Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2022.

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25.

Today we are invited to look with fresh eyes at the Gospel of Matthew and see that it is a rare story – written really, from the perspective of a mostly unknown Biblical character. It is Joseph’s story we hear today. The man who was betrothed to Mary.

We know very little about Joseph. We know that his lineage was from the house of David, as we heard last week in Matthew’s genealogy. And this tracing of heritage is a good thing because it helps make Isaiah’s prophecy technically accurate about the lineage of the expected “God-with-us” child – Immanuel. And although Joseph was actually not Jesus’s birth father, belonging to a parent by adoption or fostering was as common and accepted then, as now.

The information that Joseph was a carpenter is tenuous at best. There is no direct reference to Joseph’s occupation, only the inference found in Matthew 13:55 saying of Jesus, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?”  We can take this at face value, but the waters are muddied by Mark’s version of the same verse which goes, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…” (Mark. 6:3) which tells us that it’s Jesus who was the carpenter, and says nothing of Joseph at all.

Matthew does tell us firmly that Joseph was a righteous man. We can take that to mean probably that he was an observer of the Jewish Law. Quite likely he paid his temple tax, and showed up for worship on the high holy days. He was properly betrothed to Mary, which suggests that he was willing to take on the responsibility of family. A steady fellow. Nice guy.

But none of this information would necessarily predict what happened to Joseph when he got put in a pretty awkward situation. We hear these sorts of stories on social media all the time. Some poor guy writes a post saying something like, “I just found out that my girlfriend is pregnant and it’s not my child. I really love her, but my friends and family are telling me it’s not my responsibility and I should move on.”

All right, be truthful with yourself. Who do you root for in those posts? What if this happened to someone you actually know who might not fully realize what he’s getting into?  Take into account that if a man claims a child is his, then the courts of law may hold him responsible for that child’s health, education, and welfare until age 18, sometimes even if he can prove by DNA later that it’s not his child. And it’s not cheap to raise a child – it costs more than $300,000 not including a college education.

Many of us would be tempted to advise taking the safe route. “Get out of that situation, friend!” Don’t take any chances!” It’s certainly the first thing that came to Joseph’s mind. And ultimately how Joseph responded is both a study in character, and another one of those surprising little lessons about being open to God.

What Joseph did is something any of us may do when faced with a difficult problem. First, we wrestle with the options, whatever they are. Then we make the best decision we possibly can under the circumstances. And then, (this part is very important!) we sleep on it.

By taking his daily rest before acting on his right and his righteousness, Joseph left a little opening for God to sneak in. And God did, by way of an angel. More startling than any messaging we know, is when God messages us.

It came down to the power of Divine suggestion. And what a divine suggestion it was!

God’s message through the angel alerted Joseph right away that this was going to be a good thing. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” These exact same “fear not” words were also spoken to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, Mary, and the shepherds in the fields by night. In every case, the outcome was a thing to be celebrated, not feared.

And though we know so little about this man, Joseph, we know that he wanted to protect Mary from public disgrace. Though marriages were typically arranged by families in ways beneficial to the parents or clan, perhaps Joseph actually loved Mary. Certainly he had already made a plan to shelter Mary from a bad reputation at the very least, and stoning to death at the very worst.

God doesn’t always drive things home with a sledgehammer. God often works in subtle ways. You know: water changed into excellent wine at a wedding; healing unacceptable people like Samaritan travelers who are bleeding in a most unclean manner all over the roadside; raising from the dead the children of godless Roman centurions. That kind of stuff.

As Martin Luther found, you can pray on your knees for enlightenment in a chapel with candles and incense, but God might come to you in the middle of a lightning storm. Or a dream. Readiness is not what is so important. It’s more about your inclination to be obedient to God. Paul uses that word obedience. It isn’t about coercion – this word means to hear and respond.

And the message from God was a game-changer. What happened in Joseph’s dream was that God gave him a way forward. The child to be born was not his, true. Instead, this was God’s chosen child, bearing a Spirit of God’s own holiness. Mary’s pregnancy was not a problem, or a disgrace involving unfaithfulness to the Law. To protect her child was a sacred trust.

This, is something that Joseph could wrap his mind around. He could respond by being faithful to God’s law without being righteous about it. This trait, Joseph would pass on to Jesus, who would exercise grace and mercy as holy righteousness.

God also gave Joseph a marvelous role to play. As he publicly named the child “Jesus”, Joseph formally acknowledged his role as the earthly parent and protector of God’s chosen Son. And on another level, Joseph got to be the one to let the world know what the child was to be. Not just who, but what. Because Jesus means, “God saves”.

It took a particular person to partner with Mary in being the protectors and nurturers of God’s Son. Fortunately, there was one at the right time and at the right place. Joseph’s special character was, as much as anything else, his readiness to listen to, and respond to God.

Perhaps we would all benefit by celebrating a “Joseph Sunday”. Not to make another biblical celebrity. But a day to remind ourselves to let God enter our dreams, and to think about how we can rise above even our own expectations into acts of faith that are truly holy and divine. Amen.