Mary tends to get a lot of the spotlight in and around Christmas time and rightly so. She is, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was according to the flesh of Mary that the Son of God came among us and became the Son of Man. However, in Matthew’s account of the gospel, which we have just now heard, a different figure comes to the fore—Joseph.
Joseph we do not know much about, the better part of his life buried somewhere in the pages of history. But here in the pages of Holy Scripture we have a glimpse of a man who had a part to play in God’s saving plan. He was to be the adoptive father of Jesus, to welcome Mary and the miraculous life growing inside of her into his home, and to care for and protect them—the Holy Family. However, Matthew does take care to tell us one important detail about Joseph here. Namely, that he was a righteous, or a just, man. And what is meant by this? Simply put, that Joseph obeyed God’s word. We’ll return to this in a moment but you can write it down in the meantime if you like. Brothers and sisters, do we want to be a community that is marked by righteousness and by justice? Let us then be people of the word, hearers yes, but doers as well.
So, Joseph is engaged to Mary, but they were not yet living together. That is, she was still living under the roof of her father and they had not yet reached the stage in their engagement when Joseph would welcome his bride into his home thus completing or fulfilling the marriage. Well, let’s just leave aside the fact that culturally we live by a very different sexual ethic these days, shall we? At any rate, here they are, betrothed but not yet living together and watch out, Mary becomes pregnant. Scandal. A scandal that is inherent to the gospel and manifest most prominently on the cross. The gospel is scandalous from beginning to end, is it any wonder that not everyone is able to accept it?
Joseph deduces, obviously, that Mary has broken their engagement. So, time for a divorce. He could rightly make a public spectacle of Mary and bring her to sure ruin. But he doesn’t, because he is a righteous man. Rather, he considers the matter and through crushing disappointment decides to make sure it all happens quietly so as not to disgrace Mary. For, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
Now, Joseph has made up his mind to do this…however…. I love that little word right there in verse 20, “but”. In many ways those three letters sum up the gospel: But. But, just when he had resolved to do this an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. Whoa! OK. Sometimes it is the case that the word of the Lord simply bursts into your life and disrupts all of your best laid plans. I remember a time when I was 17 and at summer camp. It was a terrible week as all of my friends had backed out and decided not to go. There I was, all by myself, miserable, sulking, wanting to be anywhere else but there. And on the very last night of camp as I sat off in the darkness of the chapel, alone, the word of God burst into my life and set me on a trajectory that has brought me here today. All the plans I had for myself, decimated!
And this word to Joseph brought clarity to the whole scandalous affair and generated faith and obedience in him: “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.” From the Holy Spirit. This points us to a confession that has been important for Christians over the years. We say it in the Creed together each Sunday: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
To be sure, Jesus isn’t the Son of God because he was born of a virgin, as if the Incarnation could not have happened some other way, through natural conception or something. But rather, Jesus was born of a virgin because he was the Son of God. The Virgin birth was fitting. And it is the Holy Spirit who brings about this genesis, who fills Mary’s womb with life eternal, who makes the Son of God a real person in her and to her. As the Holy Spirit began the world’s creation so now he beings the world’s new creation and salvation in Jesus.
Salvation—the child now developing in Mary’s womb will be given a name and that name will be Jesus. Which means, literally, “God saves.” How so? The angel elaborates ever so slightly to Joseph the nature of this Messiahs saving act: “he will save his people from their sins.”
There are two things here in the text that I want to draw your attention to. The first is that, as far as this whole salvation business is concerned, the initiative is wholly with God (Barth). What is true of creation in the first place is true also of this new creation now taking place in and through Mary by the Holy Spirit—it is entirely and utterly the work of God, something that He alone can do. This is true of the genesis of Jesus inside of Mary’s womb. It is equally true of the genesis of faith in Jesus inside any human life. “Every conversion is a virgin birth,” (Bruner 24).
