One of the things that I heard a lot growing up was the phrase, “Actions speak louder than words.” This was taught in my elementary school and reinforced in the home, so much so that it is something I now teach to my own children. Actions have an incredible way of telling us more about a person and his/her character than words ever could.
So why am I mentioning this in an Advent post? Well, as I have read the Christmas story over the years one of the things that has really stood out to me is the fact that of all the characters in the Christmas story the one character who remains silent is Joseph. We have the recorded words of Mary, Elisabeth, Zechariah, the angels and even the shepherds. But of Jesus’ adopted father we hear nothing. Not. One. Single. Word.
And yet, that is not to say we know nothing of Joseph’s character, for what we see in his story is a man whose life was characterized by a quiet faith; one that was expressed in actions more than words.
When we first meet Joseph, he is a man betrothed to Mary. Like any good 1st century Jewish man, he was probably preparing a household for them, eagerly anticipating the day when they would finally come together as husband and wife, and start a family. However, he soon receives some disturbing news: Mary is pregnant outside of wedlock. No doubt, this news disturbed Joseph. How could his fiancee, his betrothed be pregnant? The answer in that society was clear. She must have broken her vow. Furthermore, the Law was clear. A person who has committed adultery is to be stoned to death (Lev. 20:10). As a Law-abiding and devout Jewish man, Joseph is obligated to carry out his religious and social duty. But if Joseph accuses Mary he is sentencing her to certain death.
What will Joseph do? Matthew’s gospel reads:
And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly
Though he had every right to expose Mary publicly, Joseph was a man of compassion. Not wanting to see the woman he had promised himself to exposed to shame and death, he found another way to both satisfy the Law and extend grace.
But his story doesn’t end there. Matthew’s gospel continues:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In an incredible vision, God informs Joseph of the truth of Mary’s claim via the words of an angel. And now Joseph has a decision to make. If he obeys the message of the angel and takes Mary as his wife, he opens himself up to shame and scandal. At best, he would be seen as enabling her “sin” by the society around them. At worst, he would appear to be complicit in her pregnancy and be labeled a fornicator. However, if he refuses to take Mary as his wife, he effectively denies the message of God and leaves the Messiah-to-be without legitimate parentage. Jesus would not be born ‘a son of David’. What will Joseph choose?
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:24-25).
Joseph’s actions speak well of his faith. He was willing to bear public ridicule, along with Mary, in order to be obedient to God. He takes her as his wife and Jesus is born “The Son of Joseph, the Son of David”. Joseph’s obedience actually helps fulfill the promises of the prophets. The Father chooses Joseph to help prepare the way for Christ.
And Joseph’s silent faith is something attested to in the rest of the texts that speak about him. When warned about the threat of Herod, Joseph obediently takes his family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Likewise, when called to return to Judea, Joseph trusts in God and brings his family back (Matthew 2:19-23). Over and over again, Joseph proves himself to be a man of quiet faith. No words. Only actions which attest to his trust in God and his willingness to carry out the calling to which he has been called.
As we reflect upon his story during this Advent season, we see that Joseph’s life reminds us that faith is something so much more than just intellectual assent to a series of doctrines. It is not only the confession of our lips. Faith is something much more. It is a trust, a confidence in God and His promises, which then shapes our actions in the world.
But this is not the only reason that Joseph is important for our Advent reflections. Joseph is important because he points us to Jesus himself. Joseph’s quiet faith points us to the man who was truly faithful; who “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus was a man of action who did what needed to be done to bring forth God’s plan of salvation. Likewise, Jesus is the one who was willing to take scorn upon himself in order to fulfill God’s purposes in redeeming his people. Jesus is the one who, “like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7), and who carried out his purposes with silent faith and fortitude.
In Joseph’s story, as in Mary’s, we see that he prepares us for the Lord by showing us the character of faith and by pointing us toward the greater “Faithful One” who is to come: Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Redeemer. This is Joseph’s contribution to the Advent season. May his quiet faith inform our own faith in this season of waiting and point us to the one who fulfills all of His promises: Christ the Lord.