Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
The wait is almost over for the day in which salvation was born. The advent season is one of anticipation and reflection on the fulfillment of God’s promise. That promise was to be fulfilled in a child. How often do we really take time to think about that? God’s plan to save humanity began with a child. Of course if we were to be honest the plan began much earlier than that, the story of redemption began with the story of the fall, but through a child God began the work of salvation.
People have often debated what aspect of Jesus’ life is the most important. Some very worthy scholars will say that the cross of Calvary is the main point. Others have focused on Jesus’ ministry, but I think it begins with a child. To be honest it began approximately nine months before the birth as a baby grew within the womb of its mother. It is this time that I feel is the most important aspect of the story of Jesus, and for one reason without the pregnancy there would not be any ministry to learn from, and there would not be Calvary, and there would not be the hope of Easter. It is the conception of hope that begins it all. And for hope to emerge and be born into the world it was necessary to have a man and a woman to be willing to step up and bear that burden.
It is easy to focus on Jesus and Mary during this time of year, I mean Mary had to do all work, but for this all to work Mary needed assistance. The times were different in the first century than today, a child without a father then was a child cursed. For God’s plan to work not only did he have to chose a worthy and willing mother but that mother would have to be supported by a worthy and willing man. We tend to forget the importance of Joseph in our celebrations, rarely are carols sung about Jesus being held in the arms of Joseph. But this man had a very important role to play.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Matthew begins his gospel first with a genealogy, which most of us just gloss over and leave for those nights we need help getting to sleep, but the story begins with these words. The genealogy is important because it shows us that this was not just something random coming out of nowhere, but that history was building to this point, the point where a child would come. There is a heritage that goes back to the beginnings of the promise, one that connects this very moment with everything that had proceeded and linking it to everything that will transpire after. And the story begins with a child, Mary, and Joseph.
I want us to just think about the introduction to the story, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” These words are pregnant with hope; I can almost here the dramatic score playing in the background. “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.” Mary was found to be with child, she was found. Matthew begins this story with the scandal, and the dramatic score comes to a crashing halt. She was found with child. There is trouble here. How do we find a girl with child? Her mother probably noticed that Mary was not acting right, her appetite changed and she probably had morning sickness, and then people began to talk. We know that people began to talk because she was found to be with child. This is a scandalous story.
Now enters Joseph, the betrothed, the fiancé. Mary is found with child before they lived together, so the scandal gets even worse. People begin to question not only Mary, but her parents, and Joseph as well. In the first century culture courtship was very different than today. It was not uncommon for a bride and groom to meet for the first time on their wedding night, even today in more traditional expressions of Jewish faith the marriages are arranged and there could be little of no contact between the potential bride and groom. So Mary is found with child, which means that something has been going on out of the public view. Joachim and Anne’s, Mary’s parents, righteousness came into question because their child is with child. People begin to wonder did they allow their daughter to go out unsupervised with a man? And Joseph’s righteousness is questioned because his bride to be is pregnant.
Joseph did not have a clue to how this happened, Joachim and Anne are also clueless. The scandal builds and brews. This pregnancy will cause great trouble in the family. Mary is now labeled as an impure woman, and everyone associated with her are also facing the same future. If Joseph marries her he admits to society that the child is his son, if he does not then Mary faces a life of unwed poverty or death. If Joachim desires both Mary and Joseph could be stoned for adultery so from the very beginning we have scandal. Joseph is faced with a great challenge, Mary’s very future is held in his hands, his future is held in his hands, and the future of all mankind.
Joseph is a righteous man, Matthew assures us. Joseph was respectable in the community. He was established enough in his trade and had enough wealth that he was able to marry in their culture. In ancient times all women married up. They did not marry men their own age but married men older than them. Men had to prove to their future father in laws that they were worthy of supporting their daughter at an equal level. So Joseph was engaged, and established, he was a member of the synagogue and gaining a standing in the community. He followed the law and did all the things a good man would do in their culture. So when Mary was found with child Joseph actually had a major issue. This could change everything. He could lose his name, his standing, and his livelihood.
Joseph in his righteousness decided to divorce Mary. He chose to cut off the engagement. This was the righteous thing to do. The child was not his. If he divorced her then for him nothing would change except that he would need to find a different bride. Joseph was also a kind man loving and respecting his future bride. He did not want to expose her to public disgrace. This is where the importance of Joseph really comes out. But to really tell the story we must go back in time.
