Monday, January 28, 2008

Sermon for 4 Advent

The Fourth Sunday of Advent Year A
December 23, 2007
Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way

A couple of months ago, a few of us began meeting on Tuesday mornings to study the gospel according to Matthew. One of the questions I posed to the group as we began was, “What would you know about Jesus if you only had this gospel? No Mark, no Luke, no John, no letters from Paul, no Acts of the Apostles, just this gospel.” Today I want to narrow down that question and ask you, “What would you know about the nativity, the Christmas story, if we only had the gospel according to Matthew?”

Today’s gospel reading, the reading for the fourth Sunday in Advent, is that story, and it’s the only time in the three year lectionary cycle that we get to hear it standing on its own. Our Christmas Pageant Monday evening, like almost all Christmas pageants, will enact the familiar story that is the amalgam drawn from both Matthew and Luke. Later on Christmas Eve we will hear, as we do every year, the story from the gospel according to Luke, and on Christmas Day we hear not a traditional birth story at all, but rather the prologue to the gospel of John. But today we hear Matthew’s version of the nativity, short and simple, and unlike Luke’s account, focusing on Joseph rather than Mary.

Unlike Mary who sometimes shows up during Jesus’ ministry, Joseph is absent from scripture after Jesus’ childhood. Many scholars have speculated that he was older than Mary, and implicitly then that he had died before Jesus’ ministry began. In Matthew’s gospel in particular Jesus goes to great lengths to establish that God is his real father, a father in heaven obviating the need for an earthly father. So it is interesting that it is Matthew who chooses to give not Mary’s story, but Joseph’s.

One of the things we know from both Matthew’s and Luke’s account is that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. We often speak of them as being engaged, but in fact the commitment between them was much different from what we think of when we speak of being engaged. Marriage was a significant event in family life, and marriage arrangements were negotiated not between individuals but between families, Marriage contracts were negotiated with a view towards maintaining family honor as well as economic stability and sometimes political gain. Signing of the contract was witnessed by the entire community, and resulted in a bond that required a divorce to break, but the marriage was not complete until in a separate ceremony the bride was handed over to the husband’s father, often as much as a year later. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, when we first meet Mary and Joseph they have been legally committed to one another with the signing of a marriage contract, but Mary has not yet been given to Joseph and his family. In this interim period, sexual relations are forbidden, and the purity of the bride is maintained. Loss of that purity would bring disgrace not only on her, but more importantly also on her betrothed and his family.

In Luke’s version of the story we hear of Mary’s wonder and awe when she is visited by the angel who tells her that she will bear a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, but we get no sense of the conflict this pregnancy must have represented for all involved. It’s only when we read Matthew’s gospel that we understand that this pregnancy presented a huge challenge of faith not only for Mary, but also for Joseph—for it was Joseph and his family whose honor would be impugned when Mary turned up pregnant before the final part of the marriage ritual took place.

And so we find Joseph in today’s gospel, having resolved to quietly divorce Mary. This was his right—it was more than his right, it was his duty, according to the law and as a righteous man Joseph would follow the rules. But he must have been a kind man, too, because he resolved not to disgrace Mary publicly as he could have done, but instead to privately end their contract. Before he could do this, however, an angel appeared to him in a dream. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells him (isn’t that what angels always say?), “don’t be afraid to welcome Mary into your home, to take her as your wife, because this baby is conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

We have no record of Joseph’s immediate reaction—we have no “song of Joseph,” no prayer to God, no tears, no anger, no reaction at all. All we know is that Joseph did as the angel said; he took Mary as his wife, and he in essence adopted Jesus as his son, thus firmly placing him in the house of David just as the prophets had foretold.

What do we know about the Christmas story when we read just the gospel of Matthew? We don’t know about the angel’s visit to Mary, or about Mary singing praises to God, or traveling with Joseph to Bethlehem. We don’t know about babies in mangers, or shepherds guarding their flocks, or angelic hosts on high. Instead, we come to know of a righteous man, one bound to follow the law and to honor both God and his family, a man who wordlessly accepts this message from God delivered in a dream, who takes the young pregnant Mary as his wife, who acts in great faith to adopt a son who is not fully his own. And as we read on in Matthew’s gospel, we learn of a Joseph who continues to listen to God’s messages, who picks up his young family and spirits them away to avoid the wrath of Herod, and who upon returning from exile, takes up residence in a new village away from his family to ensure the safety of this family—all of this likely at great cost to himself, his livelihood, his honor.

We rightly lift up and glorify Mary, the young woman who joyfully gave herself over to become theotokos, God-bearer, the mother of Jesus. We hold up her willingness to be a vessel, to say yes to God as a model to emulate. But today’s gospel reminds us that there are other models as well. Today’s gospel reminds us of the calm faith and steadfastness of Joseph who stood beside Mary, who protected both Mary and the babe, who subjugated his own well-being to care for his family, who laid aside the law to do what was right, even when that was the harder choice—all because that is what God called him to do. Today’s gospel reminds us that Joseph said yes to God in his own quiet way.

Poet and preacher J. Barrie Shepherd writes:

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see?

It is important,
crucially important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,

Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It’s far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, ‘Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.’

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see? (1)

Monday evening we will again be caught up in all the wonder of the Christmas story as Luke recounts it. But on this last Sunday in Advent, let us embrace the story as Matthew tells it, and in doing so, may we remember and hold onto the quiet steadfast faith of Joseph; may we like Joseph have the courage to do the right thing even when it is the harder choice; may we too say yes to God.


(1) Shepherd, J. Barrie. Faces at the Manger. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.

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