddenly appeared and told me I was pregnant!”
You went out to collect water and you met this man, did you? He was very good looking, was he?
Oh yes, I think I understand what happened there...!
Joseph’s vision and the flight to Egypt are mentioned only in Matthew’s gospel. The other three gospels are silent.
We have just started a new church year, and in the lectionary, Matthew’s gospel is only read in Year A
(which is the year we have just started). This means that Joseph’s story only comes round every three years. I think that it is therefore important to use this opportunity to explore Joseph’s role in the Bible,
since this opportunity only comes around every three years.
The Cherry-Tree Carol is an old English Christmas carol dating back to the 15th century.
The first verse goes like this:
When Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee.
In Matthew’s gospel, God appears to Joseph in a series of dreams, commanding him first to take Mary into his house, and then again to warn him of Herod's coming massacre, so that Joseph is able to rescue his family and to take them to Egypt.
It is only in Matthew’s gospel, therefore, that we see Joseph in his role as protector of the infant Jesus.
If Joseph had not taken the pregnant Mary into his own home, and cared for her, then what would have happened to Mary? What would have happened to the infant Jesus? That time and that culture were not kind to children born out of wedlock. If Joseph had not taken his family and fled to Egypt,
would the infant Jesus have escaped the slaughter?
Tradition tells us that Mary was aged 15 or 16 when she married Joseph.
Although Joseph was possibly older than Mary when they were married,
what we know of Jewish society of the time is that men generally also married at the age of 16 and it was rare for a man to marry later than about 24 years of age.
And in any case is it really plausible that an 80-year-old man could be working as a carpenter
to support a young family?
The oldest paintings of Joseph are in the catacombs of Rome, and in those paintings,
Joseph is a depicted as a young man, no older than about 25. It is only from the fourth century onwards that Joseph suddenly becomes the old man of The Cherry-Tree Carol.
So the balance of probability is that Joseph of Matthew’s gospel was in fact only about 16- or 18-years-old himself at the time he was betrothed to Mary.
I’m going to tell you the story of Pat Kerr: maybe you have already heard of her.
She worked as an airline stewardess for British Airways, which meant that after long haul flights to Bangladesh, she stayed at the luxurious five-star Sonargar Hotel in Dhaka. And from an air-conditioned room, she could see scenes of grinding poverty all around her which contrasted sharply with the luxury of her hotel.
In 1982, when she was 30 years old, she requested five months’ unpaid leave from British Airways.
Pat Kerr used those five months to start an orphanage in Dhaka.
Over time, the orphanage grew. It now doesn't house just children: it is also a refuge for single mothers and abused women. Today, the refuge has grown still larger, to become a village, called Sreepur.
The village is still there, and if you wish, you can visit their website and learn about the work that they do.
Pat Kerr has been featured on television a number of times, but one interview sticks in my mind.
In it, the interviewer asks her, “If you know what you know now, would you have done this?”
She says, “If I had known how much it would grow and take over my life I don't know if I would have done it.
“My motivation [was] no different from helping an old lady in the supermarket with her trolley. But I am a really responsible person – and that has been my downfall. I am responsible to donors to make sure their money is spent properly; to the children and women who come here; and to the whole community here.”
Going back to the story of St Joseph:
I don’t think that when the 18-year-old Joseph asks the 16-year-old Mary to be his wife,
that that 18-year-old Joseph thought he was going to be guardian of the Son of God.
That he would lose his own home and become a refugee because of that child.
That he would earn the adoration of generations of Christians. That the Pope would name him protector of the Catholic Church.
Joseph was not looking to be a hero.
There is no record in the gospels that Joseph is ever told about the Angel Gabriel or that Jesus is the Son of God.
What we know is that Joseph sees a young girl whom he loves and he knows that the right thing to do,
is to look after that girl and her little baby.
God doesn’t call us to be heroes.
As St Paul writes, in his letter to the Romans, God has given us grace and apostleship.
What is that grace?
What is that apostleship?
It is the gospel message today:–
Nobody sets out to be a hero or a saint.
All that is expected of us, is that when we are faced with that decision
between right and wrong. That we choose the right way. We don't know what will happen afterwards.
God doesn't always show us the big picture. But God gives us grace, ‘to refuse the evil and choose the good’; you may very well find against all expectation God does indeed intend for you to be a hero.