Posts Tagged ‘Luke’

A sermon preached at Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church, Wethersfield, Connecticut, USA on 3 December 2022


Yesterday, Karen and I each celebrated a very special day in our home across the river in Portland.

We were there at the same time, breathing the same air, inhabiting the same space … walking the same dog.

But the special day we celebrated was different in each case. She had hers … and I had mine.

My special day was defined by USA vs. the Netherlands in the knock-out stage of the World Cup. Now I know that some of you don’t believe that the World Cup every fourth year represents the pinnacle of sports and that we should all join the rest of the world in just stopping everything else we were doing and taking in the spectacle. Can I just say, in a spirit of transparency, I just don’t get that. But we can talk about it at another time.

In any case, my special day was over before noon. It ended in sadness, to the tune of 3-1 Netherlands, USA goes home, seeya’ again in four years, hopefully this time with Colombia in the mix of national teams that classify. It’s so cruel…

On the other hand, Karen’s special day was just getting up its head of steam by noon as mine was ending in tears. It was a much happier celebration than mine: She turned our home into a Christmas miracle. 

The tree is up, more beautiful than ever, and lit so you can see it from the front street. The dining room is as Christmasy as a dining room can be, all ready for the onslaught of family that will begin in another two weeks. We calculate that we’ll even have enough chairs for everybody this year, which will represent a Hospitality Personal Best for the Baers.

In fact, it even smells like Christmas over there, and I have no idea how that even works.

So as of yesterday by about 4:30 in the afternoon, the Baers are ready for Christmas. 

Even though my special day was not such a happy one, it did have the silver lining of becoming the day when I begin my annual practice of re-reading the passages in our New Testament that tell what we’ve come to call ‘The Christmas Story’.

I love doing this. The combination of familiarity … on the one hand … and a fresh reading … on the other … are always life-giving for me. And I find that I’m once again captivated by one of the ‘bit players’ in the Christmas Drama: Joseph

In fact, if anybody asks me what I want for Christmas this year, my answer is gonna’ be this: I wanna’ be Joseph

Maybe I can persuade you to join me. Maybe our gift to those nearest to us this year can be being more like Joseph than we used to be.

Let me see whether I can find the words to tell you about this guy as I’m encountering him…

Joseph is like a neighbor whom I assumed I knew, but on further reflection I discover that I didn’t really know him at all.

Now Christian art and tradition—especially at this time of the year—provides for Joseph a large place. He kind of looms over the manger scenes you see around, like a slightly gawky uncle who hangs around but doesn’t say much. 

But in Scripture, Joseph is nearly always in the shadows of people who seem to be more important than he is. And then, when the scene has finished, Joseph is quickly forgotten.

Yet none of the Christmas Story would have happened if Joseph had not given his assent and played his role.

I find myself wondering whether I am willing to find my place in the shadows of people who are more important than I am. And whether I am prepared to be quickly forgotten.

All year long, I live a version of this question in my morning prayers. You see, I use a model for prayer that some of you use to shape your own spiritual discipline. 

You see, I’m an early riser, but I’m a cranky early riser.

I make my coffee, then I find my favorite chair, and I set the table for my conversation with God as some of you do ….

  • I am a Son – Deeply loved by God.
  • I am a Servant – Called to put the needs of others above myself.
  • I am a Steward – Called to invest what God has given me to the work of his kingdom.

More days than not, that second breathed prayer: I am a servant … called to put the needs of others above myself … plows the furrow that my life will follow for the next 14 or 15 hours. I can almost feel my heart settle into its rightful place as I make that daily affirmation of reality before God.

Though I wouldn’t have given it this name before yesterday, it strikes me now that it’s a kind of Joseph Prayer, one that our man Joseph might have been comfortable praying himself.

And now because of the unexpected turn of events that has Pastor Scott home sick and me standing here opening the Word of God for the People of God this morning, I can appropriately turn my own encounter with Joseph … overshadowed, obedient, forgettable Joseph … into a question for you, my sisters and brothers in Christ: Are you likely to choose a place in the shadows of people who are more important than you are? Are you willing to be quickly forgotten?

*   *   *

Let’s dive into the biblical portrayal of Joseph.

Joseph is remembered only in the two ‘infancy narratives’ found in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.

The Matthew account revolves around Joseph without exactly exalting him, while in Luke the focus is very much on Mary. 

In Matthew, Joseph receives something of the honor that would seem to be due to the husband of Mary and the father figure in the home of our Lord.  Still, he is hardly a highly revered figure in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. The spotlight falls on Joseph when the story requires it. But it doesn’t linger or stay with Joseph longer than it needs to.

For me, the most beguiling aspect of Joseph’s legacy is how he is not remembered. After the incident in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old, Joseph is not mentioned again in the entire New Testament except in a few instances where Jesus is called ‘the son of Joseph’ or ‘the carpenter’s son’.

