Matthew 1:18-25 CEB
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
December 18, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Advent
“I Must Be Dreaming”
The Scripture I read from the Gospel Matthew is the entire birth story of Jesus according to this gospel writer. Just before our story today, the gospel writer gives a long lineage and genealogy of Jesus and immediately after our passage is the story of the Magi coming from the east to Jerusalem in search of the Christ child.
If we only had Matthew’s gospel, we probably would never have a Christmas pageant…this gospel has no long journey for Mary and Joseph, no shepherds, no star, no stable, no multitude of angels, no over-booked inn, no manger, no baby wrapped in bands of cloth…just this passage that starts out with the line, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place…”
Yet, what we have in this gospel story of the birth of Jesus is Mr. Wonderful…that’s what I would call Joseph. He sets the bar pretty high in terms of doing the right thing in what must have been a challenging, stressful and embarrassing situation. And all this without saying a word in our story.
While today’s story tells us about who God is as revealed in the conception and the birth of Jesus, the central character is quiet Joseph.
Joseph and Mary were engaged, which in the Hebrew culture would have been arranged by their families. And engagements were serious stuff.
The father of the woman would have paid a dowry; a lot of times in the form of property to the future husband. And if the engagement broke up, it would be called a divorce.
During the time the couple was engaged, they were called husband and wife. The engagement would last one year and then they would be married. If a woman became pregnant by another man, it was considered adultery and she could be stoned to death.
Our Scripture today says that Joseph’s immediate response in learning of Mary’s pregnancy is that of a “righteous” Jewish man. And ‘righteous’ meant more than just being a nice guy. ‘Righteous’ meant he was devout and committed to his religious beliefs, which for Joseph was his Jewish faith and the Hebrew law.
So, according to religious law, he must divorce Mary in order to demonstrate that his love for God is stronger than his love for Mary. It is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract because Mary was apparently guilty of adultery, which was a capital offense. Joseph really had no good options.
But, what Joseph did, and this the ‘Mr. Wonderful’ part…what Joseph did was decide to divorce Mary quietly, so as not to cause her public humiliation. In other words, he went beyond the righteousness of the Law. He was not out to hurt Mary. He did not want to shame her. He was not out for revenge. Instead, he showed grace and compassion and love toward her.
So, the first story about Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is a story that begins with compassion…a story that begins with grace…a story that begins with love…a story that begins with the truth about who God is…God is a God of compassion and grace and love.
Then comes the dream…
An angel comes to Joseph in a dream, offering the remarkable suggestion that Joseph take Mary as his wife as planned, explaining that her pregnancy was not the result of unfaithfulness on her part, but instead is a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit. The angel assures Joseph that this unusual birth…this unexpected baby, is Emmanuel, which means God is with us.
While we never hear a single word from Joseph in this story, I’ve got to believe that he had a couple of questions for the angel or that his first reaction might have been to abruptly sit up in bed, shake off sleep and say, “I must be dreaming!”
Even when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in Luke’s Gospel and tells her that she is going to have a baby, she has some questions that we are allowed to hear such as, “How can this be?”
I’m thinking that is probably one of the same questions Joseph must have had. But we never hear from him. And even though he could not possibly have comprehended all that God meant to do through these events, Joseph simply did what he was told by the angel. Joseph takes Mary as his wife and then acknowledges Jesus as his own son by naming the child.
The most important thing that Joseph did…and this is huge…he listens to the angel; he believes the dream and its message; he listens to the leading of God; he trusts God, and in six short days we will celebrate the blessing of his obedience.
Dreams so often seem to be discounted as the basis for action in our day and age. But this was not the case in ancient times. There are numerous stories in the Bible of folks having dreams and visions and then acting on them as the right thing to do.
Have you ever felt like you were being told something in a dream or directed to go in a certain way or do something, and you followed that direction and it truly was the right thing to do?
The dream world is an amazing place.
If you have ever had the experience of waking up from an incredibly vivid dream, or even one that is a hazy fog, but still leaves an impression in your mind, you know the power dreams can hold. People who study things like dreams say that when we can look at our dreams symbolically rather than literally, they are often full of metaphors that are calling for our attention.
Dreams can be a place we gain understanding or direction or assurance.
On many occasions I have gone to bed worried or burdened about something, but then awake to have a sense of clarity about the problem that was not in my head at bed time. I have awakened hopeful, with a clearer purpose and a healthier or wiser attitude toward the problem.
Sometimes I think I’m a lousy listener for God’s leading when I’m awake. So, at times I think God waits for me to go to sleep and then patiently guides me through my sleeping hours. Perhaps that’s why we say, we’ll sleep on it before making a big decision.
In the calm surrender of sleep, God often tells us what we have been too preoccupied to hear when we are awake. Many of the Psalms support the power of our dreams. In Psalm 16, the Psalmist says, “I bless the Lord who give me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.”
God’s nurturing care is always available…day or night, and very often it is found in our dreams, as it was for Joseph.
So, part of the miracle of Christmas is the fact that Joseph believes what he hears in his dream and acts upon it.
Joseph plays a key role in the incarnation of God with us. Yet, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about Joseph’s role in the whole Christmas story.
The concept of the Incarnation…of God coming to be present with us in the flesh, is one that causes struggle for many because it can never be proven or explained.
But when we decide to embrace the concept anyway as a part of the great Mystery that is God, we surrender our need for proof and explanation, and surrender ourselves to God’s way, as Joseph did.
There is no telling what God might do through us, no matter how complicated or messy we think our lives are, or our family situation is. Joseph finds himself in a complicated, messy family situation brought on by circumstances beyond his control. But, Joseph pays attention.
Like Joseph, when we pay attention, when we listen, when we make ourselves available to God; God can use us for surprising and powerful things.
God did not stand outside the circumstances of the world. Rather, God entered into the circumstances by entering into the world.
In the same way, we are not to stand outside the events of the world around us. God came not only in Jesus, but continues to come in and through our actions and our words, even if our life circumstances are not what we would choose or plan…still, God is there with us.
God’s love poured out upon our world in creation, is now poured out upon humanity in the birth of Jesus. Our lives are therefore to reflect some of that extravagant outpouring of love and joy as well.
Joseph is a man often not noticed or remembered…he almost stands in the shadows of Christmas. But, he demonstrates so much of the Christmas spirit for all of us by nudging us to think of how well we ordinary people embody the extraordinary demands of the Gospel.
Our story today is the telling of God coming among us as Jesus. This reading of the birth story of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew offers us hope and joy and an opportunity to reflect upon the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation as we stand on the edge of Christmas.
And the only way the story of Emmanuel can be proven true is the faithful lives it is able to produce.
Therefore, I proclaim to you Good News… “Look, the young woman is with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” (Is. 7:14b; Mt. 1:23b).
Thanks be to God.