MATTHEW 1:18-25

DECEMBER 13, 2009

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            A number of years ago, the biggest hit on Broadway was the musical, Man of La Mancha.  The highlight of the musical was when the character Don Quixote stood at center stage with his faithful partner Sancho Panza beside him and sang, “To dream the  impossible dream.” 

            In our passage for today, an angel brings Joseph what seems like an impossible dream: a dream that he would be the step-father of the Messiah, that he would play a key role in the coming of God’s redemptive power into the world.

            This morning we continue our Advent sermon series where we are looking at angelic encounters associated with the birth of Jesus.  Thus far we have looked at Gabriel’s visit to the elderly priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, and Gabriel’s visit to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Today we turn to an angelic visit to Jesus’ step-father, Joseph, and this angel is not named.  Was it Gabriel?   We do not know.  As we unpack this visit, by the unnamed angel, we will again divide the visit into four sections.  We will begin with the relationship.

            To our western ways of thinking, the relationships here appear bewildering.  Mary and Joseph were betrothed to one another.  What does that mean?  Why didn’t the author Matthew just say they were married to one another, since Joseph was considering divorcing her?  Well, we need to understand the Jewish marriage customs at the time.  In Jewish marriage there were three steps.

            First, came the engagement.  The engagement was often made when the couple were only children.  It was usually made through the parents or through a professional matchmaker.  And it was often made without the couple having seen one another.  In first century Jewish circles, marriage was far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of human passion and the human heart.

            Second, came the betrothal.  We might call this the ratification of the engagement.  At this point the engagement, entered into by the parents or the matchmaker, could be broken if the girl was unwilling to go through with it.  Once the betrothal was entered into, however, it was absolutely binding.  It lasted for one year.  During that time the couple was known as man and wife, but without the conjugal rights of man and wife.  This stage could not be terminated in any other way than divorce.  Mary and Joseph were at this stage.  They were betrothed and if Joseph wished to end the betrothal, he could do so in no other way than by divorce.

            The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.   So, that’s section one, the relationship.  Now let’s turn to section two, the man.  Note the description of him in 19,


            Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.


            I want us to note three things about Joseph.  First, Matthew describes him as a “just” man.  That is to say, he was a man committed to doing the right thing, and no matter how much he still loves Mary, the scriptures tell him that it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract, because Mary is apparently guilty of fornication, a crime according to the Book of Deuteronomy (22:23-24).  As much as he may not want to end the relationship, it is not his prerogative.  His love for God, and God’s word, must trump his love for Mary.  Justice needs to be done, as much as that may pain Joseph. 

            But Matthew says a second thing about him.  Although he does not use the word, Joseph was also a man of mercy, for he was “unwilling to put her to shame, and resolved to divorce her quietly.”  A lesser man would have brought accusations of unfaithfulness before the elders of the village.  He would have broken off the betrothal, and demanded that his fiancee be punished by public disgrace.  Joseph, however, would not do that.  He had to do the just thing, the right thing according to the scriptures, but he did not want to hurt Mary any more than necessary.  He really loved her.

            One more thing about Joseph before we continue.  Joseph was also an active dreamer, and he seemed to dream in technicolor, and even in 3-D!  The Bible tells us that angels spoke to Joseph on four different occasions, and every time the angels came to him in one of his dreams.  We see it here, and we see it when the angel told him to go to Egypt to protect Jesus, and we see it, when the angel appeared again and told him it was safe to go back home, and we see it one more time when an angel warns him about Herod’s son coming to power, resulting in Joseph moving back to Galilee rather than Judea. 

            There’s something appropriate about a first-century carpenter being a dreamer, because a carpenter has to visualize plans in his mind as he makes whatever he is working on, and that was especially true in biblical times, when only the very rich could afford papyrus or parchment or ink to make drawings for projects.  So a carpenter had to picture the plans in his head as he worked.  It was quite natural, then, that he would continue this process of mental visualization when he went to sleep.

            In these dreams, however, Joseph was not visualizing his building projects, but the problems of his personal relationships, and he kept thinking and thinking about them, in the methodical and careful way a carpenter would, trying to find the best answer to his personal problems, and it was in the middle of that process that God intervened by sending angels, unnamed angels, to help him. 

