a sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
There is no question that Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus, is a significant character in the Christmas story… an important person in Jesus’ life! Roman Catholicism, in particular, has venerated the woman as “the Mother of God”, naming her the “Queen of Heaven”. Frankly, I think every mother plays the most important role in her child’s healthy birth, survival, upbringing, & future success. I do not mean to denigrate Mary, Jesus’ mother, by shifting the focus off her this morning and onto Joseph.
After all, we must admit that Mary’s life was turned upside-down & inside-out when the messenger angel Gabriel let her know that she was pregnant with the Messiah -- the long-awaited Christ, the one who would be called a “Son of God.” (!) That’s a challenging thought for a young Galilean girl, as it most certainly would be for any of us even today. My heart goes out to her!
Nevertheless, I want us to focus on Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, this morning. He had been publicly pledged in marriage to the Virgin… but he suddenly found out that his betrothed bride (the girl of his dreams) was pregnant!
Joseph would naturally fall under suspicion as the baby’s father -- the neighbors would assume that he had intercourse with Mary before their wedding night. The salacious gossip about Joseph’s supposed “immorality” would race through Nazareth -- besmirching his reputation -- even though it was untrue! This was bad news for the innocent young man. But he’d survive it.
For Mary, however, it was not merely “bad” news, it was dangerous news. Because, if Joseph denounced her as a “fornicator” -- that is, for having sex with somebody other than him -- Mary would have been stoned to death for the sin of adultery. (Penalties were much more severe on the women!)
Matthew writes that Joseph,“being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Frankly, I haven’t come across very many “quiet” divorces in my experience. Even amicable -- “no fault” mutually agreed upon -- separations become adversarial (and expensive) as lawyers get involved.
Joseph may have “resolved to divorce her quietly” for Mary’s protection, or it may have been to hide his own shame... to protect his own good name in the community. But Joseph did not do that. (!) He did not take cover “under the Law” and cut Mary loose. Instead, he listened to what God had to say… in a dream.
Here’s how Matthew put it: “But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said: ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him ‘Jesus’, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Talk about dreaming the Impossible Dream! As he wrestles in his own mind with what to do about this scandalous situation, Joseph is encouraged to imagine himself as the legal father of the Messiah! Imagine, Joseph, that by accepting this Son of Mary as your own, you will play a key role in the coming of God’s salvation & redemption into the world. (!) You, Joseph, will raise the Messiah (the Christ) to adulthood! You will invest yourself in bringing into being the One who will be named “Deliverer” (Yeshua)… the One that the people will say is “Emmanuel” (God-with-us). Do not be afraid, Joseph, to do this! Have faith!
I can certainly understand why Joseph would have had some sleepless nights struggling with the problem of what to do about Mary and her pregnancy. I’m sure that she had said that she had not been unfaithful to her vows of betrothal… and yet it appeared that she was carrying the child of another man. (!) Whether Mary had been the victim of rape, incest, or infidelity, it all added up to the same sad result in the custom of ancient Middle Eastern culture: the unwed woman was now spoiled, no longer virgin – she was a sinner, deserving of death at the hands of her betrayed father, her shamed brothers, and her jilted fiancé.
As Joseph struggled with “what is the right way for me to handle this?”, the Bible gives us a clue about Joseph’s character. It says that he was a “just” man, unwilling to put her to shame. The New Revised Standard Bible calls Joseph a “righteous” man. Not self-righteous. Not judgmentally or rigidly righteous, such that he would be committed to the public punishment of all sin. No, in the Gospel, righteousness means that one’s heart is tuned to God; that one’s innermost being is compassionate & merciful, creative & loving (like the heart of God). Because Joseph is a “just” man, he proves to be a kind man… who is gracious & gentle with Mary (his wife), hopeful and faithful regarding Jesus.
A lesser man would have taken refuge under the Jewish Law, or bowed to the brutal customs of his culture. A lesser man would have demanded “justice” -- bringing accusations of unfaithfulness against Mary, broken off the betrothal, & perhaps even demanded her execution to wipe away his public disgrace. As I said in the song: “Some in town will frown and say that I should turn away because of the things they say she’s done… Some may say that I am wrong, but I’ve loved her for so long, I’m gonna do the things she needs me to do.” (Joseph’s Song by John Armstrong, 1990, Baby Brother Music)
I can imagine that Joseph was torn between the motives of (on the one hand) not wanting to hurt his fiancé, Mary, and (on the other) being afraid to enter into a marriage with someone whose faithfulness he could not entirely trust. It is hard to restore trust to a marriage where one partner has been unfaithful. Imagine having to go through that before you have even lived together… Could you look at the very child born from that unfaithful affair (that rape or incest) and not re-live the pang of betrayal?
