4th Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2016
Matthew 1:18-25 You can click on this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser.
There’s no Angel Gabriel in this story. No famous, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Instead today we have Joseph, as in “The Annunciation to Joseph.” So today, before all our guests come for Christmas Eve worship, let’s listen to our own Christmas story, one with a little different point of view.
Remember that each Gospel writer has a specific point he is trying to make about Jesus, so the Gospels are not 4 biographies that don’t always agree because the actual facts were lost somewhere between when they happened and when the Evangelists wrote them down. Each Evangelist wants you to see something important about God through Jesus. Mark’s Gospel begins at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and is generally accepted to have been the first “Gospel,” a genre which Mark invented. John’s Gospel, historically the last of them to be written begins at creation: “in the beginning was the Word.” Luke, with the story of the Annunciation to Mary, the trip to Bethlehem, the angels and the shepherds, will tell us about a Jesus who overturns the norms to bring God’s kingdom to ordinary and marginalized people, to lift the lowly and send the rich away empty. Matthew has the only other ‘infancy narrative.’ His Messiah will teach us that God’s way of showing up in the world can be surprising and that being faithful may not to be what you expected.
There’s heartbreak in this Christmas story. Joseph and Mary are contracted to wed. It’s binding. Their families have agreed, and it’s all done but the ceremony and the wedding night. It’s possible that they have known each other a long time, and that their families have been planning this for a while. But Joseph has been jilted. How could Mary have been with someone else? There are only two possibilities for Joseph now. He can expose her adultery and see her stoned to death, or he can divorce her quietly and send her away. Both of those options were within his rights. It tells us a lot about Joseph that his decision, in spite of the hurt of Mary’s betrayal of their marriage contract, was to send her away. Joseph was a righteous man. But this story is about to take a different turn. Matthew, the Gospel writer, is going to redefine what righteousness looks like in his story of Joseph, and he will continue to make it clear that being right is not what it’s about, rather righteousness is about listening deeply for God’s voice beyond the obvious and trusting what you hear.
It’s easy to imagine that Joseph has had some sleepless nights deciding what to do. And so in his dream, an angel appears. “Do not be afraid,” says the angel to Joseph. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because this baby is the child of the Holy Spirit. This will be the baby we’ve all been waiting for; you will call him Jesus – Yeshua – which means Savior.” Then the angel quotes Isaiah, calling this child Emmanuel – God with us. And Joseph believed the angel, married Mary, and waited for this baby with her. What an agonizing and amazing time this must have been for them. What trust each of them displayed as they waited for this birth.
Joseph and Mary trusted that against everything considered ‘normal’ in their world, God was at work to answer the prayers of their people – and unbeknownst to them, the prayers of the whole world. Joseph listened to his angel, and trusted that it really was God’s invitation to go forward to make this baby his own. This will not be the last time Joseph saves this baby. After the visit of the Magi triggers Herod’s rage at another possible king, an angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus out of the country. They live as refugees in Egypt until Herod is gone.
For all the celebration of Mary at Christmas, I am glad we get to spend Christmas this year with Joseph. What a man of faith. He is willing to listen deeply for God’s voice in the most frightening times of his life, and willing to trust that what seems crazy by worldly standards is really the path God has in mind. We can let Joseph’s faith lead us to listen deeply when our world seems crazy and we are in the dark. When the rules don’t seem to apply in the way we expect, we can let Joseph show us that the light we await can come from the most unexpected places.
In these uncertain days when the world is plagued by war and violence and speculation and many are afraid, we are still longing for God to come and save us. But God doesn’t seem to blow into our world in grand gestures. Instead God comes to people who listen for the light, who trust that their crazy dreams are really God at work, who say Yes! to the angels, and who are willing to be part of how God changes their lives and then changes the world too.
At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells Joseph that this baby is Emmanuel – God with us, the answer to the world’s longing. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself tells the disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Like Joseph, we can trust that God really is with us in every part of our lives, that God’s promise to us, through Jesus, is actually and really true, and that we will learn where God is at work for us if we can just listen and believe. Amen.