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Pastor Rachel Fay Dunn
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
December 23, 2001

"Quiet Saints Like Joseph"

A minister tells a story about how a worried mother telephoned the church office on the afternoon before the annual Christmas program to say that her son, who was to play the role of Joseph in the Christmas Pageant, had a cold and had gone to bed on doctor's orders.

"It's too late now to get another Joseph," the director of the play told her. "We'll just have to write him out of the script." And they did! Joseph just disappeared! And few of those who watched that night actually realized that Joseph was missing.1

Joseph often ends up being little more than window dressing in Christmas pageants and in the Christmas story itself. After Jesus’s childhood, Joseph disappears, and it is never made clear in the Bible what actually happens to him. He serves his purpose in giving Jesus the appropriate earthly paternity and then quietly fades away.

But, without Joseph, the infant Jesus had little chance of survival or legitimate paternity. Without Joseph and his obedience and faithfulness to God’s word and command, Jesus might not have lived to grow up and become our Savior. As little as we know of him, as little as he is mentioned in all of scripture, Joseph is profoundly important. And today’s gospel text from Matthew offers a glimpse as to how each of us can make a difference in this world, and we make that difference through our own faithful obedience to the living word of God.

At first blush, Joseph appears to be caught in a dilemma. The woman to whom he is engaged, a contract as binding as a marriage, is now carrying a child whom he knows is not his own. Even though he is a devout Jew and could have Mary publicly disgraced for her supposed indiscretion, Joseph, described by Matthew as a righteous man, resolves instead to divorce Mary quietly, shielding her from the punitive nature of the Jewish law. Righteousness, then, according to Matthew, is not a strict adherence to the human-made law, but is instead following the will of God and doing the right thing.

Joseph’s world is turned on end once more, however, when the angel of God appears to him in a dream and tells him just whose child Mary is carrying. The angel is quite clear, in fact: "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." Joseph awakes in the morning and does everything that the angel has told him to do. Faith and obedience and righteousness combine in order to bring about the birth of Jesus; and thus, through Joseph, Jesus becomes a "son of David." Prophecy is fulfilled through the obedience of a common man.

Did you ever notice that we never hear Joseph say a word in his couple of scenes in the gospels? He quietly does his work behind the scenes, listening and acting in faith. In fact, Joseph speaks his righteousness through his actions. Rather than claim the limelight or any distinction for himself, Joseph holds back and allows God to speak through him. He puts aside his trust in rigidly following the letter of the religious law, in order to follow the will of the Holy Spirit. Rather than follow his head, Joseph follows his heart.

Joseph may be the "forgotten man" of the gospels, but it is through his faith and his faithful actions that this story happens. Like most of us who are faithful in today’s world, Joseph lives not in the limelight, but works behind the scenes so that someone else can step forward to claim the spotlight. Without the nameless folks whom Jesus healed, the ones who went off and told others about what he had done, God’s word would never have spread so far so fast. Without the nameless, faceless, countless people who worked alongside Peter and Paul and the other apostles, their work would have been in vain – they could not have done all that they did without them! The true saints of the Church, it seems to me, are the ordinary people, the people in the trenches, working day in and day out to accomplish God’s purpose for their own lives and for the life of the world. Could people like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa, or Billy Graham do even a fraction of what they do, without an army of "Joseph’s" behind them? They might be heard, but not as well, and their ministries would have never been so far reaching. There are very few who step forward to claim that spotlight – the rest of us are more like Joseph, the people who listen and act faithfully, in response to the calling of the Holy Spirit.

On CNN the other evening, there was a news report about just such a "Joseph." Harold Fisher is the oldest working architect in the United States. At 100 years of age, he reports to work each day, still designing buildings, still keeping active. His work, he says, keeps him alive. His family describes him as a person who is always positive. He is never bored, because, as he notes, there is always another problem to solve. "A problem is like a puzzle," Fisher says. "The solution is to get rid of fear and despair."

Although he has designed many buildings and monuments over the course of his long career, Fisher is most proud of the 500 churches he has designed. Although it is quite probable that those who attend his churches have no idea who the architect was, Fisher says that he hopes his churches invite people in to find peace and to feel the presence of beauty. That is truly, I think, putting himself and his own needs and his own ego aside, to allow the Holy Spirit to work through his designs.

I think that Harold Fisher is a lot like Joseph. Most people would never know his name or if they were standing in one of his buildings, and yet the presence of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, must speak volumes in the beauty and peace of one of his churches. That, certainly, is faith and obedience to the call of God. And, I think, that is what God asks of the rest of us ordinary Christians – to be simply faithful – simply to be faithful.

As we gather as one family around the communion table this morning, I invite you to remember that the invitation is extended to all God’s faithful. Come, not because you must, but because you may. Come, because Joseph, and saints like Joseph, have paved the way for us to know God in Christ Jesus, and have gotten out of the way and have made way for God to work in this world. May we be so inspired in our lives to do the same. Amen.

1Copyright Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2001. Permission granted to use this resource with appropriate citation. Found at

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