(A) Introduction. Read Matthew1v18to25.

The participant in the Christmas story who is sometimes overlooked is Joseph. This is a pity because he is a good example to husbands and fathers everywhere. He represents all those undemonstrative men of a practical bent whose role in the church is undervalued and disregarded - until a window is broken or the lavatory won't flush.

(B) A distressed gentleman.

You don't have to be rich to be a gentleman. Joseph was poor carpenter. He was only able to make the very smallest thank offering for Mary's first-born son - two pigeons. (Even today pigeons are cheap. A game dealer would give only 20p for a brace.) However, I am sure that humble though he was Joseph was a gentleman.

(1) Joseph was shocked by the news that Mary was pregnant. It was the last thing he would have expected of her. Joseph had entered into a binding agreement to marry Mary. He would need to divorce her to be free.

Joseph was shocked because he was not aware of what God was doing. He was ignorant of God's grand design. Joseph had not heard the angel say to Mary: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." Lk1v35.

There is often shocking news at Christmas. Last year it was the Asian tsunamis. It is important to realise that we are not privy to the mysteries of creation and the purposes of God.

(2) Joseph was compromised. It seems that Mary hurried to Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea on being told that although a virgin she would have a son and furthermore her elderly relative had conceived a child in her old age. When Mary arrived at the home of Zechariah Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. Mary remained with her relative for 3 months - probably until John was born - before returning home.

So it is likely that Mary did not tell Joseph that she was expecting a baby until 3 or 4 months after conception. By then it was rather late for him to marry Mary and pretend that the child was his. Joseph certainly did not want to divorce Mary but neither could he condone her behaviour of getting pregnant by someone else.

Bad behaviour on the part of those we love always compromises us. We do not want to punish someone we love but neither can we altogether overlook the wrong that they have done. My brother Philip has faced this conundrum. What should he do about sons that come home drunk and unruly in the early hours of the morning and disrupt his household? He doesn't want to turn his sons out of the house but nor does he want the drunken behaviour to continue. I was in a similar position when Victoria - a member of my form of whom I was fond - kept coming to school late. I did not want to put her into detention but neither could I condone her lateness. In the end I informed Victoria that every time she was late she would have to give me a hug! This worked remarkably well!!

(3) Joseph was sad about losing the girl he loved but he was also upset that the young woman he admired had fallen from grace. Both Mary and Joseph were devout. The gospel record informs us that Joseph was a just man and Mary found favour with God. Lk1v30. Mary was a pure, wholesome, spiritually minded girl; consider how sorry Joseph must have been that her standards had slipped.

Christians are very sad when one of their number falls from grace. Many were greatly distressed when Dr Roy Clements left his wife to pursue a homosexual relationship. The hurt we cause our brothers and sisters should be a powerful check on sinful behaviour.

(4) Joseph was a considerate man. If a woman pledged to be married had sexual intercourse with another man then the Law of Moses specified she should be stoned to death. By the time of Jesus this very rarely occurred. The wronged man could instead either divorce his wife publicly - making the grounds of the divorce widely known - or divorce his betrothed privately presenting the certificate of divorce quietly before two witnesses. Joseph intended to do the latter because he did not want to expose her (Mary) to public disgrace. v19.

Consideration is the hallmark of the gentleman. Augustine wrote: Nothing so clearly discovers a spiritual man as his treatment of an erring brother.

I love the story Corrie ten Boon tells about her father in, 'My Father's House.' The family business was short of cash with a big bill to pay. A very wealthy man came into the shop and asked to buy a new expensive watch. Corrie thought her prayers had been answered and their difficulties were over. The well-to-do customer said, "I used to deal with Mr van Houten but since his son took over things have not been the same. He sold me this watch - a real dud." Mr ten Boon asked to look at the watch that had been such a disappointment. He made a slight adjustment and said, "It's a fine watch. I'm sure it will give you no more trouble. Mr van Houten's son is a trustworthy watchmaker. He will be encouraged if you buy a new watch from him."

It is hard to say who was more surprised - Corrie or the wealthy customer. Mr ten Boon explained to his daughter why he had acted as he did. He had conducted the funeral service of old Mr van Houton. How could he take custom from his son? Mr ten Boon continued: "Do you think the name of the Lord would be honoured? Trust the Lord. He owns the cattle on 1000 hills and He will take care of us."

Mr ten Boon was considerate - a true gentleman - and so was Joseph.

(5) Joseph was above all perplexed. It is significant that he did not act precipitately. Matthew tells us: But after he had considered this ... v20. Joseph had decided what to do but he had not carried out his decision. He was still thinking about it when he had his dream and the angel spoke to him.