            That leads us to section three: the names ... “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

            And the prophecy from Isaiah that follows, verse 23, “‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).

            On June 5, 1978, a seven-year old boy named Martin Turgeon slipped off a wharf and fell into the Prairie River in Canada.  At least a dozen adults saw him struggle for a few moments before he sank and drowned.  Why didn't anyone dive in to save him? Just upstream, a plant used to dump raw sewage right into the river.  The water was dirty—dangerous to your health.  So, nobody jumped in to save Martin Turgeon.

            It's easy at times to view God as one of the onlookers standing on the wharf of the Prairie River.  We feel like God looks at us and says, "Look, I'm not diving into the mess of your life until you get out of the putrid river.  I am a holy God, so you clean up your act first, and then I'll accept you and embrace you and love you."  But in our passage for this morning, we meet a God who was—and is—willing to plunge into the mess of human sin and sorrow.  We meet a God who says, "I'm coming after you before you get out of the river and clean yourself up."

            You see, the name of the child, Jesus, literally means “God saves,”  In other words, “God saves,” is not only Jesus’ name but it is also a perfect definition of who he will be and what he will do. 

            I like the way C.S. Lewis puts it his book Miracles.  He offers a beautiful analogy of what Jesus does for us. He writes:


            Think of a pearl diver ... rushing down through green and warm water into the black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both recovered now that they have come up into the light.


            The second name mentioned here, “Emmanuel,” is more of a descriptive name.  Jesus became the child’s given name, but Emmanuel was a descriptive name found in Isaiah’s prophecy, like “Old Blue Eyes” for Sinatra or “Magic” for the basketball player Earvin Johnson or “The Iron Lady” for Margaret Thatcher, or Cheetah Woods for the golfer Eldrick Woods.  Emmanuel literally translated means “God with us” or “The With-Us God.”   Emmanuel is a powerfully, descriptive name.  We shouldn't weaken it by saying that "in Jesus, God draws near to us." No!  It means that Jesus is God with us not just near us.  You go to a bus stop with a friend and there are other people waiting for the bus.  They are near us, but only the friend is with us.

            That's the story of the Incarnation, and what a unique story it is!   A nice, decent god would probably send us some help—maybe an angel or a sacred text or advice of some sort.  We would probably consider that god a righteous god—a god we could respect and admire and maybe even worship.  But the God of Scripture goes radically beyond that.  Yes, he sends his angels and sacred texts, and we respond with admiration and respect and even worship.  But at Christmas, God didn't stand on the wharf and send someone else or send along some religious instruction.  No!  God personally jumped into the putrid waters.  He became vulnerable for our sake.  He became one of us.  It's crazy, over-the-top, dangerous love!  The God of the Bible—the God of Christmas—is much better than we could ever imagine!

            And finally, section four, the ramifications.  What does all of this mean for us?  Well, a couple of things.  For example, perhaps our lives or our families are a mess, and we know that we're not one of the "decent" or “righteous” or “just” people here today.  We have skeletons in your closets.  We have secret sins or scary addictions to deal with.  We have a bitter or vengeful spirit that threatens to boil over during this season.  On the outside we look like we have our act together, but on the inside we have greed and self-indulgence and hypocrisy.  But this should not—and must not—drive us to despair or discouragement.  Jesus' name means "God saves."  He will save us from our sins.  That's why he came.  He's "with us" in the midst of this mess.

            Or perhaps we're thinking, we’re not like that at all.  We’re pretty decent.  Our family is in pretty good shape.  We have our battles with sin, sure, but we’re fairly good people.  So, let’s assume that.  Let's just assume that, like Joseph, we are a righteous and just folk.  But do we possess the kind of Christ-like righteousness that plunges into the raw sewage of humanity?  Let me give us a test:  When we see or hear about people sinning, does it our heart break with tears and compassion or do we just want to gossip?  Do we not associate with certain people because of their sinful behavior?  Are we willing to bear the shame of others' sin because of your contact with them?  Do people know that if they had a problem that was causing their life to fall apart, that they could come to us and find solace?  Do we model the new kind of righteousness we find in Jesus, the one who saves, the one who is with us?

            Let’s think about that.