New Tune, New Hero

By Published on December 23, 2023

Have you heard any new and good Christmas songs this year? Chances are, your answer is, “No.” Christmas music is an interesting genre in that new stuff doesn’t usually stick. The songs that most folks enjoy at Christmas are the old, tried-and-true standards.  

By “standards” I mean Christmas hymns like “The First Noel” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” most of which were written in the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s another stratum of Christmas music that is popular, non-religious, but also not very new. I randomly checked the playlist from a local holiday station, and the last four songs which had been played in that moment were “Blue Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Sleigh Ride.” The newest tune among those four? “Blue Christmas,” released in 1957. 

I was surprised, then, to discover a very interesting and new-ish Christmas song released back in 2008. It’s catchy, has a great sound, and brings us face-to-face with, arguably, the most misunderstood member of the “Big Three” in Bethlehem’s stable: Joseph.  

The “Big Three,” I mean not irreverently at all, would be the Baby Jesus, Mary His mother, and Joseph. You can’t have a good manger scene without all three of those folks. Mary and Jesus God the Son share almost equal, major focus in the nativity story, but Joseph is the one we understand least.  

Joseph, in fact, is often mistaken for someone else in the crèches we set up. “Is this one Joseph or one of the shepherds? I don’t know….” The prophetic message he receives from God begins with, “Don’t leave! Don’t quit on Mary” (Mt. 1:20). Then the next time Joseph is spoken to by God, He says, “OK, now leave! Get up and go to Egypt, quickly!” (Mt. 2:13). Trying to get a better handle on the kind of man Joseph might have been is where our new Christmas song comes into play. 

The Tune 

“Joseph, Better You than Me” is a tune written and recorded by the band The Killers. They’ve been popular ever since their debut project, “Hot Fuss,” was released back in 2004. The band is decidedly non-Christian. That fact makes this 2008 song so interesting. The Killers approach Joseph’s story with respect, and they reflect insight worthy of our attention. 

The song’s title immediately tells you where it’s going. It’s about the new and difficult life Joseph acquires via his relationships with Mary and Jesus. Why else would you tell someone, “Better you than me!” The implication is, “I couldn’t handle that, pal.”  

The opening line of the lyrics is: “Well, your eyes just haven’t been the same, Joseph.” It’s not a comment about ocular degeneration, but rather a commentary on the colossal sea changes occurring in Joseph’s life right around the time he and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. Those changes are detailed in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke’s gospels and enumerated in the song through a series of questions. Here’s the entire first verse: 

            Well, your eyes just haven’t been the same, Joseph. 

            Are you bad at dealing with the fame, Joseph? 

            There’s a pale moonshine, above you 

            Do you see both sides, do they shove you, around? 

The words are sung over sparse, singular piano chords — no other musical instruments in the background. The rhythm is somewhat plodding as the song begins, as if to illustrate the uphill struggle that has become Joseph’s life. Having a hard time “dealing with the fame” of Mary’s baby, Joseph? Having a hard time coming to grips with “both sides” — this new, divine mandate on one side, in direct conflict with the mundane anonymity that felt so safe on the other side? 

Then the questions continue in verse two: 

            Is the touchstone forcing you to hide, Joseph? 

            Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph? 

            When the holy night is upon you 

            Will you do what’s right, the position is yours. 

So, Joseph, this moment of testing in your life — this “touchstone” — makes you want to run and hide, right? And all those “rumors” about Mary and whose baby it really is … gotta be tough. When the moment of “the holy night” arrives, what “will you do” — stand up and be the man Mary and Jesus need? It’s your call. 

It’s Really About Trust 

For our purposes in this meditation, what this song is really about is not just the new, hard life of Joseph, with all the decisions he has to make. The enduring idea of this song is trust. All of those questions, in two verses of song, point to one, difficult question: Joseph, will you trust God? Trust Him with the fame, divine command, testing, rumors, and the real choice to face it all or run and hide? Will you trust God, Joseph?  

I believe the struggle for Joseph was just that real. Scripture tells us that upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy, his first thought was to “divorce her quietly” (Mt. 1:19). He was good, honest, and loved Mary, but he also was having a really hard time with all this.  

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Thankfully, an angel of the Lord blessed Joseph with a dream, explaining it all. Yet when he awoke, Joseph could’ve marked off the dream as a manifestation of his wishful thinking or maybe even the consequence of a bad meal. Or even if he had believed the dream, he could’ve refused to follow it. After all, there was no sign of visible proof about Mary’s baby; no “spiritual ultrasound” to confirm this fantastic story that her little one was “God with Us,” Immanuel (Mt. 1:23). Mary’s growing womb and God’s incredible word — that’s all Joseph had. What would he do? 