Joseph is a very important name in the history of Israel. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, the son all the other sons were envious of. He was the youngest at the time, but was the one that had the father’s favor, meaning he was going to have the inheritance. All the other, older sons would have to find their place under him. But Joseph was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. Joseph through many twists in life became the one through whom the salvation of Israel came. During a famine it was Joseph who rose from a slave to being the second most important man in Egypt, and in that position Joseph controlled who lived, through the distribution of food. Joseph is a strong and noble name. It is not surprising that this name, the name that links back to the salvation of Israel, is linked to the salvation of humanity.
So Jesus’ future, the future of Israel, hangs in the balance of Joseph. He is a righteous man, following the laws of God passed down from Moses, but he is also a man filled with grace and compassion. Joseph could have brought Mary before the council during the divorce where the community could demand her life. But he did not want to disgrace Mary or her family. Righteousness could demand one thing according to the law, mercy another.
Joseph chose a different path, even though he was initially choosing divorce, he was choosing mercy for the future of Mary. Although he was choosing to step out of her life for the sake of his religion and standing he wanted to make the exit out of love and not hate. Joseph is a merciful and gracious man. It is no wonder that God chose this couple to be the central group of his salvation plan. But divorce was not part of that plan so God had to step in. Joseph was making his choice based on his human wisdom, but God had other plans. We could learn a thing or two from Joseph.
Our wisdom is not enough; if we were to only rely on our wisdom we could make devastating choices for the future. Joseph knew the law and was an intelligent man, he was a master craftsman established in the community, so he knew what was required of him. But in all of his wisdom, he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. Luckily for him, he did not make his decisions quickly. His wisdom pointed him in one direction divorce. His heart and his emotions pointed him in a different direction. He loved Mary and did not want to disgrace her, and so those two things coupled together lead to a quite divorce. Mary would still be unable to marry in the future, but at least she would live. God wanted Joseph to take part in the salvation of Israel so as Joseph slept on his decision before he had a chance to implement his plan; God visited Joseph in a dream.
In that dream God allowed Joseph to see a glimpse of His plan. The angel told Joseph not to be afraid of marriage, because Mary was still pure. That she would give birth to a son and that Joseph was to name him. The name he was to give him was Jesus; which means God is Salvation, or God saves. Joseph in that dream got a glimpse of hope. Hope was growing in the womb of that innocent child that he was about to divorce. Hope was growing and that hope was not only salvation but also God with us.
How would you respond to that dream? In all of Joseph’s wisdom it made absolutely no sense. To take Mary as his wife he was facing a stigma in society, but that did not matter because hope was growing in that womb.
In my opinion Christmas or the birth of Jesus is the greatest event of Jesus’ life because it is where the story of God with us begins. It is prefaced with a long history, and is marked with scandal but the story begins with a child, a mother, and a father. It begins with hope in the most challenging circumstances, and that hope grew to be the salvation of humanity.
I now want to speak about hope. Jesus came through Mary and Joseph. The plan that God had for this family did not make worldly or even religious sense. But hope grew. Jesus was born into a very messy situation, the scandal around his birth was great, whose son is he was a question that plagued Jesus throughout his ministry but he pushed on through it to the joy that was set before him. Joseph and Mary both willingly took on their role in that bright future. That future is still here. The Spirit of God still dwells among mankind if we are willing to seek and find it. That realization is what made George Fox’s heart leap when he began his journey with God. God is with us teaching and guiding today just as He did when Jesus, God incarnate, walked among the disciples. The question is are we going to divorce what God is doing among us or are we going to move forward. Will we let our righteousness lead or will we let God’s grace triumph. Will we rely on our wisdom or God’s?
One night the fate of the world was held in the hands of one man named Joseph. His future wife was found with child, and he was confused and hurt. He did not understand why or what was happening, but he was slow and thoughtful about his reaction. One night. Joseph had to choose, life or death, mercy or justice. We can debate it theologically but experientially he had to make the greatest decision of history. Will Jesus be born? Will God live with us? We live with those decisions as well. Will we allow God to live with us? Will we allow God to live through us? They sound like easy questions to answer but they aren’t. Each and every action and word we say has these questions hanging behind them, “will God live with us and through us?” Each person we meet and conversation we have has those very questions hanging between, “will we let Jesus live through us and with us?” It does not matter if we have correct theology or the right answer in the arguments because if we do not answer these questions in word and deed every moment of every day with every person we met we run the risk of divorcing ourselves and others from the great love of God. But hope grows. It was knitted together as a baby in a womb, it emerged as a boy on that first Christmas morning, it grew to be a man that showed us the holy rhythm of life with God, a life of worship, prayer and service. And that hope took on all of our failures and lifted them up to God’s glory. This Christmas let us choose life, let us choose grace, let us not be afraid to walk forward in God’s plan.