Joseph found it difficult to accept Mary's explanation for her pregnancy - as would anyone of us! It was an incredible story. And yet .... . Was Mary the sort of woman to engage in casual sex and then invent an encounter with an angel?

Sometimes we have to trust the messenger. We have to ask ourselves whether it is likely that a man or a woman known to be honest and reliable is telling lies when talking about their experience of Jesus. It may seem incredible that anyone can be changed dramatically by believing in Jesus. Why should that make a difference? Trust the messenger and find out.

(C) Joseph was an uncomplicated man.

(1) Joseph was a practical man - a carpenter. He was not academic or imaginative. Joseph was neither scholar nor mystic. He knew wood!

Joseph was a simple man. Simple men are often quite impressionable. It was enough for an angel to speak to him in a dream to convince him that: "What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." v20.

Joseph was not articulate. Not one word of his is recorded in the Gospels. Even when Jesus was mildly reprimanded for missing the caravan home from Jerusalem it was Mary who spoke: "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." Lk2v48.

There are many wonderful characters in Dicken's novels. One of my favourites is Joe Gargery the blacksmith in 'Great Expectations'. Joe was married to Pip's sister. Pip was the lad who had 'Great Expectations'! Whenever Joe and Pip had fun Joe would say, 'What larks' and when things were more difficult on account of Mrs Joe's tantrums he would say, "Ever the best of friends; aint us Pip?" Sadly, Mrs Joe, who her husband reckoned a 'fine figure of a woman,' was inclined to use 'the tickler' on poor Pip. Perhaps the following passage where little Pip and Joe are talking by the fire conveys something of the simplicity of the blacksmith: "How do you spell Gargery, Joe?" I asked him, with a modest patronage.

"I don't spell it at all" said Joe.

"But suppose you did?"

"It can't be supposed," said Joe. "Tho' I'm oncommon fond of reading, too."

"Are you Joe?"

"On-common. Give me," said Joe, "a good book, or a good newspaper, and sit me down afore a good fire, and I ask no better. Lord!" he continued, after rubbing his knees a little, "when you do come to a J and O, and says you, 'Here, at last is a J - O, Joe,' how interesting reading is?"

I derived from this last, that Joe's education, like Steam, was in its infancy.

Simple, inarticulate, unimaginative men like Joseph and Joe Gargery are at something of a disadvantage in the modern church with its emphasis on listening, singing and hugging.

(2) Joseph was an obedient man. He obeyed the Law of Moses. Joseph and Mary went to the temple to offer 2 pigeons in thanks for their firstborn. Luke informs us: Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. Lk2v41.

Joseph also obeyed the angel of his dreams. When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. Mt1v23. He named Mary's first born son, Jesus, as he was instructed. Later, after the homage paid Jesus by the wise men, he was instructed to escape to Egypt. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt. Mt2v14.

Joseph obeyed promptly, without question or complaint and notwithstanding the cost. There was a cost! Fancy going to bed in your own home and getting up in the middle of the night, leaving everything to flee to a foreign country. He became a refugee in Egypt with only a handful of tools to his name on behalf of a son who was not even his own. (In passing - it was providential that Joseph practiced a craft that allowed him to earn a living and support his family wherever he was.)

Obedience is so important. I taught at a small rural comprehensive at Debenham in Suffolk. The children there were not especially bright or hard working. The teachers were committed, sound but not exceptional. Yet the results achieved by the pupils were extraordinarily good. What was the secret of their success? The pupils were obedient - co-operative and compliant.

The key characteristic of the Christian is not worship, fellowship or the exercise of spiritual gifts - it is obedience to Jesus. Obedience is the surest measure of our faith, our hope and our love. Nothing, absolutely nothing, makes us more effective in Christian service than obedience.

(3) Joseph showed great delicacy in his treatment of Mary. Although he was not told to, Joseph abstained from sex with his wife until after Jesus was born. Delicacy, especially in the treatment of women, is the mark of a true Christian gentleman. It is something my grandfather Reed had and a quality Joe Gargery the blacksmith exhibited.

Young Pip was educated as a gentleman and grew apart from, and half ashamed of, his friend and gaurdian, Joe. Little did he know that he was being sponsored by Magwitch, the convict, deported to Australia! Pip behaved foolishly and was imprisoned for debt where he fell desperately ill. It was Joe who came and nursed him back to health. However, when he considered Pip had recovered, not wishing to embarrass him further, Joe slipped away. I will let Pip take up the story:

I hurried then to the breakfast-table, and on it found a letter. These were its brief contents.

Not wishful to intrude I have departured fur you are well again dear Pip and will do better without.


P.S. Ever the best of friends.

