Have you ever noticed the radical differences between the two stories of Jesus’ birth in our gospels? Christmas pageants generally blend them together, but Luke and Matthew tell the story from distinctly different points of view. Last year, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, we were reading from the Gospel of Luke. The focus was on Mary—I preached about her—Mary the “Bad-ass” Mother of God, and her startling encounter with the Angel Gabriel. Luke’s gospel gives us Mary and the Magnificat, the shepherds in the fields, no room at the inn, and Jesus’ birth in the humble stable at Bethlehem.
This year, we’ll be seeing the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry through Matthew’s eyes,
beginning right here in the first chapter, with Jesus’ birth. Matthew is firmly grounded in Jewish tradition—in his eyes, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophesies about the coming Messiah—did you notice how the last lines in the gospel echo the sentiments in today’s first reading from Isaiah?
In the 18 verses just before today’s gospel reading, Matthew has traced Jesus’ very Jewish ancestry, beginning with the patriarch and founder of the tradition, Abraham, and continuing with a focus on the great king, David, and his descendants, ending with Joseph.
So what about Joseph? All that scripture tells us about him is right here, in these first two chapters of Matthew. I picture him as an ordinary man. A man of few words—he has no lines of his own in our gospels–but he is quietly faithful and reliable. According to legend, he was older than Mary—you may know the Cherry Tree Carol: “Now Joseph was an old man, an old man was he…” Joseph had a trade—he was a carpenter. And soon, he would be married to Mary.
They were betrothed to each other. In those days, betrothal was a legal agreement between two families. It was just the first step toward full marriage. When we first encounter Joseph in this gospel, Mary was still living with her family, in the time after the betrothal but before the actual marriage. Mary and Joseph would not live together until after the wedding ceremony.
Imagine how Joseph must have felt when he learned that Mary was pregnant. The baby wasn’t his—he knew that for a fact–and Mary’s explanation when he confronted her? She claimed an angel had visited—and she, Mary, had agreed to bear God’s child. That was ridiculous at best, and downright blasphemous at worst! Disbelief…hurt…humiliation…disappointment…righteous anger—all of these feelings must have assaulted poor Joseph.
Then, he had to decide. He was a moral, observant Jewish man. What did the law say? What should he do? He couldn’t—he wouldn’t—marry her now. That was out of the question. She’d betrayed him, and in the worst way possible.
He had two choices. He could publically disgrace her—the law said he could even have her stoned to death for adultery. But that just didn’t feel right. He could divorce her quietly. In the presence of two witnesses, he could write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. Even amid the deep hurt of betrayal, his compassionate heart won out.
He finally came to a decision. He would end his relationship with Mary quietly—she and her family would be shamed enough by the pregnancy. He didn’t need to make it worse for her. And this way would be easier for both of them in the long run…
The decision made, Joseph drifted off to a troubled sleep. That night, he dreamed. And in the dream, an angel appeared—the angel called him by name and used the same words Mary had heard earlier: “Do not be afraid…”
“Joseph…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
That dream woke him up! The next morning, Joseph—faithful Joseph—reversed his decision. He took a leap of faith instead. He left his comfort zone behind. He bucked convention and risked ridicule. Against all odds—and against all good advice–he chose to take Mary as his wife, and later, adopted Jesus as his own, grafting him into Matthew’s family tree of Jewish notables.
We don’t know much more than this about Joseph, but Matthew records two more angelic dreams—the first warned him to take his little family to safety in Egypt and the second gave him the “all clear” to bring them home to Nazareth. This pottery figure I’ve taken from our nativity set shows Joseph’s character well—a calm, steady and protective father figure—who hovers over Mary and her baby–almost like a guardian angel.
Maybe we should imitate Joseph. He was just a good person, an ordinary man, following the conventions of his time, trying to do the right thing by his faith—like most of us. … until God called Joseph to take action in an extraordinary role that would require both trust and courage. Like Mary, he said “yes.”
We’ve been taxiing the runway of Advent for nearly four weeks. It’s nearly time to take off for Christmas. But it’s still Advent, that expectant time when we prepare once more for Jesus to be born—in our hearts and in our lives. This year, more than in other years, I sense a kind of urgency in the air. Certain words in our Sunday readings and hymns persist in my thoughts as I go about my life during the week: “Sleepers, wake—a voice is sounding”…”awake and hearken”…”the Lord is near”…pay attention…
Advent is a time of transition. It’s always an in-between time, but maybe even more so this year, with a major change of leadership coming soon in our country.
In his recent Christmas message, our bishop said
“The pain and the urgency of living in an in-between time are very apparent to us these days. Whether our focus is personal or political, whether we’re waiting for a child to be born or an illness to pass or an injustice to be redressed, waiting is hard.
We want to know what will happen.
We want to know when the waiting will end.
We want our dreams to be realized.
And… we just don’t know.”*
When Joseph took that leap of faith, he didn’t know how it would all come out either.
But he trusted God, and we must, too. Like Joseph, we must always be attentive God’s call to action. The Holy Spirit reaches each of us in different ways—maybe you’re a dreamer like Joseph, or perhaps the Spirit gets your attention in the middle of the day. A huge catch of fish got Peter’s attention, and a burning bush caught Moses’ eye—how does God get your attention? What might a leap of faith look like for you? And how might Jesus be born anew in us and in our world because we are willing to trust God and take that leap of faith? In this final week of Advent, I invite you to take some time amid your Christmas preparations to reflect on these questions. See where God might be at work in your heart and mind.
In these hard, in-between times, when we take a leap of faith—when we act—not knowing the end result, may we trust that our loving God is with us and will always be with us.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!