December 22, 2013 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 1:18–1:25
Fourth Sunday in Advent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Put yourself in Joseph’s place. You’ve discovered that your fiancée is pregnant. You know that it’s not your baby. That’s a tough enough spot for any husband-to-be. But to better understand Joseph’s situation, think about what it meant to be engaged back in that time and place. Today, a couple can get engaged pretty much whenever they want. It’s a sign that they want to get married at some point in the future. Should they decide not to get married, painful as such a decision might be, they could just break off their engagement. But in first century Israel, betrothal according to Jewish custom was actually the first stage of marriage, a legally binding relationship which could last up to one year for a virgin maiden. Even though they wouldn’t come together as husband and wife until after the wedding ceremony, the couple would still need to obtain a formal divorce to break off their engagement. In Joseph’s situation, what would you do?
The groom had a couple of options. Mary, being pregnant outside of her marriage, would be taken for an adulteress and could have been stoned to death. To avoid that, Joseph could either take Mary as his wife as originally planned, or he could get the legal divorce quietly without publicly shaming his fiancée. Either one of those would be a challenge, the first more so than the second.
For all Joseph knew, Mary had indeed committed adultery and betrayed him. We don’t have a lot of information about Joseph, and most of what we get in the Bible comes from Matthew’s Gospel account. You’ve probably seen paintings or heard carols about how Joseph was much older than Mary. Many readers have assumed that Joseph must have been older, dying before Jesus’ public ministry began, because he only appears in the Gospels’ reports of Jesus’ early life and family. In short, we don’t know because the Bible doesn’t say. But whether a little older or much older than Mary, don’t you think that Joseph would have been deeply hurt when he found out that his fiancée was pregnant? How could he take a wife who’d already cheated on him and another man’s baby into his home as his own? After considering his options, Joseph decided to discreetly get the divorce and end their marriage before it had even really begun. What the Bible does tell us is that Joseph was a righteous man. He didn’t want to hurt Mary or her baby. For the right reasons – based on his understanding of the situation – Joseph was about to choose the wrong course of action. Unlike you or me, he didn’t have a copy of the Gospel According to Matthew to tell him what was really going on!
Even as a righteous man, Joseph went the wrong direction. Entering into the final week of Advent and the Christmas season that follows right after it, how’s your direction? Making the right choices can be a challenge, all the more when you’re stressed or in a tough spot. Even Christians get spun around in the pressure of this time of year. You might make assumptions like Joseph did, failing to see things as they really are. Jumping to conclusions, you can end up hurting both the people around you and yourself, heading off in the wrong direction because you didn’t have all the information. When spending time with the people who are closest to you, it’s easy to allow the hurts of the past back into the present. You might automatically assume the worst in any interaction with family. When you’re feeling hurt or feeling like you could get hurt, it seems much easier to trust in your GPS or smartphone map for directions to someplace you’ve never been before – like your grandmother’s new house over the river and through the woods – than it does to trust the family that’s in the car with you. In the tough spot, how can you choose the right course of action for the right reasons?
Joseph’s mind was made up, but then God stepped in. Once again, human wisdom had failed, unable to imagine the scope of what God was doing to reveal His love for the world. Unlike a human plan, like Joseph’s, a plan which can be discerned through reflection and consideration of the options, God’s plan is revealed to humanity. An angel from the Lord comes to Joseph with surprising news: Mary isn’t pregnant because she betrayed Joseph with some other man; the Holy Spirit has given her the child in her womb. This son is the Savior God had promised to send into the world.
Here in his account of the Savior’s “origin story,” Matthew records two names for the miracle child. The names tell us who this baby is and what this baby will do. “Immanuel,” the name which comes through the message of the prophet Isaiah, means “God with us.” Through a virgin mother, God has entered the world as a baby boy, one of us. God isn’t far off and removed from His creation, but connected to us in flesh and bone. This child is God and man, alike: Immanuel – that’s who he is. And the name that God directs Joseph to give to the child, Jesus, is even more significant. “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Joshua,” which means “Yahweh is salvation,” or “God saves.” God the Son is stepping into the world to accomplish what the Scriptures had long promised: he would save his people from their sins. That’s what Jesus will do. In this very first chapter of his Gospel account, Matthew is laying out the key point of it all for us. In obedience to the Father, the Son came down to be born as a human being. He would continue in that obedience all the way to a cross, where he would make possible God’s forgiveness and salvation for all his brothers and sisters in the human race. Forgiveness, the removal of guilt, and salvation from sin, the healing and restoration of relationship with God that each of us needs, will come from Mary’s child, Jesus, who is Immanuel.
God changed Joseph’s direction. Getting up, Joseph went and did as the Lord had told him to do. He took the pregnant Mary into his home as his wife. He would be the guardian of God’s Son, raising and caring for Jesus as the child grew to be a man. Joseph, descendant of King David, would be the one who finally showed the House of David believing and acting on God’s direction regarding the promised Messiah. Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord would come to Joseph two more times: once to warn him to take his family to Egypt after the visit of the Magi, and again to send him back to his homeland after those who had wanted to kill Jesus had died. In each instance, Joseph faithfully followed God’s direction, and his life changed. By responding in trust to God’s revealed plan, Joseph the righteous man became an agent of God’s grace for you and me and all the world.
I’ve started to learn what it means to be a parent. With a little baby to care for, life changes. Joseph knew what it meant to put others before himself in love. He cared for Mary and Jesus, trusting in what God had made known to him. But you don’t have to be a parent to put others before yourself, and you don’t need an angel to appear to you to know God’s plan for you. Especially in these days of Advent and Christmas, go to God’s Word in Matthew and Isaiah – and all the rest of the Bible – to see what it means to follow God’s direction. As people who have been called to live in Jesus, Immanuel, you and I will be led by the Holy Spirit as we encounter him in the Scriptures. God may be calling you, like Joseph, to trust in His grace even when you’ve already jumped to conclusions about the people and situations around you. You have a loving Father in heaven who has already come for you and made you His own child. Even in the tough spots that you face in these closing days of Advent, know that God has brought forgiveness and salvation for you, for your family and friends, and for all the lives around you.
As we wait and watch for the return of Jesus, Immanuel, put yourself in Joseph’s place – and celebrate the birth of our Savior!