Enclosed in the letter was a receipt for the debt and costs on which I had been arrested. Down to that moment I had vainly supposed that my creditor had withdrawn or suspended proceedings until I should be quite recovered. I had never dreamed of Joe's having paid the money; but Joe had paid it, and the receipt was in his name.

I love that - the receipt was in his name - it reminds me of someone else who paid the price to release me from debt and the receipt is in his name.

            Precious name, oh, how how sweet!
            Hope of earth and joy of heaven!

Joe was only an uneducated blacksmith although he had learned to read and write in Pip's absence. He was a very simple, straightforward man but this did not prevent him from acting with great delicacy - even as Joseph that other uncomplicated craftsman acted towards his wife.

(D) Joseph was an indispensable man.

(1) God did not consider it appropriate that a single mother bring Jesus up. He also chose for him an earthly father: a simple, unimaginative, impressionable but good and devout man who could earn his living anywhere. God's choice of Joseph illustrates what he considers the very best quality in any father - godliness. My brothers sometimes complain that their father and mine did not spend much time with us. Certainly he rarely played with us. We hardly ever went on holiday together. But I thank God that my father, too, was a godly man - the best of gifts.

(2) Joseph was the guardian protector of Mary and Jesus. He didn't leave the heavily pregnant Mary in Nazareth while he went to Bethlehem to get registered. He took Mary because he intended to stop in Bethlehem for a time to spare his wife the comments of those who noticed she gave birth after only 5 months of married life! I think that is why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem nearly two years later for the arrival of the wise men.

Joseph was quick to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape Herod's dreadful purge of the innocents in Bethlehem. When he came back to Palestine after the death of Herod he returned to Nazareth rather than go back to Bethlehem. Wherever Joseph and his family resided he was able to pay his way thanks to the craft he practiced.

Joseph highlights two most important functions of a father and husband - to protect and provide for his wife and children. Some ladies want romantic, exciting and entertaining husbands. They may be expecting too much!

Joseph played a small but crucial part in salvation's story. He wasn't the Saviour. We do not sing his praises at Christmas time. I don't expect we ever give thanks for him. But salvation's story would have been different without Joseph. If we live our lives in obedience to Jesus then regardless of how insignificant we might consider ourselves to be we, too, will make a contribution to God's great plan of redemption.

(E) Joseph was an enlightened man.

(1) The angel had a very plain message for Joseph - a plain message for a plain man. "You are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins." v23. God revealed his purpose to Joseph in the clearest, unequivocal terms. Jesus was going to be another in the long line of deliverers sent by God to his people - Moses to deliver them from slavery, Joshua to deliver them from a wilderness existence, David to deliver them from the Philistines and Cyrus, the pagan king, to deliver them from exile. But this last deliverer was going to do what no other could do - save his people from their sins.

Joseph could understand that. So have countless millions from a great variety of cultures and backgrounds for 2000 years. Jesus came to save his people from their sins. And who are his people? They are all those who believe in him. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Gal3v26.

(2) Joseph believed what the angel told him. He had faith is the baby boy born to Mary. Joseph realised how precious Jesus was. This is clear from his response to the angel who told him that Herod was going to search for the child and kill him. Joseph didn't waste a minute. He got up, hastily packed the bare necessities and left the same night for Egypt. Joseph proceeded with extreme caution on his return from Egypt. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there .... he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. Mt2v22and23.

Many precious gifts are received at Christmas. I read of two last week in the Daily Telegraph. Josie Caven, who was born deaf, will be able to hear Christmas carols for the first time after having cochlea implants in both ears. .... She beamed with delight as she listened to Jingle Bells on the radio for the first time.

Doctors have given 10-year-old Amber Sissons back her smile after a life-changing operation just in time for Christmas. ..... Just over two weeks ago Amber's body was in a state of permanent spasm. Her head was thrown back and her face distorted, turning smiles into grimaces.

Since electrodes have been inserted deep into her brain Amber has been able to regain almost full control of her body. Best of all, she has enough control of her arms to give her parents a hug - and she can smile.

Her mother said, "It's fastastic, a miracle - the best Christmas present I've ever had. I don't want anything else, ever."

Two handicapped girls each received a wonderful gift through the expertise of clever surgeons. Jesus is the greatest gift because he deals with the worst disease of all. Joseph was going to protect Jesus at all costs because he was precious - the only Saviour from sin. Is Jesus precious to you? Is he a pearl of great price? Would you give up everything to possess him? Every baby is a precious thing but no baby exceeded the preciousness of the holy child of Bethlehem.

Of none other do we sing:

            O Holy Child of Bethlehem
            Descend to us, we pray;
            Cast out our sin and enter in -
            Be born in us today!