I preached this sermon four times on December 18th, 2016, which was the fourth Sunday of Advent. In the morning I was at Kurume Christ Church for all three of their worship services and then in the afternoon I returned to Gunma where I preached at the Isesaki Covenant Church.
Have you ever found yourself in a really difficult situation and wondered why? Joseph may have been doing just that. Joseph wasn’t a bad person; quite the contrary. What little information we have about him in scripture suggests that he was a good person, an earnest person, and a kind and caring person. And yet the situation in which he found himself was unusually difficult. We know that he was engaged to be married. In first century Jewish society being engaged was much, much more serious than just having a boyfriend or girlfriend that you are hoping to marry. That’s probably how it started, although we don’t have any reliable information about whether this was an arranged marriage or not. However it started, Joseph and Mary’s relationship had deepened, and their feelings for one another had grown as well. In their world an engagement was, among other things, a legal contract. Once you were engaged, it was legally very similar to being married. Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. They had already made up their minds and taken the first step. At this point there was no turning back. But they weren’t actually married yet; not actually living together yet; just eagerly awaiting that day when they would actually become husband and wife. It must have been an exciting time, even if there were moments of anxiety or worrying. But then the bombshell dropped on Joseph. We don’t know how he first learned about it, but of course it wasn’t something that could be hidden for long. Mary was pregnant! I honestly don’t know how common it was in those days for couples to get pregnant before marriage, although I’m sure it happened some times. So it’s hard to say how other people would have looked at this situation; but quite frankly that isn’t the point at all. The point, from Joseph’s perspective, is that he knew for a fact that the baby wasn’t his! That was the cruel reality he was facing. Let me just take a moment to point out that even though things were tough for Joseph, they were obviously much more difficult for Mary. The inherent inequalities in society have always made it more difficult for women than men when it comes to dealing with unexpected babies. But today we are looking specifically at Joseph because unlike the other gospels, Matthew makes a point of focusing on Joseph. I’m not sure which was stronger, Joseph’s anger or his sadness. Either way, the painful reality was that his fiancé had become pregnant and he was not the father. He knew he wasn’t the father because he was waiting until they were married. That was their agreement; that they would wait. And yet now Mary was pregnant. From Joseph’s perspective there was no way to avoid the fact that Mary had broken the promise they had made to each other. He may have wondered whether she had done so knowingly or whether some other man had victimized her, but he had no way of knowing. Or she may have tried to tell him about her dream and what the angel told her, but could it have possibly made any sense to Joseph? Is there any way in the world that her explanation could have sounded believable to him? After all, she would have been claiming that she had not broken their promise but rather had been miraculously impregnated by God. On the other hand, maybe she knew better than to even try with that explanation, and had chosen to remain silent. Either way it left Joseph in an impossibly difficult spot. Clearly he had no choice but to give up on his dream of marriage. He simply had to call it off because Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child.
How do you even begin to process things when they get as crazy as this? How do you manage your feelings when there is so much sadness and anger happening at the same time? There are endless accounts of men doing very cruel things to their wives after learning of sexual infidelity. Of course the sad truth is that there are far fewer stories of women taking revenge on cheating husbands, but still there are some horrible stories like that as well. Either way, anger can prompt people to do horrible things to even the people they claim to love the most. Joseph had to decide how he would deal with his anger and sadness. And the first indication we have about his character in this story is that, at the very least, he wasn’t a cruel man. READ v.19 He was choosing to dismiss her quietly rather than publically humiliate her. Perhaps he still had strong feelings for her. Perhaps he was simply a kind man. Matthew says he chose this way because he was a righteous man. Whatever words we use, it is clear that this decision speaks to his character. Which must have made him wonder all the more, “Why is this happening?” In a society where no one believed in bad fortune, only bad consequences for sinfulness, he really must have been wondering, “Why?”. His hopes for a future and a family with Mary dashed. Would he ever be able to find another woman who would say, “yes”? Would the anger and sadness in his heart go away? So many questions… so few answers. But still, in the midst of that storm, he chose the kinder option. He chose to dismiss her quietly.