But already I am getting ahead of myself and forgetting Joseph almost before I have remembered him. This, it seems, happens often with Joseph, standing there in the shadows and vulnerable to our forgetfulness as important events swirl around him.

  • Let’s peer into Joseph’s legacy as it comes to us in Matthew 1.16—2.23.
    • a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace …

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Matthew 1:18-19 (ESV)

Now I wonder whether you learned this remarkable glimpse of Joseph the way I did in my youth. It’s a strange thing, because our English Bible translations going back to the King James Version get it right. Yet somehow I understood that Moses was just—obedient to God’s savage and unyielding Law—yet somehow at the same time unwilling to put Mary to shame. In this, my boyhood understanding of this fascinating passage, Joseph was more merciful than God’s Law. His heart won out over his head.

But the biblical text suggests that this was not his dilemma. In fact, because he was a just man, he was not willing to throw Mary under the bus as he could well have done if he had been out to protect his own reputation above all else. In Joseph, his alignment with God’s own heart was the very thing that moved him to treat Mary with nobility and kindness, even at the risk of his own name. God’s Law had formed him to be this kind of man.

Already, Joseph becomes a human figure, forced to accommodate competing claims, to make the most of a situation that is complex and not of his making. In his patriarchal culture, where it falls to Joseph to call the shots on how to deal with Mary and her situation, he risks himself to care for her, without telling us in any detail how he feels about the awkwardness of his situation.  Already, I begin to like this Joseph, to feel that he knows something about the competing claims on my life …

  • promptly responsive to God-given dreams and God-sent angels …

Lots of markers in this text describe not just the sequence of Joseph’s response, but the promptness of it.

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him:

Matthew 1:24 (ESV)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by nightand departed to Egypt …

Matthew 2:13-14 (ESV)

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.

Matthew 2:19-21 (ESV)

Brothers and sisters, the languages of the Bible have their ways of giving us cues about the speed or the sloooooowwwneeees of the events they narrate to us. These texts in Matthew 1 and 2 show Joseph moving promptly to obey God’s strange commands to him in what must have been a deeply puzzling period of his once tame life. 

So this Christmas, I want to be more like Joseph, quickly responsive to God’s direction in my life.

But there’s more to Joseph if we read carefully between the lines. 

  • principled about sex and relationships …

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 (ESV)
  • responsible for his wife and child …

Do you like this guy as much as I do? Do you admire him?

I wonder how I passed him by so often and for so many years. But there he was, Joseph in the shadows, allowing others to claim the limelight.

I think again of that second line of my morning prayers: I am a Servant – Called to put the needs of others above myself. And I want to be Joseph this Christmas.

I mentioned that Joseph is more at the center, although never a dominating figure, in Matthew’s edition of the Christmas Story.

As it turns out, Joseph is remembered by Luke also. So he’s not an entirely forgettable character. He matters. There’s some weight to him. He’s a force.

He’s just very comfortable in the shadows.

I really, really like this Joseph dude…

So let’s see what Luke has to say.

I’m gonna’ roll Luke’s glimpses of Joseph out pretty quickly here. After all, Joseph is really a man in the shadows in this, the third of the three gospels, as Luke tells the Christmas Story from his particular angle of view.

Let’s remember that Luke is concerned to provide an almost professionally historical accounting of events. He says so in that memorable first paragraph of his two-volume work, one that starts with his gospel and then continues with what we call The Acts of the Apostles:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4 (ESV)

So then he works his way through John the Baptist, King Herod, that feisty old couple Zechariah and Elizabeth, all the way up to the culminating announcement of Jesus’ imminent birth.

Now tune your ear to Joseph’s appearance. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke 1:26-33 (ESV)

Joseph is basically reduced to a genealogical marker and a silent partner to Mary, who is front and center and happens to be betrothed to this Joseph guy, who is otherwise unmentioned.

  • Luke 2.1-5, the census and the journey to Bethlehem …

Then, after a whole lot more very consequential stuff in a very long chapter 1, Luke’s second chapter begins with the engaged couple’s journey to Bethlehem. Again, listen carefully or you’ll miss Joseph-in-the-shadows.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7 (ESV)

And Joseph also went up…

That’s all the press he gets!

  • Luke 2.15-19, the silent bystander as the shepherds visit and Mary contemplates …

Then here come the shepherds. Watch for Joseph…

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:15-20 (ESV)

I mean, we even get concluding summaries of Mary’s ponderings and the shepherds’ rejoicing. But where is Joseph? Invisible. And maybe content to be so.

