Mark 13:24-37 (kids)
Matthew 1:18-25 (message focus)
A few weeks ago, I was on fall study retreat. We – me, Jim, Steve, and our dog Spooky – were at Steve’s farmhouse, a home that has been in the family for generations. He found the old photos of his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents in the attic and put them up in the dining room. It’s a mini-portrait gallery that tells the family story, that reveals a little bit about who Steve is.
The opening of each of the four gospels is a little like that family album. We have portraits of Jesus’ family; we get a sense of who he is by who he comes from. Matthew and Luke have extended openings, a series of stories that takes place before Jesus grows up and begins his active ministry. Matthew focuses on Joseph; Luke focuses on Mary. Mark and John leap right into Jesus as adult. Mark dives into the story of Jesus’ cousin John, who baptizes Jesus. John (the gospel) also refers to cousin John, but opens the gospel by zooming out to get a perspective on Jesus in the world from the beginning.
Today, we look at Matthew’s gospel and Father Joseph. Interestingly, there is almost nothing about the pregnancy and birth. All we have are a couple lines:
“His mother Mary was found to be with child” (1.18)The next story, the story of the visiting Wise Men or Magi or “three kings” appears to have taken place when Jesus is a young toddler (2.16, “two years old and younger”), rather than a newborn. And, in that story, the parent on whom Matthew focuses is Joseph.
“She had borne a son” (1.25)
This particular passage has puzzled readers with its language around marriage and divorce, so we need to take a few moments to clarify that. English lacks the appropriate language for the ancient Jewish customs, and New Testament Greek does as well, for that matter. “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together” (1.18) and “He planned to dismiss/divorce her quietly” (1.19).
The typical wedding process in the early first century had two steps, usually separated by a year. In the first step, the bride (often at the age of 12 or 13) is promised to the groom in a public ceremony with witnesses, but the bride continues to live in the home of her parents until everything is ready for the groom to take her to his home. During that time, they are considered married, in legal terms, even though the marriage is not typically consummated until the second celebration. Adultery during this period would typically result in divorce. (See Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp 123-124.)
It is during this waiting period that Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. We, as readers, are let in on the secret that this is “by the Holy Spirit”, but Joseph is unaware. From his perspective, Mary has been unfaithful.
The opening of Matthew’s gospel is a genealogy, typically a boring list of names by generation. Matthew is a skillful writer and theologian, however. His opening words, literally in Greek, “the book of the genesis of Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1.1). The genealogy proceeds, listing fathers and sons, and including four scandalous relationships – four women – along the way. Matthew completely ignores the four great Hebrew matriarchs of the Genesis story in favor of the stories of these women: The first posed as a prostitute to get pregnant by her father-in-law, the second was a prostitute, the third was a foreign woman who popped the question to her future husband after uncovering him in his sleep, and the fourth woman was either coerced or complicit in adultery.
Then, at the very end of the genealogy, Matthew abruptly drops the father-son sequence and adds a fifth woman: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Christ” (1.16). He avoids referring to Joseph as the father of Jesus and raises the question of scandal that was in the mind of everyone in Jesus’ village: Jesus as illegitimate child, mother Mary as adulteress, father Joseph as shamed.
We are familiar with scandal today. It seems we read a new one in the news every other week. “Now the birth (genesis in Greek) of Jesus the Christ took place in this way” (1.18; see Brown, “Annunciation”, 483 and Bruner, 23). The linguistic cue ties the reader to the genealogy and the scandals. Since the ancient world revolved around honor and shame, in much more significant ways than we do, Joseph’s shame was a big deal. It is an ending-of-the-world deal.
In the traditional cycle of advent Scriptures, the first week’s gospel reading is devoted to Jesus’ preaching on the “end”, the “apocalypse” – the sun darkened, the stars falling, the elect gathered, the end coming. Watch! Stay awake! In this case, these are not the words of Chicken Little, these are not words to ignore, these are the words of Jesus himself.
While our message series is structured differently this year, we still encounter this theme. Joseph’s life, everything he imagined it would be, all the things he expected to share with Mary – it is all over. He can divorce her and, maybe, start over, maybe find someone else to love. He can marry her and live with the stigma, the shame, for the rest of his life. It is a real grief, a profound pain, a gut-wrenching decision.
Joseph’s shame was a really big deal. The “honorable” thing to do was to expose and punish the person who caused the shame, to expose and punish Mary. But instead of pursuing his lost honor, Joseph chooses kindness and mercy. He resolves “to divorce her quietly”. Not that divorce is ever private, and in the ancient world in which a woman’s livelihood depended on a man, Mary would have been condemned to an extraordinarily difficult life. But Joseph does not wish to humiliate Mary to recover his own honor. No wonder Matthew calls him a “righteous man” (1.19). He is not obsessed with his own honor; he is not defensive. His sense of justice is shaped by mercy and compassion.
To this righteous man, the angel appears and gives him two words: The first thing the angel says, “Do not be afraid” (1.20). The world ending? Don’t be afraid. Your life is over? Don’t be afraid. Things are uncertain. We can’t be sure about what will happen. But we do not have to be afraid.
The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid. Then, the angel tells him what we as readers already know: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” This is no scandal (good luck convincing your friends, though) – this is a God thing, a grace thing, a Holy Spirit miracle of new life. Frederick Dale Bruner comments, “Every conversion is a virgin birth. ‘With human beings this [new life] is impossible, but with God absolutely everything is possible’ (Matt 19:26)” (p 24, italics his). His point is that there is a parallel between this incredible miracle of Christ becoming flesh, of “the virgin will conceive”, and Christ being conceived and born in our lives today. As Charles Wesley wrote in that great carol, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, Jesus is “born to give us second birth”.
In addition to these two words for Joseph, the angel also gives the baby two names. The first name, “Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins” (1.21).
The second name, “Emmanuel”, means “God is with us” (1.23). It comes from a story in Isaiah of a king who was afraid of the world ending, afraid of two superpowers who were prepared to divide and conquer Judah. Isaiah declares, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7.9). Like Joseph, king Ahaz has reasons to fear. Unlike Joseph, Ahaz doesn’t seem to get the message, doesn’t seem to accept that God our Savior is indeed with him, with you, with me, with us.
“If you do not stand firm in your faith . . . .” I suggest that Joseph is a model for standing firm in faith, in two particular ways:
When everything was falling apart, he chose to live on faith, not fear.With Jesus, Savior, with Emmanuel, God with us, that new life, that second birth, can be ours.
When everything went wrong, he did not protect his own honor but practiced compassion.