Joseph, Jesus’ Father: A Man Who Walked by Faith

by | Jun 17, 2018

We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord–for we walk by faith, not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:6

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Mark 4:26-34

There are two “origin stories” when it comes to the celebration of Father’s Day in this country. In one, a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in church, decided that she wanted to help establish a similar celebration to honor fathers, because, as you might expect, her own father was an extraordinary man. He was a Civil War veteran who raised Sonora and her five siblings alone after his wife died in childbirth. So in 1916, Sonora Dodd organized a Father’s Day commemoration throughout her home city of Spokane, Washington.

But there’s also a story about a Father’s Day celebration two years earlier, in Fairmont, West Virginia. There a woman named Grace Golden Clayton suggested to the Methodist minister in town that they hold services to honor the fathers who had been killed in a deadly mine explosion that took the lives of 361 men.

While neither commemoration sparked a movement, gradually momentum grew to make Father’s Day a national holiday, as Mother’s Day had been in 1914. But it wasn’t until 1972 that Father’s Day received the same official recognition. At times in the intervening years, the idea was strongly resisted by some, and twice the U.S. Congress voted it down.  

Why is that, do you suppose? Have we, as a society, underestimated the importance of fathers, relative to that of mothers, in raising children? My parents divorced when I was an infant, and in the early 1960s it was inconceivable that fathers were of equal importance as mothers in the raising of children. Yes, the father’s role was to provide financial support, but mothers were the primary source of emotional support.

Our collective understanding has changed considerably since then, and our laws are starting to reflect that, with a movement toward joint custody in cases of divorce and even paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers. For a father’s emotional support is something we go looking for, in one form or another, in any number of relationships, no matter how present or absent, our own fathers were.

In other countries, the tradition of honoring fathers goes back to the Middle Ages. Where national holidays are influenced by Roman Catholicism, Father’s Day is typically celebrated on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph.

This week I’ve been thinking about Joseph, Jesus’ adopted father. We don’t know very much about him, for he disappears from biblical accounts well before Jesus begins his public ministry. In one tradition, Joseph is assumed to have been much older than Mary when they married and presumably died when Jesus was a child. In other accounts, Joseph is imagined as a young man who was perhaps killed when, in response to a peasant uprising, Romans soldiers brutally attacked the nearby town of Sepphoris, where he, as a carpenter, would have found work. There are references in the gospels that suggest Mary and Joseph had several more children after Jesus was born, but Joseph himself is rarely mentioned.

Yet in the few biblical passages where Joseph is the main character, he is portrayed as extraordinary man who, to use the imagery from St. Paul’s words to us this morning,  walked by faith and not by sight. Those passages are found in one of the accounts of Jesus’ birth that we sometimes read in church in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But we don’t always read them, because we tend to focus on Mary, Jesus’ mother.

So hear them now, on Father’s Day:  

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ . . . When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  
Matthew 1:18-24

Then comes the story of the wise men from the East in search of the King of the Jews, their conversations with King Herod and eventual arrival in Bethlehem where they offered him precious gifts. The story of Joseph continues:  

Now after they (the Wise Men) had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
Matthew 2:13-15

And a bit further on:

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.  
Matthew 2:19-23

That’s about all we know of Joseph. And what do these vignettes tell us about the man who raised Jesus as his son?

First, we know that Joseph was kind. No matter how devastated he was to learn that his betrothed was pregnant with a child not his own, he refused to publicly shame her, as cultural norms would have encouraged.  

Second, equally important, we learn that Joseph was a man of faith–not in the sense of believing certain things about God, but in his willingness to walk through a time of great darkness and confusion according to the small bits of light that came to him. He dared to trust that the voice he heard in his dreams was of God and to live according to what he heard, no matter how little he understood.

I invite you to think back on your life, on those times when you had to trust your intuition and walk, as Joseph did, by faith and not by sight.

For most of us, those are typically times of disorientation, when we’ve lost our bearings, or when certain aspects of life no longer make sense to us. Times of grief can be like this, or whenever we’re feeling completely overwhelmed.

Hear this:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

So begins the great medieval poem by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy in which he begins a journey walking by faith and not by sight. He goes on:

It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.

It is an astonishing, miraculous truth: good can come from those dark and disorienting places. But when we’re in them, first we have to get through them, which requires us to keep going, to keep walking in the dark.