  • Luke 2.22-35, the duty of Jerusalem, the parents’ marveling, and Simeon’s message to Mary …

Sadly, we don’t have time to read about Simeon, one of my favorite figures in the Christmas story—maybe I’m just drawn to the old dudes—except for this summary:

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Luke 2:33-35 (ESV)

So God is revealing long-kept secrets to human hearts, all of it having to do with the birth of this Infant King … and who gets a special talking-to from Simeon the aged prophet? Mary.

And where is Joseph. Invisible. Again.

  • Luke 2.41-52, twelve-year-old Jesus’ precocious wisdom in the temple and his parents’ consternation, which Mary speaks 

Now having told the Christmas Story, Luke compacts a lot of time into a few sentences in order to round out the picture of Jesus’ origins. Many of you will remember the amazing wisdom of the young Jesus, speaking in the temple precincts with Israel’s spiritual giants and public intellectuals. When his parents find him back in Jerusalem, utterly consternated by his behavior, who delivers the parental reprimand to the Young Messiah?

Mary. Joseph is silent. Not culpably silent, I think. Not irresponsibly. Just silent. Standing by, out of the limelight while the Lord accomplishes his greatest work.


Then, as quickly as he has appeared at the beginning of two of the four gospels, Joseph is gone.


I find this Joseph an interesting man. I would like to know him better, for I too often feel that I live in the shadows of people and events that are much larger than I am. I too often wonder whether I will be remembered, and—if so—how and by whom? Or, like Joseph, largely forgotten.

Yet, upon further reflection in the light of God’s coming near to us in Jesus, I wonder what would have happened if Joseph had not played his critical but overshadowed role in the events of Jesus’ birth. 

  • Would there have been no travel to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary?
  • No protecting of her honor when she fell pregnant under apparently shameful circumstances?
  • No hospitality to Babylonian astrologers who turned up with strange gifts in hand?
  • No careful performance of the duties that took the family to Jerusalem at the appropriate moments in Jesus’ life?

I don’t think I’ll be asked to play a part in anybody’s Christmas play this year.

But I want to be Joseph … willing to do the honorable thing in the shadow of those who do memorable things … willing to be forgotten if only Jesus will be remembered … willing to fade away if Jesus will only come more and more to the center of a growing circle of those who worship him.

Do you wanna’ join me in being Joseph this year?

My fear about preaching a message like this is that it will sentimentalize Joseph and even Christmas itself, kind of like a gauzy focus on a Hallmark Christmas movie. 

In reality, Christmas was and is an invasion of earth by the king of heaven and his armies. It’s not sentimental. It’s world-altering.

But in the midst of those events, Joseph was present and accounted for …. Quickly obedient … not needing the limelight.

So let us take up our small parts,  brothers and sisters, as our Lord does great things around us in this season that is best titled ‘Emanuel’: God is with us.

God be with you … and with our ailing pastor, who will have us back in 1 Samuel next week at this time and back into a series titled ‘Let Earth Receive Her King’.

May it be so. Amen.


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As Jesus’ ministry gathers steam in Luke’s telling, we glimpse the drawing up of battle lines in the three-times-repeated memory that Jesus rebuked a collection of enslaving adversaries.

And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’ (Luke 4:33–36 ESV)

The verb that abbreviates Jesus’ belligerent command over the ‘unclean demon’ that holds this unnamed man in bondage is ε͗πιτιμάω (traditionally, to rebuke), supplemented in the people’s astonished after-commentary by ε͗πιτάσσω (usually, to command). As mentioned, Luke deploys ε͗πιτιμάω three times in close proximity, two of them of loud confrontations with demons reluctant to leave their hosts and once of Jesus’ command that an incapacitating fever should leave Simon’s mother-in-law. (more…)

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In a recent post I’ve noted the resolute anchoring of the events surrounding Jesus’ emergence in identifiable details that are open to debate, dispute, and falsification. The moment’s various layers of government and governance, the geographic and political entities in which these things took place, the calendar’s framing up of chronology and sequence, all these things mattered to Luke. Indeed, they matter twenty centuries later to people whose lives derive their meaning from Jesus himself and the early testimony about him. (more…)

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Perhaps we should give up heaven for Lent.

Like a cleansing diet, it might be a good thing for us to lay aside our notions of an esoteric, heavenly faith. At least long enough to re-root in history, where YHWH’s redemption locates itself and—in its way—turns the world upside down. (more…)

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In Isaiah 56, YHWH comes as close as Hebrew grammar allows to naming himself with a new name.

The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’ (Isaiah 56:8 ESV)

Indeed, one could almost read the preface to YHWH’s declaration as …

YHWH, the Gatherer of the outcasts of Israel, declares …

Two things stand out. First, on my reading, this gathering impulse is not reported as one registers an event that happened once and may or may not recur. Rather, it seems that the syntax presents this gathering of Israel’s wandering daughters and sons as nearly intrinsic to YHWH’s persona. He not only gathers them. He is their Gatherer. Time and again. (more…)

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We live trapped, surrounded by walls.

