What is it about those who bear the name of “Joseph” in the scriptures? The name itself is not one of great consequence or weight.
Some names in the scriptures signal greatness.
“Moses” in Hebrew translates to “Deliverer” or “One who draws out.” His name was well suited for the task given of leading Israel out of Egypt’s bondage.
“David” translates out to mean “Beloved”, so the name befits the most beloved of kings and leaders.
“Jesus” means “Yahweh will save”, a significant name given to the one whom God sends into this world not to condemn the world, but to save it.
One might expect therefore Joseph to carry some special meaning, but it roughly translates into “increaser.”
That’s not the stellar, pregnant with meaning name one might expect.
Still, those who bear the name of Joseph in the scriptures are called upon to do significant things without an awful lot of recognition for what they do.
Joseph is the son of Jacob who has big dreams about who is to be, and is the favorite of his father, the recipient of the coveted “Coat.” For his dreams and sharing them he is betrayed by his own brothers, sold into slavery, imprisoned, and every time it looks like things are looking up for him, he has his dreams dashed again.
In the end all of that hardship turns out to be preparation a he is called upon to lead Egypt through plenty and time of want.
It is hard to imagine during which time it was harder to be a leader.
Was it more difficult to lead in time of plenty, when the pressure was, such that the land was rich, abundance was everywhere, and instead of being able to enjoy it you had to tell people to squirrel away and be austere for leaner days?
Or, was it harder to keep the spirits of people who were in want and famine up, metering out the stores laid up?
I can’t imagine that either were easy, nor the mantle of leadership easily born.
Joseph must endure separation from family.
Joseph must battle his own inclination to get back at brothers.
Joseph must set the example of forgiveness, and naming that what others meant for evil, God was able to turn into good.
It’s a remarkable thing to take the hardships delivered to you and to rise above them.
That’s Joseph in the Old Testament, a name that is soon forgotten we are told, by the very ones that he worked so hard to help.
“There arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who no longer remembered Joseph.” The book of Exodus recounts, and so the stage is set for suffering, and bondage, and the need for a deliverer.
Now in the New Testament the one who bears the name of Joseph is betrothed to Mary. It was (in other words) an arranged marriage.
Perhaps there is love and courtship involved here.
Perhaps it is simply the convenience of merging families, households, and properties.
We do not know the details of any of that.
We only know that the one who bears the name of Joseph finds himself in a dilemma. He discovers that his betrothed is with child already, and now, what to do about that?
It is a burden he does not have to bear, and a complication he does not need or want.
We are told by the Gospel writer Matthew that he has already quietly decided that the best course of action would be to send her away, let the baby be born, and then sort all this out away from the prying eyes and muttered whispers of neighbors.
There is always the temptation to keep things under wraps if at all possible, avoid the scandal, the embarrassment.
One named Joseph who is in no way remarkable, a carpenter by trade and not one who seeks the limelight would be expected to be discreet, and that would normally have been blessing enough, but the one who bears the name of Joseph is instead called upon by Angelic visitor to do more than the honorable thing.
He is called upon to do the difficult thing.
“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.”
There it is, ‘son of the beloved’ do not be afraid, rather embrace the difficult.
Take Mary as you wife.
Name this child as your own son, with the name that is significant. Not your own name as would be customary, but rather with the name that befits the God who has sent him.
It is a remarkable thing, when you think about it, to be called upon to take on the responsibility that is not really yours, to endure the looks and whispers that will undoubtedly come as people do simple math about when the child is born.
He had the Angels’ visitation, to be sure, but that was in the state of dream, and who has not heard or seen things in dreams that were not later questioned?
That’s the Joseph of this story, an unremarkable person who does remarkable things will little more to go on than a dream and a sense of honor and duty.
And that would be probably enough to admire about the one named Joseph, if the scriptures had not given us another one who bears that name to look at and remember.
Joseph of Arimathea.
Maybe you are having a hard time remembering this Joseph, for his part is small, almost an afterthought. The Gospels of Mark and John both speak of him.
Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a respected member of the Council in Jerusalem, who became a follower of Jesus in secret. He was attracted to the message, to the man, to the teachings, but while Jesus walked and taught he chose to remain in the background timidly.
I suppose we relate well to this Joseph ourselves.
We believe in Jesus’ teachings; we just don’t feel the need to put ourselves out there for them.
We find comfort in the words of Jesus but are satisfied to be an admirer from a distance. No need to get all fanatical, after all.
It is safer from a distance. We can set our level of commitment, how much we are involved.
Joseph of Arimathea would likely have gone unnoticed if the story of Jesus had played out differently, if Jesus had been a wisdom teacher who had lived to a ripe old age.
But Jesus was crucified, and it is that event that transforms this Joseph from a quiet, background follower to one who thrust himself into the world of risk and vulnerability.
It is Joseph of Arimathea, this tepid background follower who screws up his courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.
The Gospels in the resurrection accounts will record the actions of the women who attended, who waited and watched, and who came to the tomb with spices to anoint the body and to be the first witnesses to the resurrection.
The book of Acts will be filled with the bold actions of the other disciples and the apostles who carried the message to the ends of the earth. We will hear of Peter preaching, James and John leading, Philip baptizing, Stephen serving tables and preaching, Paul confronting and teaching. We will read of their exploits and marvel at the courage they displayed to spread the word.
But the first act of courage, that is reserved for the one named Joseph, who could not simply let the body hang exposed.
The first act of courage in the face of public opinion and opposition to the state, that is reserved for the one named Joseph who goes to Pilate and makes a request.
The first act of compassion toward the crucified is reserved for the one named Joseph, who takes the body down from the cross and puts it into his own tomb, a remarkable act of generosity and devotion, and it comes from someone who spent his life previously not wanting to be seen too close to Jesus.
So, what is our take away this Advent from reflecting on those named Joseph?
Maybe it is this. Whatever your name, whatever your dream, whatever your sense of duty or your reluctance, God is wound into your name too.
There is nothing special about the name of Joseph, but those who bore that name were called upon to do extraordinary things.
No matter who common or of no consequence you may think you are, God is able to weave into your name and into your story and empower you as well.
To bring good to of what was intended for evil.
To act with integrity and steadfastness, when common sense would dictate other options.
To step up to the powers and authorities that bluster and bully, doing what it right even if you’ve been timid up to this point.
Today we remember the other Christmas story, where things do not appear so magical or miraculous, but where with eyes to see we behold God at working, with and under decisions made and actions taken.
It’s another Christmas story, not told with stars or shepherds or angelic voices, but rather the one we can connect with.
God coming to sustain us in the weariness, to give us courage in the difficulties, and to help us simply do what is decent and right with little fanfare or reward.
It’s not the Christmas story we’re used to.
But in these days, it very well may be the Christmas story we need.