We know exactly what he did. Mt. 1:24 tells us that when Joseph woke up from the dream — not a day or two later after making a pro and con list, but upon waking up — he obeyed God and did exactly what the angel had commanded him to do. 

Our new-ish Christmas song presents a list of potential questions and the elements of this conundrum faced by Joseph. And in doing so it fleshes out the story, intensifying Scripture’s presentation of a towering example of obedience. Here’s a man, Joseph, who in the crucible of choice does the right thing. He trusts God. 

This is where Joseph’s story impacts us. Will we trust God when, for example, we get fired from our jobs or experience failing health? Will we trust God to include our difficulties in the “all things [He’ll] work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) and to “turn our mourning into dancing” (Ps. 30:11)? Will we trust God like Joseph did? 

… and Faith 

Back to our new Christmas song. The chorus creates a powerful, contextual contrast between eternal, divine, cosmic importance and immediate, personal, gut-level courage. Here are the words: 

            From the temple walls to the New York night 

            Our decisions rest on a child. 

            When she took her stand 

            Did she hold your hand? 

            Will your faith stand still or run away? 

Again, the focus of the entire Christmas story is Jesus, Mary’s child upon whom everything rests, from ancient Jerusalem to 21st century Manhattan. So, Joseph, when precious Mary “took her stand” and claimed what she claimed about her baby’s origin, “did she hold your hand?” Was your hand there to be held? This song is about Joseph in the moment of decision. All the questions have forced this moment: “Will your faith stand still or run away?” 

Then, interestingly, when the chorus comes back around, there’s a slight but significant variation. 

            From the temple walls to the New York night 

            Our decisions rest on a MAN. 

            When I take the stand 

            Will HE hold MY hand, 

            Will MY faith stand still or run away? 

Bethlehem’s baby grows up to be “a man” — the God-man who will “hold [your] hand,” when it’s time to “take [your] stand,” whatever that stand for Him may entail. May our “faith stand still,” stalwart and strong. 

Trust and Faith Prevail! 

One more verse of this song needs to be mentioned. Here it is:

            When they’ve driven you so far 

            That you think you’re gonna drop 

            Do you wish you were back there at the carpenter’s shop? 

This is a fascinating question! It’s Joseph’s temptation, right? Run fast and far from the fame, the perceived messiness of Mary’s situation, and the breathtaking, unsettling future of raising Jesus, “God with us!” Run from all that back to the cozy confines of the shop, the smell of the sawdust — the place where you feel most at home. This verse continues: 

            With the plane and the lathe. 

            The work never drove you mad 

            You’re a maker, a creator 

            Not just somebody’s dad. 

Also, part of the temptation: Sacrificing his very reputation as a talented “maker” and “creator,” to become known primarily as “just somebody’s dad.” Joseph becomes the apparent “dad” of God the Son. He would forever become known by his relationship to somebody else, his own interests and uniqueness being subsumed under those of God. If the incarnation hadn’t happened, we would never know that Joseph even existed. 

But apparently Joseph was more than willing to give whatever was necessary in order to obey God and follow His plan:  

He took responsibility for Mary. 

He took responsibility for Mary’s baby. Never forget that Jesus wasn’t his physical child. 

He risked his life for both Mary and Jesus. That family trip to Egypt wasn’t a vacation! 

And he gave away his reputation.  

This was not just his reputation for being a master craftsman and creator of fine woodwork. Again, there’s no visible proof that Mary’s baby was the holy son of God. But there’s also no proof that Joseph qualified his marriage by telling the gossiping folk in Nazareth, “Oh no, I’m not the father, but young Mary needs me.” According to Scripture, Joseph simply, courageously, profoundly “took Mary home as his wife” (Mt. 1:24). 

The final words of our new Christmas song echo what I’m sure The Killers felt toward our man: “Better you than me, Joseph; better you than me.” Then they sing that phrase six more times, not just as lyrical and vocal fill, but as if to hammer home that point once and for all: “REALLY, Joseph, better you than me.” 

Joseph: A New Hero 

But in closing this meditation on Joseph, via a new-ish Christmas tune, I can’t help but reject those closing sentiments from the talented band. “Better you than me?” Respectfully, No. 

When everything in me wants to run and hide rather than face the toughness of God’s call — His call to be courageous, steady, authentic, honest, gracious, true, compassionate, obedient, responsive and loving; When I am in the crucible of decision, determining whether I’ll believe the lie of the Tempter, pander to the lust of my eyes, my flesh, the pride of my life; When God demands of me what I’d rather save for myself; May I be found faithful exactly like you were, Joseph. Better me because of you. Thank you, Joseph, for your example.  

 

Dr. Earl Waggoner is dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies for Colorado Christian University’s College of Adult and Graduate Studies. Theological education has been Dr. Waggoner’s vocational passion for more than two decades, teaching theology, church history and other ministry-related content.

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