The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-26; Matthew 1:18-25
Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah 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….
We are so accustomed to hearing the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, that when Matthew steps up to the microphone and says, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” we hardly know what to think. Especially when his Christmas story turns out to be so much different from the one we are accustomed to hearing. No Joseph and Mary making a long journey to Bethlehem; no baby lying in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn; no angels singing alleluias to a group of very surprised shepherds. “No,” says Matthew, “No matter what you may have heard elsewhere the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” And then he writes, “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….” And the question that leaped into my mind when I read that verse this time around was,
Who found her?
No, seriously. Taking that verse at face value it would appear that Mary wasn’t very forthcoming about her pregnancy, that she didn’t tell anyone she was expecting, that she had to be found out. So, who found her? Was it Joseph, when he went to see her after she got back from visiting Elizabeth? She’d been gone for months, helping her elderly cousin bring a new baby into the world. Did Joseph brush the sawdust from his shirt and head over to Mary’s house as soon as he heard she was home? Did he want to hear all about her trip and tell her what he had been up to while she was away? And did she at some point smooth her dress over the swell of her belly without thinking? Joseph would have seen it, and recognized it at once for what it was:
Mary was pregnant.
She would have seen the shock on his face. Her hands would have moved instinctively to cover the evidence. But then she might have said, “Um, Joseph, there’s something we need to talk about.” And after taking a deep breath and letting it out she would have told him all about her visit from the Angel Gabriel (which is not in Matthew’s Gospel but only in Luke’s); how he had told her that she was going to have a baby and how she had questioned him, asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (looking up to make sure Joseph had heard that part). But Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”
Which was a lot for Joseph to take in.
Not only was Mary telling him that she was, in fact, expecting a baby, and not only was she telling him that it wasn’t his baby, she was telling him that it was God’s baby, and asking him to believe it. She could see the shock on his face slowly turning into something more like skepticism, or even suspicion. She added, “I didn’t believe it either, at first. But that’s when the angel told me that my cousin Elizabeth was expecting a baby, even though she was way past her childbearing years. He told me it was evidence that ‘with God, nothing will be impossible.’ And so I said yes to him, Joseph. I said, ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’ And then he was gone. But the very next morning (and you may remember this) I went to see Elizabeth to see if he was telling me the truth—and he was! Joseph, he was right about Elizabeth’s baby, and he’s right about mine.” She smoothed her dress over her belly once more and said, “No man did this to me, Joseph. This child is from the Holy Spirit. You’ve got to believe me.” But it was a lot to ask. Joseph didn’t know what to say. In the end he told Mary he’d have to think about it, and then he got up and headed down the road toward home without even saying goodbye.
That was the night it happened. That was the night he tossed and turned for hours, wondering what to do. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man, which means, I think, that he was not only a good man, but also a man who was “right” with God, and who kept himself right through strict obedience to the Torah: the Law of Moses. And the Torah was clear about this. Deuteronomy 22:21 says that if it can be determined that a young woman was not a virgin when she married, “then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Whatever he could imagine about how Mary became pregnant, Joseph could not imagine that: he could not imagine accusing Mary in front of the village elders or being the one to throw the first stone.
But here’s the other thing he could not imagine: he could not imagine taking Mary as his wife and having everyone find out that she was already pregnant when he married her. In that time and place the thing everybody wanted most was honor, and the thing everybody wanted least was shame. To marry a woman who had been defiled, to allow her to have the baby and then to treat it as one’s own, would have heaped mountains of shame on her cuckolded husband. The Torah said you should “purge the evil from your midst” by stoning a woman who had prostituted herself. But if he married her, then everywhere Joseph went he would be known as the man who married a prostitute.