Faith is a gift, always gift. And as if to highlight this point for us in the text how else does Matthew portray Joseph when the word of God comes to him but as one who is asleep. When it comes to working salvation out in the world, we are not God’s partners but are rather pure recipients of grace. Stumbling around in the dark, dead even in our sins. Given over entirely to God’s mercy.
I was speaking with someone this week who was saying, “Wouldn’t it be so much easier if Jesus was present with us as he was with his disciples?” Jesus is present with us, really, and it is the Holy Spirit who makes him so and enables us even in the poverty of our sinfulness to trust and to obey. And so as a church we may want to discern where the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst, for there we will surely find the risen Jesus present to us.
The second thing I want to draw our attention to here is the nature of the saving work of God in Christ: “…and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” A lofty task for an infant! And since only God can forgive sins this child is right-away associated with God and connected to his holy and saving power.
Who will he save? His people. That is in the plural by the way. That is to say, Jesus of course saves individuals but his purpose is to save them together, to make them into a new society, citizens of God’s kingdom. The gospel transforms not only hearts and minds but societies as well. Indeed, Western civilization what with our healthcare, our education, our art and love of beauty, our liberal democracy in which we learn to live together and disagree without killing one another, all of this has in important ways been shaped by the Judeo-Christian faith. Were it not for the power of the gospel our world might look very different today. Of course, however, we have long forgotten our indebtedness to the gospel, imagining that we must have got here on our own some how. All of that to say, how might the Church as a holy society, with a life that is ordered a certain way, be called to stand in contrast and challenge to the larger secular society, thus calling the world to repentance and faith in the loving mercy of Jesus Christ?
And what will he save his people from? Their sins. This is a subtle but important point. Popular Messianic expectation around the time of Jesus was that the Messiah would at the very least deliver his people from the sins of their enemies. That is, he would liberate them from the oppression of others. Apart from this the Messiah could hardly be considered legitimate. However, here in Matthew we are presented with a Messiah whose primary task is to liberate his people from their own sins. Because of course, if you are not healed there, at the very root of all of humankind’s ailments, then however many good things you may find in life you are not truly healed at all. And so the gospel teaches us a profound self-criticism—not hatred of ones enemies and of their sins but hatred of ones own sins, the church’s sins. Are we a people that not only know our own sins but hate them as well?
“All this,” the angel continued, “took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” The prophet in question is Isaiah and what the Lord spoke to him we have recorded there but the point I would make is simply this: the Bible is the word of God. Yes, of course, authored by humans but also authored by the Holy Spirit: “spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” To be confronted by the words of Scripture as we are whenever we gather for worship is to be confronted by God. Do you want to know what it is God has to say to His people? Read the Bible and do so overtime. You don’t have to tackle it all in one month, you needn’t sit down and read an hour a day. By all means, do so, but at least read a little bit whenever you can. And on some occasions as your day permits, read larger portions. And, over time, your relationship with God will deepen and He will make you, will make us, the sort of community that is willing and able to live in accordance with that word.
Recall what Matthew told us about Joseph which I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. That he was a righteous/just man. A righteous person isn’t simply someone with a high degree of moral fortitude. According to the Old Testament, a righteous or just person is one whose whole life is lived according to Holy Scripture. It is a person for whom God’s will is not some harsh law imposed on them from without, but is simply their joy. Like a tree planted by the water, so the word of God produces in and through the righteous person fruit that is good. The life of the righteous person is, simply, dialogue or friendship with God.
As this sort of man Joseph was prepared, inwardly and spiritually, for the unexpected and humanly speaking unbelievable news that came to him in a dream from God. And as such a man, Joseph was able to overcome his initial hesitation and obey this word. A prompt, simple, and unspectacular obedience, not seeking to be known or recognized but only desiring to do God’s will. And as a man who had been formed by God’s word, whose whole life was given over to God’s word, Joseph was able to not only hear but to do. May the word of God be working in us, now and always, so that we may be just such a people ourselves. Amen.