If, in those times, like Joseph, we’re blessed to hear some sort of inner guide–an intuition, a hunch, a guiding inspiration–he would encourage us to listen to it and trust it. He would tell us what follows from that act of trust can be one of the greatest experiences of intimacy with God. We wouldn’t wish the darkness on anyone, but when we’re in it, we can feel profound gratitude for the bits of insight that help us to walk by faith when our sight fails.

I heard a story on the radio yesterday, told by a young man, about one of the happiest summers of his childhood. He was six years old at the time, and he and his father were living alone, “like two bachelors in their 20s.” They were moving one city to another, traveling by car with rock music blaring. It was heaven, he said. They ate cereal for dinner whenever they wanted; they scouted out toy stores on the road, in search of action figures. They rarely took baths. It was a magical time, spent with his very best friend, his dad.

And why were they alone? Because earlier that year, his mother had died. That was the saddest memory of his childhood, so oddly contrasted with his joy he remembers now in the months that followed. As an adult, he’s now trying to understand what it was like for his father in that season of grief, who did everything he could to who ensure that his young son would have happy memories that summer.

How did he do it? His son, now himself a man, wonders. How did he stay so strong? Where in their tiny apartment, did he go to cry that his son didn’t see? While he didn’t use the language of Scripture to describe his dad, surely here was a man walking not by sight, but by whatever bits of light that lit up his darkness.

Once we’ve had this kind of experience, of walking by faith in a time of disorientation and uncertainty, when we’re received sufficient inner light to guide us, then we can help others do the same. We do so not by attempting to illuminate their path with our light, no matter how much we might want to, but rather by encouraging them to pay attention to their intuitions, their dreams, the voices that come to them in the dark.

There’s a wonderful example of this in another story in the Bible, from the ancient Jewish text known as First Samuel. It’s the story of Samuel, a young boy born blessedly and unexpectedly to an elderly couple who never thought they could have children. In thanksgiving, his mother, Hannah, brought him to be mentored by one of the wise priests in the Temple, whose name was Eli.

One night as Samuel lay sleeping, he awoke to a voice calling his name: “Samuel! Samuel!” Assuming that it was Eli, Samuel ran to him and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said to him, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” The same thing happened two more times. The third time Samuel came to him, Eli realized that God was speaking to the boy in the darkness. When he sent him back to bed, he said to Samuel, “The next time you hear a voice call your name, simply say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’ Then wait and listen for what the Lord will say to you.” (I Samuel 3:1-10)

I wonder, when Jesus was a child, growing up with Mary and Joseph, how Joseph encouraged Jesus to trust the inner voice of God speaking to him. It’s not so hard to imagine. For whatever degree we have experienced that kind of grace guiding us, we can encourage those in our circles of relationship–be they children, friends, or even our parents as the relationship between us evolves with age–to do the same. We can encourage them to walk faith and not by sight, to pay attention to the ways insight and guidance comes, not unlike the mustard seed that Jesus spoke of in the passage we read earlier. These small bits have the potential to guide us through the darker times, step by step. It’s one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children, teachers their students, anyone helping another who is coming up behind them in some area of life: the encouragement to trust their own inner intuition, where God speaks to them.

There’s much more we can glean from the story of Joseph. A pastor I admire, Adam Hamilton, dedicated an entire Advent sermon series sermon to the life of Joseph which I commend to you.

Let me close here where I began to underscore the importance of Joseph’s kindness, and of kindness in particular. When Jesus spoke of God, as his heavenly Father, he did so with an extraordinary confidence in God’s lovingkindness. Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son, as but one example, in which the father waits for the opportunity to welcome home his wayward child and gently teaches the elder brother what it means to love. Is it not likely, Hamilton suggests, that Joseph was that kind of a father to Jesus?

We were created with great capacity for kindness, as God is kind. Is that not why we are so heartbroken, outraged, even, by how children and parents are being treated at our southern borders? No matter your position on immigration policy, surely there is a higher calling for us now, rooted in the lovingkindness of God for all people.

As we go about our lives with one another, stumbling as we often do, in dark woods of our own, not sure of our way; as we seek to trust the ways God may speak to us through our intuition and dreams and the voices of friend and stranger, I hope that we all can remember to be kind–kind to ourselves and one another–as Joseph was kind.

Remember the kindnesses you have received from the fathers of your life and what they meant to you. Thank them, if you can today. Commit yourself today to similar acts of kindness, large and small, in the week ahead, remembering what a difference such kindness means to you when you are on the receiving end. From small things, Jesus reminds us, great things can happen. We never know where and when and how the seed of kindness will bear fruit. Often our kindness can help illuminate someone else’s darkness and give them courage to believe in a loving God when they must walk by faith and not by sight.