Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Nobody likes being tested, except when they do. People pay good money to play pub trivia or an escape room puzzle, because the stakes are low and we enjoy an opportunity to show off our cleverness. But when more is at stake, when real adversity is the medium of the test, we perform because we have to, not because we want to.
Saint Joseph wanted to get married and start a family, and more importantly, his family and Mary’s family wanted this to happen. In those days, marriages were property deals arranged between two families. From what I’ve read, while the male heads of the households made the official contract, most of the negotiation was actually carried out between the women of the families. Sometimes the deal had to be made, shall we say, in response to the situation on the ground, but once a couple was betrothed, the deal was done, the contract had been made, and if the woman were found to be carrying another man’s child, the law called it adultery, and the law allowed adulterers to be stoned to death.
Joseph knew the child was not his, and that’s all he knew. Well, he also knew his options. Saint Matthew adds this beautiful detail that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” By righteous, Matthew meant observant of religious law — that’s why he goes on to say that Joseph was also “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” a euphemism for stoning, typical of Matthew’s sense of delicacy.
On the one one hand, you might fairly ask, how did Matthew know what a man was thinking, 80 or 90 years after the fact, especially given that none of Joesph’s own words are recorded in any of the Gospels. On the other hand, if Matthew were fabricating a birth narrative, he would have invented a simpler, more flattering story. Perhaps Joseph’s decision became preserved as a cherished story within the holy family, a moment of angst they would go on to laugh about once they understood what a wonderful story God was telling through them.
But first, imagine you’re in Joseph’s place. We easily assume he is gentle and gracious, but when the angel tells him the news in his dream, can you imagine Joseph saying, “Something that could have been brought to my attention yesterday!” No, wait, Mary is the one who talks back to the angelic messenger. Seriously though, if God could foretell the birth of Jesus in the words of prophets centuries before, why did God wait until after the crisis of Mary’s irregular pregnancy to tell Joseph what was happening, and what Joseph’s role in all of it was to be. Couldn’t God have saved everyone a lot of anxiety, heartache, and drama, and given Joseph a clue beforehand?
Well, yes, so why not? Matthew raises the question, but doesn’t provide a clear answer. Maybe he’s too humble to speculate about the workings of the mind of God. But just as I’m not as gentle and gracious as Joseph, I’m not as humble as Matthew. What if God wanted to show outwardly what God so loved about Joseph’s heart, and wanted to show that even though Joseph and Jesus were not biologically related, they were truly kindred spirits. Matthew shows that Jesus’ legal descent through Joseph places him in the royal family of Israel, while also foreshadowing the nature of Jesus’s kingship and messiahship.
This passage gives two names for the messiah. Emmanuel means “God with us,” and Jesus means “God will save.” In both we see subtly, but unambiguously, that Jesus’s reign and authority will be spiritual, rather than political. While God can and does intervene in the operations of the material world, the intervention comes from the higher and greater realm where God dwells, and from which Jesus descended. So the very beginning of his incarnation was an act of cosmic humility, just as the beginning of the holy family depended on Joseph’s hidden moment of personal humility. Has any test ever been passed with such flying colors?
Ironically, Joseph, this silent saint, can teach us a great deal. As our celebration of the birth of the messiah draws near, may we all learn as much as we can about his ways and prepare our hearts for his arrival, the greatest moment of truth.