Matthew then takes us to the story of Joseph’s dream. READ v.20-23 Do you ever have weird dreams? Sometimes I have really strange dreams. They aren’t necessarily frightening, although some are. But sometimes they are just plain strange. When I suddenly wake up from such a dream I’m often faced with conflicted thoughts. On the one hand I want to get the dream completely out of my head… I don’t want to think about it at all, but rather just want to fall asleep again. On the other hand sometimes the dream is so strange that I just lie there in bed playing it over and over again in my mind. No matter how you look at it, Joseph’s dream was really, really weird. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he was having trouble sleeping at night even before he had the dream. But then to have a dream like that!? Well, honestly I can’t even begin to imagine what he must have felt like, because I’ve never had a dream that included any angels. But one thing is clear… Joseph took it seriously and allowed that dream to influence his actions. Matthew’s account is frustratingly short on details. READ v.24-25 While it may not have been Matthew’s intent, this account almost makes it sound like it was an easy choice for Joseph. He wakes up and says to himself… “Oh, okay. Thanks for explaining things to me Lord. I’ll just go ahead and call off the wedding cancelation and carry on as if nothing had happened.” I may be guilty of reading into things a bit here, but I am quite sure this was no easy decision for Joseph. He’s already made up his mind to do the kind thing and quietly dismiss Mary. And now this bizarre dream? I would guess that he woke up from that dream and said to himself; “WHAT????” “What was that?” How do I even begin to respond to a message like that? What it even a message? How can that make any sense? Old prophecies, talk of a Messiah… how can that possibly have anything to do with us? It must have been profoundly confusing; but at the same time Joseph knew what he had heard. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” If there was any truth to this strange dream-like message, it meant that the baby in Mary’s womb was pretty important. What to do… to quietly dismiss her or not… While I’m doing a lot of imagining here, what we do know is that in the end Joseph did take Mary as his wife and appears to have agreed to raise the baby as his own. We cannot avoid the conclusion that Joseph was a very righteous and Godly individual. In the midst of some horrible circumstances and confusing developments Joseph showed kindness and also chose to believe the voice of God and obey.
But remember my opening question? Wondering “why” when faced with hardship. God was clearly at work in this story. In fact the birth of Jesus is one of the most important moments in God’s entire plan of salvation. God was creating a huge moment in history by sending Christ to earth to live among us and shine God’s light in our midst. And God was choosing a couple of very normal, unsuspecting young people to play a central role in that event. Mary and Joseph were a young couple who weren’t even married yet and had no experience raising children, and yet God was entrusting Jesus into their hands; Jesus the savior of the world, into the hands of this young, confused couple.
Do you ever pray that God will do a mighty work in our midst? Do you long to see clear signs of God’s hand at work right here; in your church, in your family, and even in your own life? This is just a hunch of mine, but I think when we pray those sorts of prayers we often are making an assumption. The assumption is that if God should unleash God’s power and do a might work right here, it would be an incredible blessing for all of us. I think we assume that if God does a mighty work in our midst it’s going to feel good; it’s going to be joyful; it’s going be incredibly pleasant. And yet look at the story of Joseph and Mary. Profoundly faithful to God; and put right in the center of God’s mighty work of incarnation and salvation. But if you’re reading today’s scripture passage and other similar accounts like I am, this whole experience was anything but pleasant for Joseph and Mary. This wasn’t fun at all. And perhaps that’s a bit of a theme in scripture. How about the other Joseph in the O.T.? How about Moses? How about Adam and Eve? And what about Sampson? All of these people were used by God, and yet very rarely do any of them look like they’re having fun!
I think our problem is that we frequently focus too much of our prayer life on seeking happiness! We assume, far too frequently, that faithfully following Jesus will lead to daily happiness. Joseph faithfully obeyed God. He made the difficult decision to change the direction of his life and Mary’s based on a strange dream. That was the right decision, and yet look at where it led him. Within a couple years King Herod was trying to kill their son; willing to murder countless little boys in his attempt to kill the boy Jesus. Joseph finds himself running for his life… once again based on a strange dream. We don’t know much more about Joseph from scripture, but we do hear more about Mary. In the end she was forced to watch her son tortured and killed. Joseph and Mary’s decision to obey God didn’t make things any easier for them at all; quite the contrary!
And yet they lived by the promise. READ v.23 God is with us! Joseph chose to believe that promise. It was surely his faith in that promise that helped him withstand all the horrible stuff he experienced. The arrival of that baby messiah was the ultimate example of God being with us. God lives in our midst, taking on the form of a human, and living with us. Once again this year we celebrate that promise; that reality. God is with us; God is right here, right now.
If your circumstances don’t seem to reflect God’s presence please take another look at Joseph. You too are faced with a choice; do what would seem to be logical and reasonable if God isn’t actually involved… or claim the promise and choose to believe that God is involved. Choose to believe that God is present. Don’t just claim to believe it; stake your life on it! READ v.23 Amen