I wonder if you’ve seen the church’s Christmas poster? The one with the pregnancy scan? You’ll know it if you’ve seen it – and I suspect that there will be strong views about it. I think it’s a very powerful poster, I love it. When I was a father to be I carried similar pictures in my wallet until the arrival and I still remember the excitement and nervous anticipation. Those scan photos are all about promise and vulnerability – how appropriate for the incarnation. And I think it also takes away that fairy story veneer that sometimes gathers round the nativity, brings it down to earth in a real stable and a real pregnancy.
Today is the day when we traditionally think about Mary and her role in saying yes to God, enabling the incarnation to happen. Yet our reading focusses on another person, almost as important. For in the culture of the time it would have been very difficult for Mary to manage by herself. St Joseph had a vital role too: St Joseph the Worker, the Carpenter, Husband and Father.
His influence on Jesus must have been immense. We take it for granted that Jesus calls God Father, he does it so much. Yet it need not have been like that. There were lots of types of relationship Jesus could have used as a model. In the Old Testament Israel’s relationship with God is described as being like a master and his servants, or a shepherd and his flock, gardener and vine, or a husband and his wife.
Yes, the image of Father God is sometimes used in the Old Testament, but Jesus takes it to a new level. He alone calls God ‘Abba’ or ‘Daddy’ which is the actual intimate meaning of the word in the Lord’s Prayer. And whereas in the Old Testament Israel as a nation was God’s child, Jesus encourages each single one of us to think of God as Father. Father God is more intimate, more accessible for Jesus, and it is hard to see how this could have been the case if Joseph was not a good earthly father. His support was crucial in bringing up the young Jesus and his example would have been a key part of our Lord’s formation.
In doing so, St Joseph affirms fatherhood as an important role and an immense privilege. It’s clear that being a father is a calling, for vocation is not limited to Christian ministry, but instead vocation is about becoming who God calls us to be. Vocation is about following God with all of one’s life, including family relationships. Whoever we are: Father, mothers, grandparents, family friends; we should not think that family life is a distraction from our true vocation nor are the needs of children in competition with our calling – for God’s calling to us includes family, work and leisure. Being a father is a vocation – let’s not undervalue it but give it the time and attention it needs.
How can the church help? We ran a parenting course in the Autumn which several mums and dads found really helpful as we discussed together ideas on bringing up children. What really encouraged me is that some parents had little church connection but it was something we could offer that was useful to them. Another example: Sunday afternoon Messy Church in the British Schoolroom is a great way for families to be in church. As part of Messy Church they do activities together – games, craft, junk modelling and of course food! Giving parents and children a structured opportunity to spend time together can really help strengthen family time and make worship easier.
Over 200,000 fathers in the UK are stay at home dads who look after the children while their other half works. Some willingly, others seem to struggle! Many more take a share in childcare as they work complicated hours or shifts, and well over a million are single dads who may have sole responsibility for childcare or perhaps just at weekends. Each setup has different challenges. We need to be aware of this complex picture, not stereotyping and using language like ‘Mums and Toddlers’ – don’t forget the dads, grandparents too, and as this is Sherston, the nannies! It’s good to be sensitive to family time when organising social events and meetings.
St Joseph also shows us three aspects of being a father which can apply in other people’s lives too. Firstly, the need to be open to God. From v.19 we get the impression that Joseph is a righteous man, from long practice he automatically does the right thing. Imagine how devastating it must have been to find out his fiancée is pregnant. He knows it’s nothing to do with him. He cannot carry on with the marriage, but he is a gentle man who will not make a fuss and plans to dismiss her quietly.
Here he’s following general Biblical guidance, the right principles which are open to everyone. Yet sometimes we may receive specific guidance from God, a message for us – it won’t go against what the Bible generally teaches but it may be more personally tailored. For instance, when it comes to employment the overall Biblical teaching is that work is good, it is right to earn a living and we should do so honestly and diligently. That’s general guidance.
But it may be when you or I pray ‘Lord, what career should I take up?’ that something comes to mind. Or we miss out on an interview we hoped for and another door opens instead. We should pray about those big decisions: career, children’s education, retirement. For God can direct us individually, through prayer, the advice of others, circumstance, or in the case of Joseph, dreams.
When God speaks to Joseph in a dream – isn’t it important God addresses Joseph by name – he says ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.’ Joseph obeys, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He acknowledges the voice of God. He recognises him – and that comes through a life of regular prayer.
He would need that certainty for Joseph will make a great sacrifice. It is an aspect of being a parent that it always involves sacrifice but for Joseph it is particularly hard. A righteous man, his reputation will be ruined. Imagine the rumours, the sniggers. Is it worse to be thought lacking in self control or to be considered a cuckold?
There are times when doing the right thing will lead us to be misunderstood. Countless Archbishops have found this when speaking up for the oppressed and finding themselves savaged as woolly liberals by the press. We may find if we are generous or see the best in people that others consider us a soft touch. Concerned parents who speak with the school about the way world faiths are taught in RE risk being seen as intolerant or even racist. Putting your family’s needs first may be seen as lacking ambition and drive, or not showing a spirit of sacrifice.
It is easy to be good when all approve, much harder when it makes you look a fool. Perhaps the hardest of all is if, like Joseph, you appear to have betrayed your principles when actually you are keeping them. To persist, you have to be sure of the right path, willing to pay the price, and trust in the ultimate vindication by God.
Perhaps over the years Joseph had his own doubts, whose son is that boy? how did it happen? Yet Joseph loves Jesus as his own, so much so that Jesus uses the language of Father as a helpful image for God.
Finally, Joseph trusted in God for the end result. It seems he did not live to see Jesus’ ministry. Joseph is there when the boy Jesus gets lost in the temple aged 12, but he never appears during Jesus’ public work. Sometime in those intervening 18 years, Joseph died, without seeing how Jesus would save his people. There may not even have been much sign of that promise being fulfilled – young Jesus was turning out to be a good carpenter, but whoever heard of the Messiah being a carpenter?
God did not lie. The angel was not wrong. Joseph’s labour was not in vain. In the same way much of what we do lives after us, the bud takes a long time to develop into the fruit, and we may never see the full result of what we achieved. So never believe that the impact of your life is limited to what you can see. If you become discouraged, persevere, for if, like Joseph, you are listening for God’s guidance and obeying it, if you are making the sacrifices when you must, then God will be at work somehow through you and you can trust him.