Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 22, 2019
Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
At the time of posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.
It’s the Sunday before Christmas. For many of us it means the presents are all bought and wrapped and under the tree. Or, if you’re like me, you still have much to do before 5:30 on Christmas Eve when we will begin our first service of Christmas with carols at Emmanuel.
I take it that you notice that we’re reading a bit of the Christmas story today. You may not be aware of this, but there are actually three versions of the Christmas story. There’s the Gospel according to Matthew, which we heard this morning, and where we get Joseph’s dream. In Matthew’s gospel it is followed by the wise men and the star in the East. Luke’s gospel focuses on shepherds and angels and the fact that there was no room in the inn.
We hear a lot about Mary, and rightly so. She was, after all, the mother of Jesus, the only person constant in the life of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. I certainly have a special affinity for Mary.
But, this morning, I want to consider Joseph. Our gospel today really focuses on Joseph and his importance to the birth, life and ministry of Christ.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
In all the New Testament Joseph never utters a word. Yet, he’s one of the principal figures in the Christmas drama. And so, let’s take just a moment to give Joseph his due.
Tradition has it that Joseph was a simple man of an honorable trade: A carpenter from Nazareth. Sometimes you see Sunday school pictures showing him in a woodshop making furniture. But “carpenter” in Joseph’s day referred to a wide range of trades. Joseph could have just as easily worked with metal or stone, as with wood.
Tradition has it that Joseph was an ordinary, quiet, faithful man. He might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. In the history of Christian artistic reflections on the birth of Jesus, from the beauty of Renaissance art to the folksiness of Christmas pageants, Joseph is almost never front and center. In paintings of Mary with Jesus, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he often seems set off to the side. I don’t know, perhaps he’s like the family member who is always absent from family photos because they can’t stand to be in the picture.
And maybe Joseph still wasn’t entirely clear on what his role in this story is. But think of how faithful Joseph is.
His place in the Christmas story, of course, is that of Mary’s husband. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary were “betrothed,” but not yet married. There were three steps to a Jewish marriage: the engagement, which was often arranged by the parents through a matchmaker when the boy and girl were children; the betrothal, which was a formal ratification of the marriage-to-be, usually done a year before the couple was married; and the wedding itself, which lasted a whole week, at which time the marriage was consummated. During the betrothal, the couple was legally bound to each other so that, if the man died before the actual wedding took place, the woman was considered to be a widow. They were actually referred to as husband and wife, though they refrained from having marital relations.
According to Matthew, it’s at this particular stage in their relationship that Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and, though the scripture is not specific at this point, I think it’s safe to say he was very angry. Like any husband-to-be, Joseph would’ve been beside himself to learn that his fiancé was pregnant. Like anyone in his position, he would have been hurt, humiliated and disappointed. Matthew does not tell us what Joseph was feeling. What we do know is that Joseph was an ordinary man. He learned the woman he was engaged to was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his. He drew the obvious conclusion. If Mary were pregnant, the only explanation would’ve been that she’d been unfaithful, in which case, he had a legal right to have her stoned to death.
It’s at this point that Joseph proves his faithfulness, first to Mary and then, more importantly, to God. According to Matthew, when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Matthew 1:19)
Joseph found himself in a no-win situation. He couldn’t, in good conscience, go on with the wedding; yet, he couldn’t bring himself to humiliate Mary either, much less put her to death. Breaking off the relationship, but not making a big deal of it, seemed to be the most honorable thing to do, and if Joseph’s part in the Christmas pageant ended here, we could understand and respect him as a man of faith.
But there’s more. According to Matthew, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that the child in Mary’s womb was of the Holy Spirit and that he should become as a father to the child.
Now, it’s certainly tempting for us, reading the story some two thousand years after the fact – knowing the rest of the story, as it were – simply to say, “Well, there you have it.” The angel explained everything. But then, we’ve all had dreams, haven’t we? And we know how bizarre and elusive dreams can be. I don’t know many people who make major life decisions based upon what they think they saw or heard in a dream. Do you? Yet, according to Matthew, Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
And then, in one further act of faithfulness and obedience to God, Joseph publicly named the child. Matthew says simply, “he named him Jesus.” In so doing, he claimed the child as his own and gave him the benefit of a noble ancestry, making him a descendant of the house of David. Because of the faithfulness of Joseph, Jesus would have a father and Joseph would have a place in the drama of God’s salvation. Thank God there was no Maury Povich on which to air this sordid story.
Joseph was a man of quiet strength. He was a man of integrity, true to his convictions. Yet, he was compassionate and considerate of others. To the world, the faithfulness of Joseph may seem foolish, but to those who are willing to follow his example and surrender their wills to the will of God, the faithfulness of Joseph is not simply a way of pleasing God; it’s a way of fulfilling your own life’s destiny.
Joseph was a faithful man, willing to be molded to God’s will. I don’t know of a better way to model the faithfulness of Joseph than recite a stanza of a good old Methodist hymn written in the late 1800s by Adelaide Pollard”
“Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way; Thou art the potter, I am the clay; mold me and make me after Thy will, while I’m waiting, yielded and still.”
Joseph was the clay. Joseph yielded to the will of God. When God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his faithful response, God gave us his plan for the salvation of the whole world.
 Matthew 1:19, NRSV
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