The Fourth Sunday in Advent; Year A (12/22/2013)

Texts:Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (7) Romans 1:1-7 St. Matthew 1:18-25

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

1:18 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.

St. Matthew 1:18-25. New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

A Righteous Man

Short and sweet: St. Matthew’s account of the birth of our Lord. Not as short as St. Mark’s or St. John’s, of course (neither of them mentions this story at all), but quite a bit shorter than St. Luke’s, which features an Emperor, a census, a trip from Nazareth, an expectant mother, a full inn, a manger, shepherds, the angel of the Lord, and a multitude of the (singing) heavenly host. If St. Matthew was the only Gospel account in our Bible, our Christmas pageants would be a whole lot shorter!

No, in St. Matthew all we get is: “…but [Joseph] had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

St. Matthew’s birth narrative is Joseph’s story, although it takes place mostly before the birth of Jesus. In fact, once Jesus is born we hardly hear about Joseph again. He is front and center in this weekend’s text, though. A righteous man, he is engaged to a young woman named Mary. Traditions have grown up around their ages and their backgrounds, but this actually is all we know about them. This and the fact that Joseph is a direct descendant of King David. Joseph is described as a righteous man, who concludes that Mary had been unfaithful, yet has no interest in humiliating her publicly. He has made up his mind to put her away quietly when an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and turns him in an entirely new direction. He experiences what John the Baptist would eventually come to call “metanoia” — a transformation of the mind.

It is a fascinating transformation. Joseph, being a righteous man, knows the law well. He understands the penalties that apply to those who are sexually active outside of marriage. He certainly has seen it in Nazareth before, and in the shock of receiving this news from his betrothed he must have recoiled at the image of angry neighbors hurling accusations at Mary. If his righteousness limited him to a strict application of the law, Mary’s story may have ended up being much like another woman’s story in the New Testament. (St. John 8:1-11)

But Joseph is a dreamer, and he believes this particular dream is sent to him directly from God. “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.” Joseph hears this message, embraces it, and this righteous man is willing to become unrighteous in order to be faithful. He is willing to set aside law and custom and tradition — everything he has studied and believed and practiced — in order to follow this word from God. Trusting more than understanding, he takes Mary as his wife. Hopeful more than fearful, he takes Jesus as his son. Together, the three of them move into the deep uncertainty of the future; yet empowered by the message of an angel, uplifted by the presence of God, and inspired by the possibility of becoming instruments of God through whom all things will be made new.

“He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” We must not underestimate the magnitude of this declaration. Joseph takes an extraordinary step of faith in this week’s Gospel lesson. His model is an inspiration to us all. A righteous man indeed, who receives the gift of “metanoia” and is made completely new by God. Let us give thanks for Joseph this week, as we prepare ourselves, once again, to celebrate the Christmas story.

Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel: 1. What must Joseph’s first reaction to Mary’s announcement have been? 2. Why does Joseph trust in the message delivered to him in a dream? 3. What risks does Joseph take to follow the message of the dream, and take Mary as his wife?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel: 1. How and when have I experienced God speaking directly to me? 2. When have I sensed my faith drawing me in a direction I never could have anticipated? 3. What does it mean to me that God is one who “makes all things new?”