Matthew 1:18-24 Birth of Jesus
18 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. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 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. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.[a]
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph – Whose Child Is This?
Today we continue our study of Joseph, based on Adam Hamilton’s book, and we will continue to think about the Christmas story through Joseph’s eyes. I share with you today this artwork that modernizes the Christmas story – it paints a pretty bleak picture for the young couple. But a very realistic one. The more you look at this cartoon, the more you will see hints of the 2,000 year old Christmas story in this scene – you will see that there is no vacancy at Dave’s City Hotel, and you’ll see the star and the wise men, you’ll see scripture quoted and notice Mary’s sweatshirt. I wanted to share this with you today because it is an eye-opening way for us to think about the Christmas story. We like to sanitize and romanticize the Christmas story, but this artwork really brings it back into reality for us.
The story of the birth of Jesus begins with a scandal. Because Mary becomes pregnant before the wedding date! Today we are going to look at how this scandal played out and learn about how Joseph reacted. I am going to ask you to think about what message we might take from this story about who God is and who God wants us to be.
So let’s talk about the scandal, first. Last week we talked about the ages of Joseph and Mary – we thought about how old they might have been, right – do you remember the controversy – some think Joseph was an elderly widower and some think he was a teenager? Did you google it and look up some artwork of the holy family? And although we can’t be sure, in that culture marriages were normally arranged by parents when their children were young and then couples were married as teenagers. There would be an engagement period – lasting a year or two. And during this period a legal document was prepared, and the groom’s family paid a price to the bride’s family, similar to a dowry. Adam Hamilton talks about two different kinds of gifts being paid – one to the bride’s family and one that would become a part of the bride’s property. It was during this period of engagement, while this negotiation would have been going on between the two families, that Mary became pregnant. Now, we as Christians know and believe that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. And we mostly accept this without letting the meaning really making any deep impression on us – we’ve heard the story many times if we grew up in a Christian environment, and it’s just a part of our story of faith. So we don’t really think about how scandalous this would have been 2,000 years ago – and really somewhat even today.
So let that sink in. Mary becomes pregnant before the wedding date, and Joseph knows that he is not the father. And here is what Matthew says happens next:
Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
There are three things here – Joseph was a righteous man. He didn’t want to humiliate Mary, and he decided to quietly call of the engagement. Joseph was righteous because he followed God’s law – he tried to do the right thing. And because he wanted to do the right thing, he didn’t want to humiliate Mary. Even though Joseph must have felt betrayed and humiliated himself by what was going on, he didn’t want Mary to be disgraced before the community. Adam Hamilton describes it like this. He says: “Joseph faced a dilemma. On the one hand he could do what was customary and call off the marriage. He would have to go to the priest or into the public square and declare what had happened and why he was breaking off the engagement. To do this publicly would be to call Mary out as an adulteress. She would be publicly scorned and humiliated. (Hamilton, 50). But even worse than the shame and embarrassment, the law of Moses in Deuteronomy (22:20-21, 23-24) spells out an “even harsher penalty for an engaged woman who cheats on her bridegroom before they are married. The law says: ‘The city’s elders will bring the young woman to the door of her father’s house. The citizens of that city must stone her until she dies; because she had betrayed the man to whom she was engaged, her entire family and God. The law says: ‘Remove such evil from your community!’ (Hamilton, 50-51). Now Adam Hamilton points out that it doesn’t appear stoning was put into practice much under Roman rule, but even if not – Mary would have been branded as a sinner in her community and few men would consider marrying her – she and her family too would have had to live with this tarnished reputation and disgrace for the rest of their lives.
So, Joseph faces a serious dilemma here. And the scripture says that he chose to be merciful toward Mary. He decided to call off the engagement. This has a meaning that we may have never understood or considered. So listen to what this would have meant for Joseph. Listen to what he would face by calling off the engagement. This probably meant that he would say he had changed his mind about the marriage – that he would have put the blame on himself, and that when it was discovered that Mary was pregnant it would appear that Joseph was the father and he had acted dishonorably by abandoning Mary. The shame and dishonor would have fallen on Joseph rather than allowing Mary to live her entire life with the stigma. Hamilton says that “despite his pain, he still felt compassion for Mary. He showed mercy, forgiveness and grace.” (Hamilton, 52). And so it is no surprise that Jesus became a man full of mercy, forgiveness and grace for all of humankind!
If you have ever received mercy, forgiveness and grace from another human being, you know that Joseph’s response is pretty remarkable. And if you have ever struggled to show mercy, forgiveness and grace to a human being who has hurt you, you know that it is pretty remarkable, too. Joseph teaches us that we are called to show mercy, forgiveness and grace to one another. It is a reminder that our forgiving God shows the same grace and mercy to his children – and asks us to do the same.
But as you know there is more to the story. Joseph doesn’t walk away from Mary and the scandalous position she is in. We know that God had a different plan for this unplanned pregnancy. We know that God had different plans for the lives of Joseph and Mary than they could have ever imagined. The scripture tells us that an angel named Gabriel, a messenger from God, came to reassure Joseph and to give him a small part of God’s plan in a dream. Here’s how Matthew tells the next part of the story:
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. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.[a](Emmanuel means “God with us.”)24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.
Even though today’s scripture says that Joseph listened to the angel and obeyed God’s commandment to take Mary as his wife. Joseph must have been terrified – he must have been confused, bewildered and doubtful about the situation AND about what might lay ahead for their lives together. However, Joseph took the chance that God was trustworthy, and he took Mary as his wife.
The story of the holy family started out in a hopeless situation. And it became something beautiful. In the mercy, forgiveness and grace that Joseph showed toward Mary her life was redeemed by God. God was able to take what seemed to be a broken life, a life of shame and dishonor and turn it into something beautiful, something good and something that changed the world. That’s what God can do. The resurrection power of God is something we can receive each day of our lives. We can surrender the brokenness of our lives and be transformed into new creations in Christ Jesus. We can be healed and resurrected to experience lives we never could dream of or expect. At this point in their lives, I doubt that Joseph and Mary could even begin to imagine how their lives might work out for the good. I doubt they could even grasp a little bit what kind of love and joy and even sorrow that their lives would hold. However, if we could have interviewed Joseph at the end of his life, I bet he would never regret trusting God and obeying.
And so maybe it’s important for some of us to remember today that God has extraordinary plans for our lives and our futures, even when we find ourselves in a very dark and apparently hopeless situation. God is trustworthy, and we will never go wrong taking a chance and obeying God’s commands even when it seems crazy!! Maybe even especially when what God is asking you to do seems crazy.
Joseph may not have believed God was going to work all this out for good. In fact, I bet he still had serious doubts. But Joseph trusted God. And he obeyed. Joseph was merciful, and forgiving and full of grace toward Mary. And he decided to take one step at a time.
My prayer for us today is that we would be willing to be used by God despite our insecurities, our doubts and our failings.
My prayer for each of us today is that we would hear the voice of God speaking through messengers who challenge us to live and love in extraordinary ways.
My prayer is that we would both give and receive mercy, forgiveness and grace.
My prayer is that our lives would be turned upside down by a radical God who loves us so much that he sent his Son to earth in such a scandalous way!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go from here offering God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace to others.
Go from here expecting God’s messengers to show you a path in the wilderness.
Go from here without fear, but with willing hearts.
Now, go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.