We come to understand precisely what falls within our reach and what beyond. We learn early not to push the envelope, not to think beyond reality as it has been served to us with all its hard, claustrophobic barriers.

It’s hard to breathe. But we get enough air to go on, so we do.

For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37 ESV)

Mary the mother of Jesus finds the well-regarded limitations of divine intervention punctured by angels who can’t stop saying crazy things.

Along the way, she finds out that she is not the only woman falling pregnant under the oddest of circumstances. Her relative Elizabeth, sprightly perhaps but unmistakably old, is expecting. Indeed showing, for it is already the sixth month.

What’s more, Elizabeth is one of those unfortunates—everyone knew this—who could not have children.

That’s gone, the angel advises Mary, who has not even been given time to stop reeling from the shock of her own announced pregnancy.

If Mary stands apart from the rest of us, it is perhaps because she could say words like this against the cold breath of impossibility:

And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:38 ESV)

She was somehow unscandalized by it all.

Having taken note of this, the angel immediately departs. He’s busy, has work to do.

Impossible stuff.

As I write this, I am terrified, exhilarated by impossible things. They’re at the window, not yet in the house, announcing themselves, tapping insistently on the pane. They raise hope, elicit then ease fear. They remind a man that he still knows nothing about that boundary, that frontier, that line between things that can be.

And those that could never be. Impossible things.

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When evil has become official policy, initial resistance is no less courageous for its quiet beginnings.

Luke narrates how 1st-century Jewish religious officialdom and the humid presence of Rome managed to collaborate in executing Jesus, this despite unsuccessful thrashing around for justifiable reasons to do so.

Not everyone agreed. But against this powerfully convenient coalition, what was one to do?

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (Luke 23:50–52 ESV)

This Joseph of Arimathea is described, as a righteous minority in a conflictive moment that demands silence and cooperation often is, from a variety of angles.

He was ‘a good and righteous man’. One surmises that it was this strength of character that explains his failure to ‘consent to their decision and action’ regarding the swift dispatching of Jesus to the rolls of for-a-while messiahs.

Yet there is more to Joseph. His eyes were among those that scan the landscape fore evidence that the God of Israel is quietly on the move. He was ‘looking’, this Joseph, ‘for the kingdom of God’. Most would imagine that the descriptions of power and the powerful were pretty well complete by the time one had taken the Herods and the Pilates into account.

Joseph did not. He was awaiting something more, something deeper, something enduring, something beyond the self-referential conspiracies of the religious and political elite.

What do you do in such dangerous times?

For Joseph, you do the next, merciful thing. You ask Pilate for the dead man’s body and give it a decent burial.

Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. (Luke 23:53 ESV)

Such is the this-worldly care of men and women who are better than this world, yet in loving it look for its true king.

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By all reckoning, it should have been the end of Peter’s story.

Like Judas, he might have hanged himself. Or turned recluse. Or lurched in his bitterness towards Stockholm Syndrome, throwing in his lot with Jesus’ taunters.

And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:61–62 ESV)

A text familiar with tears and their descriptors takes special care to characterize Peter’s particular kind of weeping. ‘He went out and wept bitterly.’

Nothing is left for Peter, even if Jesus‘ life might stagger on for a few more hours before the killing is over.

Indeed Luke’s narrative never pauses to allow a polite space for Peter’s grief. Hurrying on from Jesus’ and Peter’s fateful locking of glances, he reports:

Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him. They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him. (Luke 22:63–65 ESV)

But Peter is ended.

His credibility gone, his soul crushed by his own unforeseen betrayal of this man for whom he had vowed to die, what can possibly become of this once audacious follower of Jesus, whom the text now with increasing frequency calls simply ‘the Lord’?

Yet, stunningly, Peter is not over.

The events unfolding before eyes that have perhaps read them too quickly, too often, would produce more than one resurrection from the dead. Peter, the New Testament will lead us to understand, had a future, indeed a complex, contentious, and fruitful one.

Nor does the resurrection count end at just two.

For we are all Peter ended, capable of the unthinkable and often its very perpetrators, shattered by our own weak hand.

Yet we are all potentially Peter remade, remembering our nadir not as our end, but rather our beginning.

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It is probably impossible for us credibly to imagine Jesus’ solitude in the garden called Gethsemane.

As his heart and mind writhed in agony before his impending execution and the lived experience of abandonment by his Father, his friends, too, deserted him for sleep. (more…)

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Sometimes those closest to Jesus understand nothing, while someone with no ‘Jesus history’ comprehends immediately. It has always been so.

Jesus explains to his disciples that Jerusalem, their portentous destination, holds out for him no obvious good:

And taking the twelve, he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.’ (Luke 18:31–33 ESV)


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