The Bible suggests something else about Joseph, in that he was reflective. He considered what to do. He made plans in his own mind. Rather than jumping into hasty action that he might regret later on, Joseph was taking some time to think it over. I can imagine that it was always on his mind -- in the back of his mind while he worked during the day, and, during the night, it became the subject of his dreams.
It was during one such troubled dream that the angel spoke to him.
I want us to stop and think a moment about Joseph as a dreamer. On this occasion, and three more times in Chapter 2 (verses 13, 19-20, & 22), when angels speak to Joseph, every time it is in a dream. I get that! Our deep subconscious mind, at rest in the night – and firing random synapses in creative synthesis – is not entirely under our control. When we say: “let’s sleep on it,” it gives a chance for clear thinking tomorrow. (Sleep is wonderfull.)
I can just see Joseph, the righteous one (the reflective one), thinking… and thinking… in the methodical and careful way that a carpenter or an engineer would, trying to find the best answer to these problems. And it was in the midst of that very real process that God’s messenger spoke to him in a dream.
I can’t help but think of us today. As we wrestle with issues, especially ones that touch upon our families -- or problems that involve our relationships with other people -- Joseph’s story becomes our story. As we struggle to find “the right answer” in our own way, perhaps we even dream about our problems, as Joseph did about his.
Well, I take from this story the possibility that God’s Spirit intervenes today, as God did back then with Joseph, to help you and me to find the most creative (perhaps even novel) “right answer” to our personal dilemma. (!) God may not send an angel per se to talk to you in the middle of a dream, but some kind of a message (guidance, proposal, direction) may come to you when you relax a bit… let go, and let God… be still… be not afraid…
I believe that God does care about our personal problems, that God is with us in our struggles to help us solve them, and that through mental reflection (meditation, prayer) God intervenes with guidance, if we will but listen… and follow the direction that God helps us set. (!) Joseph was righteous, and he was reflective.
When Joseph followed God’s proposal in dealing with the problem – when he resolved not to divorce Mary after all, but rather to marry her and to raise her baby as his own (with all the legal rights that paternity & holy matrimony conferred on the child) – it resulted in the reconciling and redeeming power of God coming into the world, in Jesus (the Christ) -- Emmanuel, “God with us” -- to change human life forever! For he will save his people from their sins! (Hallelujah!)
I say in my sermon title that Joseph was “Righteous, Reflective, and Resolved”. The fact is, after Joseph listened to God, it caused him to reverse course. He ended up taking a course of action that he had initially rejected! When he first learned of her pregnancy, he probably thought: “I could just go ahead and marry Mary. But that would be risky! I would be exposing myself to all kinds of problems. Besides the shame, I would be breaking the purity code; I’d be breaking the Law that demands punishment. I would have to learn to trust Mary in the future. Why should I take those kinds of chances? No, I can’t go through with our marriage.”
But then God comes to him in a dream and says: “Joseph, reconsider. The most risky way is also the most righteous one. It takes faith, and hope, and forgivenss, and love. The most un-selfish thing you can do is also the right thing to do. Don’t take the easy way out! Open a door for me to work a miracle, because what is really at work here is the Holy Spirit! Trust me.”
The right answer to our problem may not be something new. It may be something that we’ve already thought of, but rejected. Maybe it seemed too risky, or too uncomfortable, or too costly. Maybe it demanded a commitment. That’s how it was with Joseph, and that’s how it often is for you and me.
Because Joseph was righteous, he wanted to bring his life into conformity with God’s purpose. Yes. But how does one know what God’s Will is in any specific situation in life (like the one he was facing with Mary’s unexpected “expecting”)?
Because he was reflective, Joseph knew that all kinds of options were open to him. Each one had its own set of consequences.
In our most difficult decisions, we need guidance from others – if not from angels in our dreams, at least from the Bible, or from friends, family members, teachers, therapists. Joseph had to open himself to listen to guidance from God… and then to trust God. “Do not fear to take Mary your wife.” Do not fear. Trust!
In the end, Joseph resolved to put himself into service in the most intimate possible family relationship with the Son of God… He became the man that Jesus called “my father” on earth.
Since Jesus instructed his followers to address God as “Our Father, who art in heaven” -- and he called God “Abba”, Father -- the role model of that carpenter/dreamer Papa Joseph in Jesus’ formative years must have been a good & godly one. According to Matthew’s Gospel, God was there for Joseph in the days (and nights!) of his deepest struggle, as God is there for us.
God is ready to work with us to accomplish something great – to manifest the love and grace and power of Jesus Christ in us and (through us) in the lives of those around us – just as God was ready to break into the world through the lives of Mary & Joseph.
It will only come about (however) if we open ourselves to taking some risks -- which is what it means to have faith (trust!). God works with us through the choices that we make (which is commitment), as we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
May we (like Joseph) be righteous, be reflective, and then be resolved to do our part, as we await the Coming of Christ (anew) in our midst.
Have a blessed Advent season. Amen.