4th Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who comes to us in unexpected ways. Amen
Have you ever wondered about Joseph’s role in the Christmas story?
I mean it seems peripheral at most.
Given that the Holy Spirit is so active,
is Joseph even necessary?
Today Matthew answers that question with an emphatic yes!
As Matthew tells it
the story of Jesus
is all about God fulfilling God’s own promises
but in radically different ways than people expect
especially since along the way
ordinary people of faith
are called to take part in the fulfillment of promises,
people like Mary and Joseph.
Luke is the one who tells us
more about Mary’s faithful response to God’s call
but Matthew is where Joseph shines.
Mary and Joseph are engaged
which back then was a more solid legal agreement than today
but before they actually get married
Mary is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit
and this presents a dilemma for Joseph
who we are told is righteous,
meaning that he is a follower of the law
and the law says in instances like this
that it is legal for the man to dismiss or divorce the woman
with varying degrees of potential punishment,
Deuteronomy allows for a public stoning,
not that stonings were common in the day of Mary and Joseph
but a very public dismissal
would have brought great shame on Mary and her reputation.
But even as Joseph wants to follow the law
we are told he is unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace,
he tries to find a way to be kind and follow the law.
So he plans to dismiss her quietly,
meaning he wouldn’t expose her supposed infidelity
and thereby take the brunt of the shame on himself
since it would look like he’d gotten a young woman pregnant
then decided to divorce her for no apparent reason.
Which is quite a remarkable decision when you think about it.
“But just when he had resolved to do this” Matthew tells us,
an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream
and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife,
that the child is from the Holy Spirit
and this is how it’s going to play out the angel says:
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” and the angel quotes Isaiah.
This is classic Matthew,
remember Matthew is intensely interested
in showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s past promises
and the angel’s announcement
shows that Jesus fulfills two,
the promise in Isaiah of a child born to a young woman,
and the promise that the messiah will be a descendant of King David,
and this second part is where Joseph becomes crucial,
Joseph is a descendant of King David
as Matthew has established with the genealogy of Jesus
at the very beginning of his gospel.
By naming Jesus,
as the angel instructs,
Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his son
and as his son Jesus too is a descendant of King David.
But Joseph is more than the connection to the family of David,
he is a faithful person,
who encountering the unexpectedness of God
even as what is required of him
goes against the prevailing teaching of the day.
When faced with a choice between following the law
and acting faithfully
Joseph choses faith
and his faith cares for and nurtures Jesus
as he comes into the world and grows up.
Joseph shows from the very beginning
the truth that “the faithful thing to do and the faithful way to be are sometimes at odds with social convention” (Feasting on the Word Year A volume 1 pge 94)
even in our religious communities.
We look to our systems of religion,
the rules and rituals,
to guide us through life
and they are generally helpful
until we pay more attention to them than to God,
because God continually does new things,
calling us outside of the comfortably established rules and rituals.
Joseph shows us that it is possible to remain faithful to God
even as God’s work falls outside the established definition of acting faithfully,
and actually, while it may seem wildly different to us
God’s actions are always consistent with God’s priorities.
Later in the gospel in the sermon on the Mount,
Jesus will say “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17
and then he goes on to interpret the law
to protect those without power under the law,
‘yes murder is against the law’ Jesus says
‘but I say that even anger should be judged
because it is anger that precedes murder’
later he continues (Matthew 5:43-47)
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Jesus’ fulfillment of the law is based on the love of God
the love that led to creation,
the love of God for that creation
made manifest in Jesus himself,
the love Jesus showed to the poor, needy and outcast he encountered,
love that took him all the way to the cross,
love that burst out again three days later.
All of this love flew in the face of social convention,
God was not supposed to be human,
the poor, needy and outcast were not supposed to be noticed,
the messiah was not supposed to be crucified,
people who are dead are not supposed to rise again.
And yet that’s how God chose to work to save the world,
doing the unexpected through ordinary people
who when faced with the dilemma of following social convention
or following the call of God,
chose to follow God.
That’s what Joseph did,
and Mary and the disciples,
and that is what we are called to do,
to listen for God’s call in the unexpected
and when faced with a choice between doing what is expected
or unconventionally acting out of love,
we are to choose love,
and we do so trusting that God will be with us
because we are following Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.