And so, somewhere around midnight he chose the middle path. He made up his mind not to accuse Mary, but to break things off quietly: to tell her parents that for reasons he’d rather not discuss he simply couldn’t go through with the wedding. Although he wanted to. He loved Mary. He’d been dreaming about their wedding for weeks. He’d been dreaming about the life that would follow, with a wife and children to fill up his empty house and turn it into a happy home. If he broke off the engagement none of that would happen. But if he didn’t, ah, the shame! “I have no other choice,” he thought. “I have to do it.” And then he promised himself, “I’ll do it first thing in the morning.” Only then was he able to roll over and go to sleep. But he hadn’t been asleep long when he had a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord appeared to him 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In a little book called A Coming Christ in Advent, biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown writes: “That Joseph should not divorce Mary was crucial in God’s plan, not primarily for the sake of Mary’s reputation, but for Jesus’ identity. The child must be the son of Joseph, who was a son of David, thus fulfilling God’s promise to David, ‘I will raise up your son after you…I will make his royal throne firm forever’ (2 Sam. 7:12-13). The angel points to this essential element by addressing Joseph as ‘Son of David’ [the only person in the entire New Testament other than Jesus to be addressed in this way]. Yet the most frequent question asked by modern readers is: ‘How can Jesus be Joseph’s son if Joseph did not beget him?’”[i]
And Raymond Brown has a good answer. In Judaism, he writes, “The royal lineage of the Messiah had to be traced through a series of fathers to David. Matthew gives the answer to the modern question when Joseph is told, ‘She is to bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.’ Judaism wrestled with the fact that it is easy to tell who is a child’s mother, but difficult to tell who is a child’s father. To establish paternity, it is not sufficient to ask the wife because she might lie about the father in order to avoid being accused of adultery. Rather the husband should give testimony since most men are reluctant to acknowledge a child unless it is their own. A commentary written some 200 years after Jesus’ birth is lucidly clear: ‘If a man says, “This is my son,” he has to be believed.’[ii] Joseph gives such an acknowledgment by naming the child; thus he becomes the legal father of Jesus (which is probably a more accurate description than ‘adoptive father’ or ‘foster father’). The identity of Jesus as Son of David is in God’s plan, but Joseph must give to that plan a cooperative obedience that befits a righteous man.”[iii]
So, God needed Mary to give birth to his son, but he needed Joseph to name him, so that this child could be both Son of God and Son of David, and therefore eligible to claim the title of Messiah. He was the Messiah, but that’s not all he was. The name that Joseph was instructed to give the child was Jesus, because, as the angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.” The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in New Testament times, explained that the name Jesus can be interpreted ‘salvation of the Lord—a name for the best possible state.’ But Matthew’s explanation of this idea goes beyond this basic idea of salvation. ‘You shall call his name Jesus [the angel says], for he will save his people from their sins.’” And if you were Joseph you might hear in that announcement an echo of the story of Moses. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, once wrote about a dream Moses’ father had, in which God told him that the child about to be born would ultimately “deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt.” In Matthew’s understanding this child, Jesus, would not only save his own people but all people, and not from their slavery in Egypt, but from [their slavery to] sin.[iv]
Now, that’s a lot to take in, and if you are still listening, good for you. I’ve been talking about first-century philosophers and ancient Jewish paternity protocols. But if it’s been hard for you think how it must have been for Joseph, who in the space of a single dream learned: 1) that Mary’s pregnancy was, in fact, from the Holy Spirit; 2) that he, Joseph, was supposed to claim this child as his own by giving him a name; and 3) that the name he was supposed to give him was Jesus, meaning “He shall save his people (and potentially all people) from their sins.” And then Matthew rises even above that. Turning to the audience he says: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son (which is what it says in the King James Version of Isaiah 7:14), and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” It’s a lot to take in. Joseph was being asked to believe that this sweet, young woman he had proposed to had become the vessel of God’s salvation, and that even now, in her womb, a child was growing who would be the very incarnation of the Divine: one who would be “God-with-us.”
Can you imagine how he woke up the next morning, and how long it must have taken him to clear his head, splash some water on his face, and get dressed? Can you imagine how he must have sat at the breakfast table struggling with the choice that lay before him? He was weary from a sleepless night, but he couldn’t help wondering: “Do I say yes to all this, even though no one will ever believe my story? Or do I say no, and go back to my old…empty life?” And that’s what did it; the thought of all that emptiness. The hollow echo of a life without love in it, without Mary in it.
When he finished his breakfast he pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and marched himself down to Mary’s house. He called her out to the front yard and said to her (while she was still standing there in her bathrobe), “Look, I’m in. I’m in this thing for better or worse. Even if they call me every name in the book. Even if they call you a… a name no woman should ever be called. I’m in. I will be your husband, and I will be this child’s father. You can count on me.” Matthew doesn’t say so, but there must have been great rejoicing in Mary’s heart that day, and great rejoicing in heaven. Just as in the Gospel of Luke there must have been angels somewhere singing alleluias, and “Glory to God in the highest.” Because a crucial piece of God’s plan to save the world was now firmly in place.
Joseph had said yes.
I don’t think I realized until I began work on this sermon just how much God’s “salvation project” depended on others. It depended on Mary, of course. But it also depended on Joseph. And finally, it depends on you. If God is going to save the world he is going to have to do it one human heart at a time, which means that, like Joseph, we will have to find it in ourselves to say yes to God’s preposterous plan for salvation. We may have to toss and turn through a few sleepless nights, but in the end we will have to open the doors of our hearts,
And let Jesus in.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Raymond E. Brown, A Coming Christ in Advent (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), p. 33.
[ii] The Mishna Baba Bathra (8:6)
[iii] Brown, A Coming Christ, pp. 33-34.
[iv] This information is gathered from Brown, A Coming Christ, pp. 34-35.