For years now, I’ve arranged for the Lessons and Carols Service to be done on the fourth Sunday of Advent. However this year with Covid restrictions on congregational singing, it didn’t seem quite appropriate to have a Lessons & Carols Service, so I opted to have the regular Advent 4 service today. And as I don’t preach on the Lessons and Carols Sunday, its been I while since I’ve preached on the fourth Sunday of Advent. So I took the liberty of looking at all the gospel readings in the lectionary for this Sunday, and I’ve opted to use the gospel reading from Matthew to bring you what I think is a really special story–Joseph’s story. We don’t hear much about Joseph in the gospels, he doesn’t get very much press. Today’s seven verses truly reveal a lot about this special man, after you delve into them. This for me is the fun part of studying the bible!
Matthew begins his gospel with a complete genealogical lineage of Jesus’ forebears, fifty-six generations long. Matthew starts with Abraham, and ends with “… Joseph the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah”. (Matt 1: 16) Messiah is the Hebrew term for “the anointed one”, the one chosen by God to lead God’s people—much in the way that David was chosen King by God generations before Jesus was born, so Matthew is taking care to place his gospel and Jesus within the history of Israel. Messiah translates to Christos in Greek, Christ in English.
Matthew then goes on to tell us the story of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective, how Joseph is engaged to a woman named Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Messiah. But before Mary and Joseph are married, Mary gets pregnant—and not in the usual way, but is with child by the Holy Spirit. We’re not told how Joseph becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy. I’m going to speculate that Mary has told him, after all we know from the annunciation story in Luke that Mary was very aware of what has happened to her. Can you imagine that conversation between Joseph and Mary? It probably wasn’t an easy one for Mary to tell, but just think how difficult that would have been for Joseph to hear: his fiancé, with whom he has not had intimate relations — is with child—and she says it is by God’s Holy Spirit. If you were in Joseph’s shoes, how do you think you’d react? It would give me pause, to say the least! Would you even believe her? Would you maybe even question Mary’s mental health, her emotional stability?
Or would the thought of being in the presence of someone who has that close a relationship with the Spirit of God be frightening for you? For Jews of the time, the Holy Spirit was perceived as the creative spirit of the book of Genesis, the Spirit of God that swept over the formless void of the earth and created day and night, earth and water, vegetation and animals, and woman and man, the same spirit that reveals the truth of God to the prophets. That same spirit has impregnated the woman Joseph expected to marry; it has created a child within her. This child to be born will reveal the truth of God in his very person.
And Joseph’s reaction? Well, Matthew tells us, Joseph is a righteous man: a good man, a man who is a faithful, believing, a devout Jew. But–his rights as a betrothed Jewish man were, in essence, dishonoured. His fiancé is pregnant. But really, by the Holy Spirit? In a society and culture in which it was acceptable and legal to stone women to death for infidelity, Joseph chooses not to assert this right; he resolves to “dismiss her quietly”. Joseph doesn’t want to create any public disgrace for Mary, so he decides to quietly break off their engagement, after all she is pregnant and not with his child. What a difficult decision that must have been for Joseph! Joseph had a tough problem to think through, Matthew says Joseph “resolved” to quietly dismiss her. This implies that Joseph took some time to decide how he was going to handle the situation: He didn’t go off on a tirade, making a public issue of it, as was his legal and manly right in this case, in this society, in this time. He chose to keep it quiet. This Joseph is a thoughtful man, a caring man, he wasn’t thinking of himself, just considering his own feelings, but Mary’s too. He wants no scandal for her. Sounds like a kind of a nice guy—just the sort of man you might like your daughter to marry!
And just as he’s about to act on his decision–well—Joseph has dream,—he’s told not to be frightened to take Mary as wife, for the child truly is of the spirit of God. And it’s a boy child, and he’s to be named Jesus, Joshua in Greek, Yeshua in Hebrew —the name means the ‘Lord saves or helps’. This child to be born from the woman he is to take as his wife, is the long awaited savior of Joseph’s people.
Wow, now there’s a responsibility. We don’t often think about Joseph’s role in the life of Jesus. Joseph is somewhat of an unsung hero, in my estimation. By marrying Mary, he is accepting the responsibility of being of the husband to the woman who will give birth to the Messiah, the Saviour of the Jewish people. Joseph is to take on the responsibility of being the de facto father to this child of God’s Spirit, to provide for him, to see to his education, his training, his upbringing. And this is not a man with great financial means, he’s just a carpenter.
Joseph’s first born child will not be his own, and in a society where the first born son is the heir, the one through whom the family line is passed on, this is a really a big deal. And he’s been told what to name this child, that too is the right of the husband, naming of the child, and he won’t be able to name this boy, this first born who is not really his. It’s a lot to ask of a man.
Well, we know how this story ends, Joseph takes Mary as his wife; he accepts all the responsibility God has asked him to take on. Joseph truly was a righteous man; an incredibly righteous man. Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matt 1: 24b). I wonder if I were in the same situation if I would have so quickly changed my mind, and did as the Lord commanded. After all, no-one would have known about the dream if he hadn’t told anyone about it. He could have dismissed it as a crazy dream! And he was within his legal rights to simply walk away from a pregnant Mary, and leave her to it. Not his baby, not his problem. He had a choice. But he didn’t. He chose the harder option, to do as the Lord commanded. And in his choices, the Lord was with him. We read about Joseph a couple of more times in Matthew, when the Lord appears to him again in two different dreams to take Mary and the child and flee from Herod to Egypt, and again after Herod’s death to return home. If Joseph hadn’t chosen to go against the norms of his day; without Joseph actively listening to God, and following God’s call, Jesus may well not have survived infancy. The Lord was with Joseph in his very special role as the protective and caring husband and father. And the Lord protected them, the Lord guided them out of trouble, the Lord was with them. If this story was a movie, I would say that Joseph should get the Emmy for best supporting actor!
There is a question that I often end my sermons with. Is there anything in the ancient story that we can take out of for 21st century Christian life? I think so. Each of us who call ourselves Christians are called to be support people in the community that makes up the Christian Church, as the people we are, using the skills, the gifts and abilities we have. Not many of us are called by God to take on a as role as heavy as the one Joseph was called upon to perform. Most of us don’t even get our names on the play list, as it were. What we can learn from this story about Joseph is that when we take time to think it through and prayerfully ask for guidance or resolution to a tough concern or problem, the Lord will be there for us, and provide for us the answers we need. It may not be the answer we necessarily would like or even hope for, but as God was with Joseph, God is with all of us, the supporting cast, in our decision making, and sticks with us as we go forward living our way through the challenges in the play that is our lives. And sometimes the righteous decision, the really right way of living or doing isn’t always the easiest and may be counter to the way that our society, our culture, tells is what we should be doing.
And God will be with us, through the challenges, through the difficulties. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words also from Matthew, in chapter 11:“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart… for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (28)
Sometimes the right way, the Christian way, the response to God’s call, isn’t the easiest or most popular way. But when we are doing God’s work, when we’re yoked to God in Christ, Jesus walks beside us in the yoke. A burden shared is a burden halves. The presence of the Lord, the empowering strength of God in Christ eases the weight of the load. Amen
The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector. The Regional Ministry of Hope