All the little open windows on our Advent calendars are beginning to show that there are not many days left before Christmas! We find ourselves on the last Sunday of Advent with all four candles on the wreath lit leaving only the solitary Christ Candle in the middle waiting for its turn. Even our scripture texts are taking a more specific tack toward Christmas-sounding stories. Finally, we’re talking about the baby!
As you turn to Matthew’s gospel, it’s interesting to note how each of the four Gospels describes the birth of Jesus. They each report it from a different point of view and perspective. For example, Mark doesn’t talk about Jesus’ birth at all. His story begins, “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and immediately launches into stories of John the Baptist in the wilderness.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have John’s Gospel which doesn’t talk about Jesus’ birth directly but takes us back to before the Creation of time and space itself before the Big Bang. He doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth so much as he describes how Jesus, the eternal Logos, was a part of giving birth to all that ever was and is.
Now, Luke’s Gospel account of the birth narratives is the most elaborate of all of them. He spends just shy of two chapters worth of material to painstakingly describe every detail about Jesus’ birth. Luke’s version focuses its attention on several angel appearances and the women Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth. John the Baptist’s daddy, Zechariah, gets more airplay than Jesus’ daddy, Joseph does. We hear about shepherds and cattle lowing in the distance. And that leads us to our text in Matthew this morning. We will begin with verse 1:18. Matthew, you’ll notice, says very little about Mother Mary but builds his Story around Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. Hear the Word of the Lord.
1.18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“ Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
Mathew’s version of things is more down to earth and, in some ways, the most believable of the birth accounts. An angel appears to an artisan-class peasant, not in grandiose flashes of light but very subtlety in a dream. Now which one of us here hasn’t had a dream where we felt we have been given some kind of message? The announcement comes to a working-class man whose very life is immediately thrown into angst and chaos. We get the notion that Joseph’s life was rocking along normally like yours and mine. He works hard. He has paid Mary’s father a dowry to secure her to be his wife when she reaches a certain age. All that’s left for Joseph to do is to work hard, save some money, and plan for a future with his fiancé; it all sounds like so many young couples I counsel who are planning for their life together. They have a plan and are working on the plan. All that’s left to do is find the place to hold the reception and get the right caterer! But then, as John Lennon reportedly once said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans.”
The lives of a simple carpenter and an unsuspecting teenage girl are thrown into crisis. Now, Joseph, the carpenter has a fiancé’ who is going to be an unwed mother of a child that is not even his! Can you imagine the tremors of anxiety all this would cause in the first century?
As a result of no fault of his own, people of that day would see that Joseph had the proverbial bait and switch pulled on him. “Little Mary is pregnant? How could her father do that to Joseph?” Not only that, if Joseph isn’t the daddy, well who is? Who has Mary been hanging around with? If word gets out that she is pregnant and Joseph isn’t the father, Mary could, by Mosaic law be taken outside the village and stoned.
Poor Joseph. Yes, Mary is also in a pickle, but she gets all the attention in scripture. Joseph, however, now has all the weight of responsibility to figure out what to do. Just when his business is taking off, bam! His fiancé’ is pregnant! What does that mean for Joseph’s reputation as a good, Law-abiding Jew? We need to remember Joseph holds in his hands the power to move the Divine Story forward, or he can literally kill the Story right then and there by reporting Mary to priests. All this responsibility is thrust on him; the Story’s continuation rests on his shoulders. What does he do? Was his dream the real deal, an actual epiphany from God, or was it the result of some bad mutton he ate earlier in the evening?
Think about it: Joseph could have said “no.” He could have ignored the dreams. He could publicly humiliate Mary. He could demand his dowry to her father be returned. Mary could’ve been stoned for adultery. Joseph could have called the baby, Norman. Good old church-going regular Joe has his life turned upside down and has to carefully weigh the decisions that need to be made. They are decisions that will impact his family, her family, their village, as well as their synagogue. His ultimate decisions affect us as well.
Beloved, this is where you and I can pause and learn something. Amid the storm Mary and Joseph find themselves in, we learn that God has already been at work to fix the problem (In fact, for God it wasn’t a problem at all!). Unbeknownst to them, God has quietly worked to set the stage for Jesus to be born. For whatever reason, God has chosen this unlikely couple to be the parents of Immanuel. Life is complicated and it’s complicated for everybody, even the Holy Family! Just because they are the Holy Family does not exempt them from the hard realities, complexities, and complications of life. We all have them, even Mary and Joseph. And it’s right here, beloved, we are reminded that just like you and me, Joseph had to step out and express his faith in God; in all that which was risky, unbelievable, and scandalous, Joseph stepped out in faith trusting God would do what God said.
Stepping out in blind faith is risky. There are repercussions if Joseph didn’t follow the angel’s directions and there were consequences if he did. The former would lead to the death of a teenage girl and her unborn child. The latter, expressed in faith, would bring life, not only for the baby but for the Holy Family’s life together and for the world. God’s plan for our salvation had to pass through a peasant man’s spiritual character and faith. Mary gave birth to Jesus. Joseph gave birth to the opportunity that Jesus would be born into a loving family who was not exempt from the world’s everyday problems.
Friends, when has God spoken with you? What plan of salvation does God have in store that must pass through your spiritual character?
“Preacher, God’s never spoken to me! I don’t hear little voices in my head!”
Beloved, they don’t have to be little voices in our heads. God speaks to all of us all the time if we would only, like Joseph, listen and respond faithfully. God speaks quietly to each of us through dreams, through a crisis we undergo, through illness, and through a loved one’s death. God speaks to each of us through the words of a song or scripture that is read and heard. God speaks to us when we encounter someone who is physically or emotionally broken, who is homeless, or who is hungry. The question for us is will we listen and step out in faith to respond thereby opening the door for mighty works and miracles of God to take place as a result of our expressed faith?
In my Advent waiting, I’ve come to realize you and I are being called to do the same works Immanuel is doing. Jesus is born to save people from their sins. When we step out in faith like Joseph, we are called to do the same.
Now the power of the words “save” and “sins” has been diminished in America; they’ve become overly spiritualized to the point we fail to grasp their original meanings. We have shrunk their meaning down to simply gaining our personal salvation and understanding sin as something I, or even better, what you do wrong! Beloved, Jesus’ work is so much larger than that.
Mrs. Richter was my old high school English teacher, and she would remind us that when we go to the dictionary, the most common definition of a word appears first and the least common use for that word is listed last. Well, I did some poking around in the Greek dictionary, and let me tell you what I found. The word salvation means first and foremost to keep something or someone safe, to rescue from danger, or to make well or heal, and bring back to wholeness. The last definition in the Greek dictionary says it means to deliver from sin’s penalties. Now, the word sin means literally to be without, to have a share in, to miss the mark or goal, to miss or wander off the right path. The fifth definition means to wander from God’s Law. Beloved, only Jesus can address the last definitions of sin and salvation; only he can heal us from our sins’ penalties, but the deal is that you and I have the first four definitions of salvation and sin we can actively work on. We have the responsibility to bring, healing and wholeness to people or systems that are broken. You and I have the responsibility to uncover ethical injustices in our society where people, businesses, or government institutions have gone off their intended path.
Joseph, Church, shows us what God-honoring character looks like. It’s listening for God’s voice and then acting upon what we hear to help others get back on the right path to bring health and wholeness. Over the next days of Advent, Church, I want you to listen for God’s voice speaking to you as it spoke to Joseph. How is God calling you to step out and into chaotic waters demonstrating your faith like Joseph did? What plan does God have for you to work out in your own life?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.