Joseph’s Turn Prepares the Way

December 22, 2013

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

4th Sunday of Advent – Year A RCL

Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25


But now things are getting interesting!

Today’s gospel lesson begins by saying: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” We’re on the edge of our seats! We want to hear the story; the WHOLE story – because then it will be Christmas! No more waiting!

And although we DO hear the whole story in today’s reading, it isn’t the one we’re used to hearing. It doesn’t mention the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, or the journey back to Bethlehem. There are no shepherds in the field startled by a multitude of angels announcing the birth of the Messiah. No baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. All of that is in Luke’s Christmas story – in that story, Joseph doesn’t get much attention, instead Mary is at center-stage.

Matthew’s story, though, is very different, where Joseph has the prominent role.

As a matter of fact, in Matthew’s gospel the first 17 verses provide a genealogy of Jesus that highlights the importance, even the necessity of Joseph.Since the hearers of Matthew’s gospel were predominately Jewish, it’s no surprise that the focus is on the patriarchs of the Jewish tradition. This begins the purpose of the whole gospel of Matthew, which is meant to show how Jesus is one sent to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies of God’s saving power.

These prophecies assert that the Messiah will be a descendant of Jesse, who was the father of King David. So, Matthew’s genealogy delineates the connection of Abraham, down through King David, and all the way forward to Joseph, who is described as “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

So, while the more familiar Christmas story in Luke’s gospel focuses on the chosen-ness and faithfulness of Mary, Matthew’s story reveals the chosen-ness and faithfulness of Joseph.

As you’ve probably gathered from other Biblical texts, these stories were written with an expectation that the hearer understands the Jewish tradition – so there aren’t footnotes to help us out in our twenty-first century context.

So, let me try to fill some of that in…

In today’s lesson it says that Joseph and Mary were engaged, but not living together. Well, that seems straight-forward enough, not so different from our culture – give or take. But what you need to understand is that in that time, to be engaged was a significant contractual commitment in and of itself.

The couple was first engaged, and then some time later, months, maybe even a year, were actually married and moved into the same living space. With this level of commitment from the outset, it meant that a divorce was necessary to dissolve the obligation of engagement, and that was only in extreme circumstances and very rare.

A couple of months ago, when I was helping with the rehearsal for the wedding I was reminded that there is evidence of this two-stage custom in our own Book of Common Prayer. In The Celebration and Blessing of A Marriage there are two parts in the liturgy that seem similar, but when you look at them closely, they are quite different.

At the beginning of the service there is The Declaration of Consent. It begins with the priest asking the congregation and then the couple if there is any legal reason why the two cannot be married. Then, addressing each of the two people being married, the priest asks: “Will you have this man (or woman) to be your husband (or wife); to live together in the covenant of marriage…?” and so on. And the response of each person is “I will.” This represents that early tradition of being obligated at the time of engagement.

The second part of the liturgy then shifts to an actual worship service – with scripture readings and a sermon, followed by The Marriage. The marriage is a personal commitment shared between to two being married – they turn toward one another and each say: “I take you to be my (wife/husband) to have and to hold from this day forward…” and so on.

Although the priest often helps the couple through these vows, the commitment is solely between those two people. The priest is there to provide a blessing after the fact, but the act of marrying happens between the two individuals when they TAKE the other to be their spouse.

And so, at the outset of today’s story from Matthew, Joseph and Mary have declared their consent to marry one another. It’s a firm commitment with no easy way out. Then Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant… Houston, we have a problem.

The text says that Joseph is a righteous man, and as such, instead of exposing Mary to public ridicule, and the risk of much harsher punishment, possibly even death, Joseph decides to dismiss Mary quietly.

Yet, just as the Holy Spirit acted upon Mary through her pregnancy, we also see the Holy Spirit acting upon Joseph, in a dream. An angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. And, in a faithful and obedient response to God, Joseph changed his mind and instead of dismissing Mary, he TOOK her as his wife.

James_Tissot_Betrothel_of_Mary_and_Joseph_300In the past few weeks we’ve talked about Advent as being a time of repentance… a time of changing – changing our mind; changing direction; turning toward God. This act by Joseph is a quintessential example of this type of repentance.

In spite of his tradition which allowed him to cast Mary aside, even though this would be the expected behavior… in spite of his having already made up his mind to do something else, to dismiss Mary quietly… Joseph kept his heart and mind open to what God would have him do.

Joseph had already shown his disposition for compassion, choosing not to shame Mary publicly, and now, with his heart set on compassion, God was able to multiply that beyond expectation, and gave Joseph the confidence to be obedient to God’s purpose for his life.

In a similar way, God empowers each of us with the Holy Spirit, and through it our compassion toward others can be multiplied in unexpected and life-changing ways. It is this compassion that is essential if we are to “Love our neighbor” and God can increase our compassion exponentially!

Yet in return, God seeks a commitment of faithfulness and obedience, not unlike that found in marriage.

So, before we bring Christ into the world anew, we must ask ourselves if we are able to declare our consent to that covenant that God invites us into.

As a declaration of consent, People of Christ Church I ask you:

Will you live in covenant with God? Will you love God, be a comfort to God, honor God and keep God at the center of your life, in good times and in hardship, and forsaking all others, will you be faithful to God, now and for ever?

Adding to that, are we ready to complete this commitment? To TAKE God into our life fully and completely.

As an act of personal commitment, will we turn toward God and with joy in our hearts say:

I take God to be the center of my life, from this day forward, for better or worse, in times of plenty and in times of scarcity, in times of sickness and in times of health, to love and to cherish, now and for ever. This is my solemn vow.

By his commitment and obedience to God, Joseph extended God’s act of salvation by making this marriage commitment to Mary. She was saved from shame, yes, and also the possibility of death by Joseph’s generous and obedient act. And through this saving act, Joseph also prepared the way for Jesus the Messiah to be born.

Through our own willingness to make a covenantal commitment to God, we, like Joseph, prepare ourselves for the continual re-birth of Jesus in our hearts; bringing the saving grace of God into our lives anew.

May we embrace the joy of faithful obedience as we STILL WAIT for the coming of Christ!

One Response to “Joseph’s Turn Prepares the Way”

  1. How can one so young be so wise?–thank you for your gift through God’s Grace.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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