Theme: Hope around the birth of a baby
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you choose extraordinary ministers: Joseph was the perfect choice to be Mary’s husband, Jesus’ father, and one who acts on divine dreams; may Joseph be a model of faithfulness and hope for us all, in Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Matthew always gets short shrift when we tell the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s just that Luke’s version is soo good. So, we only hear Matthew’s version once every three years and today is the day. So we don’t feel so sorry for Matthew, he is the only writer that tells us about the wise men every year. Only that story is rarely told on a Sunday.
Matthew is telling the birth story from Joseph’s viewpoint. We are told that Joseph is a descendant of the great King David. Our English bibles often say they were engaged but that puts a modern spin on a culture whose marriage customs are very different than ours. Betrothed is a better translation, but is still woefully inadequate.
Joseph’s family arranged with Mary’s family that these two will be married. Once the contract was made, they were engaged and they were contractually married. Once they were betrothed to each other, society deemed them to be husband and wife. They could then begin to live together before the formal ceremony, if they chose to do so. Apparently, Joseph and Mary did not choose to live together.
After all the legal steps were taken, this simple arrangement done in a small town got really, really messy. Mary was pregnant. As much as this humiliation would be to a groom in these days, in those days it was extremely humiliating with serious consequences. Mary faced execution by stoning.
But Joseph didn’t want Mary dead. Matthew tells us that he didn’t want to bring shame on Mary. Mary probably didn’t want a lot of attention brought on this pregnancy, but most people would have assumed it was Joseph’s baby. It is possible that Joseph didn’t want any public humiliation, either. Because they were betrothed, to be rid of Mary, Joseph would need to divorce her. If Joseph were to draw up a bill of divorce, it would put both people in a very awkward social situation. “Was it the baby?”
Joseph procrastinated enough to give time for a visit from an angel. There is biblical precedent for angels to visit people named Joseph in their dreams. Joseph, son of Jacob, had many divine dreams. The angel told our Joseph that Mary’s child was from the Holy Spirit, so go ahead and marry her. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, which means “God saves”, because he will save his people from their sins. Of course, Jesus in Aramaic, the language of that place, is Yeshua.
Matthew then says that God’s promise came true by quoting Isaiah, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.” First of all his name is Jesus and not Emmanuel, and second, Matthew is using a mistranslation of the Hebrew of Isaiah into Greek. Isaiah really says, “A young woman will bear a son …”
Now Isaiah is probably referring to the coming birth of Hezekiah who did become one of the best kings of Judah. It was a time of turmoil in Jerusalem and Isaiah gives the king a note of hope for the future. Matthew is then extrapolating that hope to Joseph. That hope is centered on Mary’s baby. It is that baby, whose birthday we anticipate, who will give hope to us and to the whole world.
In his book Hope Is Contagious, pastor and former pro football player Ken Hutcherson shares his personal journey of facing a terminal illness. In the process of battling cancer, he heard a story that reflects how we often lose hope in our trials. Hutcherson said,
“A disturbing report hit the news about a little boy in Chicago who was shot and permanently disabled in a drive-by shooting. That fact alone is awful enough, but the reporter went on to say that everyone in the neighborhood knew who the shooter was, but no one came forward to identify him. The boy’s mother even acknowledged that she drove by the shooter’s house every day on the way to work. But what caught my attention were the words of an educator from Chicago who was interviewed by the reporter. The quote went something like this: ‘That’s what happens when people lose hope. You don’t think things will get better, so you just give up.’”
Hutcherson comments on the hope we have through Christ’s presence:
“I don’t want to see anyone give up hope, especially when hope is so readily within our grasp. Whether you’re walking the streets of the inner city of Chicago or sitting at your kitchen table, no tragedy can dim the hope that comes from knowing that God will walk with you through the valley and that (God’s) his (sic) presence will give you peace.”
Matthew is telling us that this is a special birth of a very great person, who has a special relationship to God. What that relationship is will be revealed as the gospel story unfolds. God enters human history, giving hope.
Matthew is also telling us about an honorable man. Joseph had concern for Mary in spite of shame and dishonor that this pregnancy caused both of them. Joseph was also obedient to God and did as the angel told him and courageously married Mary in spite of being cuckold.
We are told that they refrained from consummating the marriage until after Jesus was born. There are some who claim that Mary was perpetually virgin. But that does not jive with scripture.
My hunch is that the Holy Spirit was at work in the betrothal of Mary and Joseph. Another person would very easily written Mary off and history would have turned out very differently. Joseph turns out to be a model husband and father. Because Luke’s story is so popular, we focus on Mary and leave Joseph somewhere in background.
Maybe we need to honor Joseph differently like this poem by Ann Weems suggests: “Who put Joseph in the back of the stable? Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand, and told him to stand in the back of the crèche, background for the magnificent light of the Madonna? God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful in spite of the gossip in Nazareth, in spite of the danger from Herod. This man, Joseph, listened to angels and it was he who named the Child Emmanuel.
“Is this a man to be stuck for centuries in the back of the stable? Actually, Joseph probably stood in the door way guarding the mother and child or greeting shepherds and kings. When he wasn't in the doorway, he was probably urging Mary to get some rest, gently covering her with his cloak, assuring her that he would watch the Child. Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms and walked him in the night, patting him lovingly until he closed his eyes.
“This Christmas, let us give thanks to God for this man of incredible faith into whose care God placed the Christ Child. As a gesture of gratitude, let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable where he can guard and greet and cast an occasional glance at this Child who brought us life.”
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, thank you for signs of hope and faithfulness as we approach the most holy feast of the incarnation; may these gifts be the most treasured that we receive this week, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Matthew 1:18–25 (NRSV)
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiahi 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All 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.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;j and he named him Jesus.