Over recent weeks, those of you who watch BBC North West will have seen a succession of people presented with a Christmas Star. This is an award given specially nominated people who have made a mark in their community; people who have gone that extra mile to help others; people who by their actions have made a positive difference to peoples’ lives.
This is also the time of year for the traditional Nativity Plays which for the most part take place in Nurseries and Primary Schools. Parents flock in to watch their children star in the production as they take on the roles telling of Jesus’ birth. We’ve all been there haven’t we – making sure we can see and hear our dearest as they present the hopefully well rehearsed lines –praying they don’t forget them in the glare of the footlights and the sea of faces looking at them. And how ever well, or not, they perform they are given star billing from us. At that moment they are our Christmas Stars.
Looking on with pride
So many Christmas stars; at times it gets difficult to remember who are the real stars of the show at this special time of year. In the Christmas story Mary is definitely the leading lady; Jesus lies quietly in the manger; angels make announcements and sing; the inn-keeper, shepherd and kings get one-liners; Joseph having secured shelter from the inn-keeper then sits through the rest of the performance may be just looking on with pride – as fathers do!
Every year it seems the producer of the nativity plays have to find more and more characters so as to give everyone a role – pushy parents demanding a speaking part for their star, and not just a role in the crowd as part of the array of angels, shepherds, donkeys, camels, etc.
Biblically the named stars of the Christmas story are few. Certainly not enough for a class of 30 children to each have a star role. The details of the birth of Jesus which we have heard this morning from Matthew are fairly concise; Luke’s gospel gives a more enlarged version of events; Mark and John don’t mention it at all. Whilst Luke gives Mary more of a star billing, Matthew gives more prominence to Joseph – possibly because he was writing for Jewish readers which was a male orientated society.
What did Joseph do?
So, what was Joseph’s starring role? What part did he play in bringing our saviour into the world?
Joseph was essential. Without him things would have been a whole lot different. It wasn’t just persuading an inn-keeper to provide a space in a stable! Let’s look at what we know about him.
Joseph was a carpenter – we are told this in Matthew 13 verse 55. Actually when the gospel was originally written, in Greek, the Greek word “Teckton” was used which means builder so Joseph could have been a worker in wood or stone but tradition has it – a carpenter. Jewish culture of the day was that father would teach and pass on his trade to his son. Jesus would be expected to follow Joseph into the building/carpentry business.
Joseph is betrothed to Mary. Under Jewish law this was a formal agreement leading to marriage. Mary and Joseph’s father would have agreed that Mary and Joseph would be married. Such arranged marriages were common and usually for both families mutual benefit. Joseph’s father would have paid Mary’s father what was called a bride-price; a bit like a dowry. Such an arrangement was legally binding and could only be undone by divorce. Betrothal often took place in childhood and would last at least a year or years until the bride was considered old enough to actually marry – usually in early/mid teens.
Not the father
Then Joseph finds that Mary is pregnant – and he’s not the father! In these circumstances under Jewish law Joseph could have had Mary publically shamed – and stoned! If that had happened that would have been the end of this particular nativity event! However, Joseph clearly doesn’t want a public naming and shaming incident. He thinks that it would be better to quietly divorce her. Sign up divorce papers and effectively return her to her father – this is not what was paid for; perhaps even a refund might be in order!
Then we are told that an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that what has happened is all in God’s plan as foretold by the prophet Isaiah – “the virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and they shall call him Immanuel which means God with us.” Joseph we are told was a righteous man, that is, he was religious; a law abiding Jew; he adhered to the law of Moses, as set out in the scriptures. He would be aware of the prophecies about a Messiah.
This angelic visitation changed Joseph’s mind. He would not divorce Mary but would stand by the betrothal. I suspect there would have been gossip in the community when Mary’s pregnancy became obvious but that didn’t stop Joseph from sticking with God’s message. He was taking a risk perhaps – risk of ridicule from those around; even risk that a human father might come out of the woodwork! But Joseph had received a word from God; a word which had changed his mind – and in that he had confidence.
No ordinary Joe
So, already we see that Joseph has an important role. From being just an ordinary guy God has made him someone special. He will be the human father figure for this Jesus and as such he will teach him a practical skill – builder/carpenter. And perhaps more importantly, as a righteous, law abiding man, Joseph, as becomes a God-fearing father, will teach him the scriptures.
And it is clear that is what happened when we read in the gospel of Luke that Joseph presented Jesus at the temple – in observance of Exodus 13: 2 (the first born should be presented and dedicated to the Lord). We also read in Luke that Jesus grew and became filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him. Clearly Joseph did a good job. God had made a good choice of earthy father! And let’s not forget Mary in this upbringing. When we read Luke’s gospel it is clear that Mary came from a strong religious family. Between the two of them Jesus was in good hands!
There is something else that Joseph brings to the table. Joseph is of the line of David. The first part of Matthew chapter one gives Joseph’s/ Jesus’ earthly family tree. Joseph can show his lineage back to David – and even further, back to Abraham. This is important because to fulfil prophecy the Messiah was to come from the House of David. And because of Joseph’s ancestry, when the Roman Emperor Augustus decreed that a census should take place, it meant that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of David, and there Jesus was born. Again this was necessary to tie in with the Messiah prophecy – Micah 5:2 “out of you, Bethlehem, will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people.”
I think it also interesting to notice that if you look way back along Joseph’s ancestry you come to Jacob, who had a number of sons one of whom was Joseph – he of the coat of many colours, he who fled to Egypt and made a name for himself sorting out Pharaoh’s dreams.
Back to our Joseph, the carpenter, and we see his father was called Jacob and also that he, Joseph, was a man associated with dreams – we’ve already mentioned the angel coming to him in a dream to tell him about Jesus. If we read on in Matthew chapter 2 we find that in a dream Joseph is told to flee to Egypt because Herod is coming to kill children; later that Joseph is told in a dream that it is now safe to come home to Nazareth. So it seems we have two dreaming Josephs, both in touch with God, both obedient, both faithful.
Maybe we should all allow ourselves to dream – to step out of the everyday busyness and open ourselves to the chance of a messenger from on high.
Making a difference
So, there we have Joseph. Not one to elbow himself to the front, to seek fame. An ordinary, unassuming, everyday guy who was offered a role in God’s plan. A man, who recognised God’s call and quietly got on with the job he was asked to do. No fuss, no fanfare. But nevertheless he had a leading role. He is an essential part of the nativity story. A man who went the extra mile; a man whose actions made a real difference to the lives of not just 2000 years ago but to our lives today. A Christmas Star.
So, what can we learn? We can learn that God calls ordinary people, nobodies, and makes them somebodies. And because of Jesus we are all somebodies – we are chosen to follow that baby born all that time ago in Bethlehem. He showed us God’s Kingdom, he gave us a place in it. We are all special people as a result. In our reading from Romans this morning we heard Paul telling us that we are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
Peter reminds us in his first letter (1 Peter 2: 9) “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”
We each have something to offer
We can learn too that each of us has something to offer in service to progress God’s kingdom. It may not be immediately apparent; it may be hidden beneath the surface; but there will be something to offer in each one of us.
Maybe, like Joseph, a word from God will come to us and it will make us change our view on something; change our mind on a particular course of action; give us a new and different outlook.
Maybe God is calling one of us, or all of us, to come out of our comfort zone and take on a particular role or task for him.
Maybe this Christmas, as we celebrate again the nativity, we will not just be onlookers but, fully realising the impact of these events in our lives, become Christmas Stars ourselves! Amen.