Matthew 1:18-2518 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
Allow me to begin with a bit of a confession this morning: there are few characters in the Biblical narrative for whom I feel more sympathy than dear Old Joseph. When his role in the birth of Christ is acknowledged, and this is far from always being the case, he is little more than the background upon which the rest of the narrative plays out. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that we can hang a bathrobe on the quiet boy in class and throw him up in front of the church in the Christmas play to represent Joseph, the man would have no real purpose at all. I mean, think about him for one moment. Here he is, with all the anticipation of a man who is about to enter married life, and he discovers that his wife has already conceived. This scandal, in the times in which we are dealing, constitutes a transgression that one could pay for with her life (remember how Jesus spares the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel). We have the benefit of knowing just exactly with whom Mary is pregnant, but Joseph does not. And please, for one moment, try to put yourself in Joseph’s shoes, or sandals, as it were. Would you honestly believe this story, that she had been overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit, over your paranoid conviction that your fiancé had instead indulged in a momentary weakness, in which she succumbed to the seductive advances of that good looking carpenter down the street? Does this actually strike you as a plausible story, a worthy excuse? Oh, what hushed arguments must have ensued. From that perspective, do Joseph’s actions not make a little more sense? Rather than be embroiled in scandal, the subject of stabbing whispers behind his back, indeed a man scorned, does it not make more sense to go about one’s business quietly? Oh, he loved her too much to ask that she be stoned, and it is this compassion that allows Matthew to name him as righteous, but that does not mean he did not hurt. For his pride had been wounded in that way that only a man’s pride can be, and he knew that staying with her would mean a life-long embarrassment, a life long resentment that would simmer just beneath the surface of a domestic cease fire.
We can, if we let ourselves, be drawn deeply into Joseph’s humanity, and what we find there is a God who, to be frank, will not play our games of ego and resentment. For God, in sending an Angel to Joseph in his fitful sleep provides Joseph with a terrible comfort. A comfort that shatters Joseph’s sense of what is possible in the world, and let us be frank, this is always, always a terrifying experience. Oh Joseph, you know that story Mary has told you, the one you greeted with such prideful scorn, the story that violently overran your sense of well being, and in a moment collapsed your dreams of watching your children run through the same Nazareth streets that had been your boyhood home, well that news, dear Joseph, turns out to be rather true. Mary is with child, and yes, it is God’s child. Please bear in mind we are here dealing with actual people, and how Joseph must have watched his sense of what is possible drop into free fall. This is the sort of news that literally turns the page on what one believes to be possible, the sort of news that is like adding seven senses. A reality so bizarre, so surreal, that it requires an angel’s visit in the night’s small hours as evidence, if evidence is even an appropriate word to apply to such an encounter. While we can note the way in which Joseph obeys the commandment of the angel, remaining with Mary and naming his son Jesus, or he saves in Hebrew, at this point is there really much of a choice for Joseph? I mean, really, it appears as though God is going to have his way regardless of Joseph’s pride or doubt. Yes, Joseph is to be involved in this whole business of God’s son’s birth, but whether or not it will happen, well that reality was decided without his consultation.
And that this is so, that God does not always wait for humanity’s ascent to God’s decision; this is actually the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. For, if we are honest with ourselves, God acting decisively on our behalf, even if it appears as though God is acting against our wishes, well, this is what we can begin to call the Gospel. For in so doing, God does for us what we can do for ourselves; that is, God heals us, God forgives us, God makes us whole with a power and a gentleness that is not the work of human hands. This is act of reclaiming, of redeeming, well we are about to witness its most clear expression as Emily Lillian is given new life through Holy Baptism. And really, we are no different than that darling babe in terms of our dependence on God’s mercy; as Martin Luther’s final recorded words remind us, we are all beggars of God’s mercy. And, oh, dear people, please do not be offended at such words. For this is not intended as a blow to your self-esteem or anything of the sort, it is instead the deepest comfort of the Gospel. For God’s care is that of a vigilant parent who takes no end of delight in attending to the needs of God’s children. Also, just as Joseph was given the responsibility to name and raise God’s son as his own flesh and blood, you too have a very real role to play in this drama. For just as God in Christ became vulnerable to the care of two very real human beings, so too, your lives are one of the ways that God becomes real in the world. In all that you do and say, in the love that you extent towards all whom you meet, you, along with dear Joseph, give this God a name in the world. No, you did not choose this Christ child, he chose you and made you his own at those birthing waters of baptism, but in choosing you, he also gave you a purpose, and asked you to make his name real, so that others may abide in his mercy. In the name of Jesus, amen.