a sermon on Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph must have been the last to know. They had been pledged to each other, all the steps toward marriage complete except for the final ceremony and celebration, when Mary figured out that something was going on in her body, that she was growing another human being inside her. Joseph would have had no clue about this for a while unless Mary told him what was going on, so I suspect she waited as long as she possibly could to tell him. Surely Mary knew that things would not go well when she did finally tell him—after all, modern attitudes about having children before marriage would not begin to kick in in most communities for two thousand years or so.
When he did find out, Joseph prepared to do exactly what you would expect—he decided to protect her reputation by “dismiss[ing] her quietly.” Except God had other plans. “Just when [Joseph] had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” Mary and her child would not be dismissed quietly so easily, for God was at work in her life. The angel told Joseph that he should take Mary as his wife after all, that there was no disgrace worth fearing from marrying her, for “the child conceived in her [was] from the Holy Spirit.” The next steps then became clear: Mary was to bear a son, whom he should name Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke from his dream, he set aside his plans to send Mary away. He followed the angel’s instructions and reaffirmed his commitment to her. Against all the cultural norms and expectations, Joseph took Mary as his wife and welcomed her son by the Holy Spirit as his own. In so doing, he took his place in the long line of his ancestors who had waited, watched, and worked for the coming of the Messiah. As Matthew puts it, “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, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” Even though his initial instincts suggested that he should do otherwise, Joseph would not get in the way of this new thing that God was doing in the world. Joseph may have been the last to know, but he was among the first to get out of the way of what God was doing in the life of Jesus.
As this season of Advent preparation draws to a close, as our look at some of the major personalities who mark these days comes to an end, Joseph gives us yet another perspective on how God calls us to wait in hope and respond in faith to the coming of Jesus into our world. Like Zechariah and Mary and Elizabeth before him, Joseph’s surprise at the events that unfolded around him cannot be duplicated in our own celebrations of the coming of Jesus at Christmas. When we enter these days of waiting, we generally know how things will turn out. The annual commemoration of Jesus’ birth will go forward as it always does. We will celebrate Christmas in the usual way at the usual time on the usual day. December 25th will come, and we will share this great feast that marks our lives and our world, and then we will return to the way things have been before until Christmas comes again next year.
But in that first Advent over two thousand years ago, these women and men found themselves in a much different place. They had varying levels of confidence in the proclamation offered to them by the angels, because the promises offered to them had not yet been fulfilled. They may have been told something about how the story of the birth of Jesus would go forward, but they certainly had no idea how this story would go on to end some thirty or so years later.
Like Zechariah, Mary, and Elizabeth, Joseph had to step out in faith. Doing what the angel told him to do would put his reputation on the line and risk his past, his present, and his future. Marrying this woman who became pregnant before she was married would risk being pulled away from his family. He could have been separated from his wife through her own punishment for this act that would be attributed to her. If they managed to stick together, everyone would have known what had happened to them, and the social capacity to shun such misbehavior was developed many centuries ago. Going forward as the angel instructed may have even left this new family without a way to get by—after all, who would hire a carpenter who married such a woman?
In the end, all these things would bring huge changes for them. In Matthew’s telling of the story, Joseph and Mary would be forced to leave their hometown of Bethlehem, first escaping to Egypt to elude the death squads of King Herod who came targeting all the infant boys of Jesus’ age, then finally settling in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth to stay far, far away from this evil and jealous family. However, all this also meant that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were able to begin a new life in a new town, separated from those who knew about this potentially disgraceful past by some 70 miles—maybe not all that far in our own time, but a long way in those days. Joseph may have been the last to know, but in the end he acted in confidence and hope that gave the space for Jesus to live out his call.
As we walk in our own Advent days, Joseph’s example can inspire and guide us in our own preparation. While we know what to expect in the days of Christmas that come so quickly before us, these Advent days still point us ahead to a time whose events are not so clear to us. So as we wait and watch and work for a different day to come, for the wonder of God’s kingdom to be unveiled in our midst, for the fullness of hope to be revealed among us, we can join with Joseph to trust God’s proclamation for our own world.
First, we can set aside our fears of being called out because we are different from others because of what we believe. Just as Joseph could stop worrying about what other people would say about his wife and child who might bear disgrace, we can stop worrying about whether other people will recognize our holidays, whether those we encounter will wish us a Merry Christmas, or whether we our way of life will be changed by people who think, believe, or practice their faith differently than we do. Whatever comes of these things, God’s presence will be with us, and that is what matters for us, just as it was what mattered for Joseph.
With Joseph as a witness for us, we can also think differently about the social assumptions we place upon people. If we act in the ways that God seemingly decrees for us, we would join the community—and Joseph himself—in rejecting the mother and child who brought salvation to our world! Instead, the witness of Joseph reminds us that God might be working beyond our expectations and usual pathways to bring something new into being around us. The people we so easily want to reject might just be the ones to show us a new way. God might just be working in ways beyond our comprehension to welcome a new thing into being. We are called to offer the kind of grace to all people that Joseph showed to Mary and Jesus, regardless of our fear, trusting that God is present in all these things in the transformation of our world through Jesus.
And Joseph’s witness reminds us that even when we do not know where the journey will lead us, God will go with us. Just as Joseph had no clue where he would end up as he welcomed this unexpected news and yet trusted the word of God offered to him by the angel, so we can trust the wondrous word that God offers us today, inviting us to set out on a different pathway, even if we cannot see where it will lead. Even though Joseph was the last to know what that road would look like, he was among the first to step out and follow, trusting that God would go with this holy family and guide them all along the way.
So as we walk these final Advent days, may we deeply trust that God is with us, setting aside our fears of how others might see the steps we take on this journey, welcoming others to join us along the way, and watching for signs of God’s presence on the journey until our greatest hope is fulfilled and all things are made new through Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.