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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When my oldest son was little, maybe six or seven years old, he was an angel in the Christmas program. After the program we were in the fellowship hall. He was still in his angel costume when older gentleman from our church came up to him and with a twinkle in his eye asked him, “So, are you always a little angel?” And our son looked up at him and said, “No, sometimes I’m Joseph.”
This is a Sunday for Joseph. It is easy to overlook Joseph, especially in our time and place. We live in country with the highest rate of fatherlessness in the world, with 33% of children living without a father in the home – something Barack Obama lamented way back in 2008 and has only gotten worse since then. We live in a culture where fathers are usually portrayed in popular media as bumbling idiots, if they are portrayed at all. We live in a time when family structure is seen as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure rather than a set of God-ordained vocations or callings. And so, in a culture where fathers and fatherhood aren’t as valued as they should be, it is easy to overlook the importance of Joseph.
But today we hear from Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew gives us the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. In our gospel reading for today we see the great lengths God went to in order to keep Joseph in the picture, in order for him to take up his vocation as husband to Mary and the earthly father of Jesus, in order to form what the church has called ever since, “The Holy Family.” God thought Joseph was important, and so we should too.
One of the first things Matthew tells us about Joseph is that he was engaged to Mary. Engagement, or betrothal, in those days was a legally binding contract in which a bride and a groom were joined together legally. It might be a year before they actually lived as a married couple, before they moved in together and consummated their relationship, but once the betrothal was made, the marriage was as good as done. It would be as though a couple today were to go to the courthouse and get their legal marriage license, but live separately (and celibately) until a wedding ceremony took place about a year later.
So, in their betrothal, their engagement, Mary and Joseph had already committed themselves to one another. Joseph had been promised that Mary would be his wife. He had been promised that she would be the one with whom he would share that special and exclusive one-flesh relationship. It was just a matter of time.
But then Mary came to him with a baby bump and an unlikely story: “Um, Joseph? The Holy Spirit did this, honest.”
Modern Bible scholars like to point out ad nauseam that marriage in ancient times was primarily about the exchange of property, and there is some truth to that. But you can’t tell me there were no human emotions involved. The Bible tells us that Isaac loved Rebecca, and that Jacob loved Rachel. The Song of Songs is full of romantic poetry between a bride and a groom. These were not emotionless economic units!
And so you can’t tell me that Joseph wasn’t upset when he learned Mary was carrying a baby that wasn’t his. You can’t tell me he wasn’t looking forward to taking her as his wife and having children of his own with her. This wasn’t just an economic agreement which had been breached, but a heart that had been broken. Imagine the sense of betrayal he must have felt! The only thing Joseph knew for sure at this point was that Mary was pregnant, and it wasn’t his. He didn’t seem to buy the Holy Spirit explanation, not initially.
We know that God greatly values the estate of marriage and has established laws in his word to protect it. It sure looked like Mary had violated those laws. For doing so she faced not only a public disgrace which would haunt her family for generations, but also the possibility of being stoned to death, which was the penalty prescribed by the law.
But how did Joseph respond? Joseph is described as a righteous man. And “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Matthew tells us, “he planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph’s righteousness took the form of mercy! Instead of pressing charges, instead of making a public spectacle, instead of putting Mary’s very life at risk, Joseph wanted to spare her all of this by dealing with the situation discreetly. Joseph still honored the spirit of the law by acknowledging Mary’s supposed violation of it and planning to dismiss her, breaking off the betrothal, but he didn’t bring the law down on her head as he could have. He had mercy, and his mercy is described as righteousness.
Just when Joseph had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel told him to take Mary as his wife, as the child conceived in her womb was indeed from the Holy Spirit. The angel told him that this was exactly what Isaiah said would happen, that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, a son who would be called “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” This was a sort of a nickname. Joseph was instructed to give this child the official name of Jesus. Jesus, you see, means, “he who saves,” and Jesus had come to save his people from their sins.
And, remarkably, when Joseph woke up from this dream, he said….“Okay!” He trusted the word of the Lord and obeyed it! He took Mary as his wife, and he kept his hands to himself until she had born a son. We see here how God intervened to keep Joseph in the picture! God intervened to form this Holy Family, giving Mary a husband and Jesus an earthly father.
And so Joseph stayed with Mary. It couldn’t have been an easy thing to do, with her carrying a child that wasn’t his, even if it was from the Holy Spirit, but he remained faithful to her. Think of the gossip and scandal that would now swirl around Joseph too! Anyone who could do a little math comparing Mary and Joseph’s anniversary and their son’s birthday could see that things didn’t add up, which would have led to them BOTH being shamed by their community. But Joseph didn’t say, “You know Mary, it’s been real, but this thing between us has gotten too complicated. I think you’re a little too high maintenance for me.” No, in spite of it all, in obedience to the word of the Lord, Joseph took Mary as his wife. Joseph’s righteousness here took the form of faithfulness. He stuck with her. He stayed by her side. He was faithful to her, even when it was hard.
Once Mary had delivered the baby, Joseph continued to be obedient to the word of the Lord by naming him Jesus. In the ancient world, naming a child was a way for a man to claim that child, taking responsibility for him or her. Instead of signing a birth certificate, a father established parentage by naming the baby. This is what the angel instructed Joseph to do. This wasn’t only about God’s naming rights for the child, it was God’s intent to have Joseph officially become Jesus’ earthly father. And so here Joseph’s righteousness took the form of adoption. Joseph named the baby Jesus, and in so doing he claimed this child as his own child.
God’s intervention to keep Joseph in the picture in order to form this Holy Family is important for how it lifts up the vocations of husbands and fathers. But Joseph’s story is important for another reason too. Joseph is described as a righteous man, and his righteousness gives us a glimpse of the righteousness of God. In seeing how Joseph relates to Mary and to Jesus, we catch a glimpse of how God relates to us.
As broken, fallen human beings, each one of us stands under the condemnation of the law – and unlike Mary, we’re actually guilty! We all have our scandals, our failures, our falling short of God’s intentions for us. But God deals with us in the same way Joseph dealt with Mary. God has mercy on us. God holds us accountable, to be sure. God doesn’t ignore our sin. But God has not brought the weight of the law down on our heads. Instead, God has had mercy on us. Instead of stones, God has given us his Son, sent to be our savior.
Joseph was faithful to Mary even when it was hard, even when it surely involved sacrifice and suffering. So too is God faithful to us. God in Christ has been faithful to us even though it meant bearing the cross for us. God keeps his promises to us no matter what. Jesus has come to be Emmanuel, God always with us.
And as Joseph adopted Jesus, so too has God claimed us as his own precious children. In the waters of Holy Baptism, God has named us, making us his own sons and daughters. No matter what our earthly families might be like, God has adopted us all into his holy family, the family of God, where we are claimed and protected and nurtured and loved.
“Are you always a little angel?”
No, none of us are. But just as God sent an angel to keep Joseph in the picture, God sends us his word today to keep us in the fold. God sends his word to speak to us not only of Joseph, but of Jesus – named so because he has come to save his people from their sins.
In Jesus, the Son continues and completes the work of the Father. In him, God has given us mercy, God has shown us his steadfast, sacrificial love. God has claimed us as his own forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church