December 17, 2023 ~ Third Sunday of Advent
Rev. Beckie Sweet
“Tell me the story of when I was born.” This request was usually made by my children around the time of their birthdays when they were young. And in response, they didn’t want me to read a chapter from a book, they didn’t want to begin with the trip to the hospital, and they didn’t want to hear about any gory parts about bodily fluids. They wanted to hear about how we prepared for the arrival of a bundle of SWEET joy. They wanted to hear about the loved ones who made the journey to be present. They wanted to hear about how feisty they were as newborns, or how calm and contented they were, or about how everyone “Ooooed” and “Ahhhed” when they would set eyes on this little package of life. They wanted to know what happened when they came home, and what their initial growing days were like! “Tell me the story of when I was born.” they asked. For that story was a critical part of establishing their identity.
Now that my children are adults, I often carry on that storytelling tradition by sending many texts over the course of a few days around their birthday. They start something like, “Twenty-five years ago today….and then describe what I remember was happening.
The gospel writer Matthew, following the delineation of sacred genealogy, begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” He does not begin with a night in the stable. In fact, Matthew skips the stable altogether! And Matthew does not focus the story on the child and his mother. No, in Matthew’s version of Jesus birth narrative, JOSEPH plays the starring role. You see, he has an integral role in God’s plan! And that was a plan that could have easily gone awry.
Marriage worked quite differently for people of Joseph and Mary’s time. First, there was a significant age difference, and the marriage was likely arranged by Mary’s parents. Mary was very likely a young teenager at the time that she said, “May it be so!” to the angel Gabriel. Typically, couples would be betrothed ~ engaged to one another about a year before they actually got married. This betrothal was legally binding, meaning that Joseph had legal rights regarding Mary. And to their community, Joseph and Mary were already considered joined. An angel had appeared to Mary during this betrothal period, before the public ceremony and consummation.
Joseph evidently knew that Mary was pregnant. And he knew that he was not the father of the child. Mary has broken not only the law of the land, but the laws of God. And a righteous man can have nothing to do with that: he must stand on the side of the law, which stated that Mary could have been stoned to death for her crime. So, when we are told that Joseph was trying to figure out how to show kindness to pregnant Mary by dissolving their union privately, it reveals the difficult situation in which Joseph has found himself, and the graciousness of his spirit.
It is then, when Joseph has his mind made up, that God’s angel comes to Joseph in a dream. ~ and that must have been some dream! The angel first must put Joseph’s mind at ease. That angel reveals the truth of the situation ~ Mary’s pregnancy is part of God’s plan. And Joseph’s participation is vital not only for Mary, but for the Messiah as well. For this is the fulfillment of the prophesy of old concerning the long-awaited Messiah ~ Emmanuel, God with us!
It is through Joseph’s willingness to choose and heed the word of God from the angel, that Mary and the vulnerable baby Jesus will be supported, protected, and provided for. And it is through the long family lineage that Joseph brings, that Jesus will be connected to the line of David. In fact, this is the only time that someone besides Jesus is called “Son of David” in the New Testament.
By responding affirmatively to the angel’s command, God is leading Joseph in a different way than what was required by law, or customary in society. Joseph shows mercy, redirects all of his expectations for the future, and he and Mary become models of faithfulness as Joseph plays the silent role of support in the background.
The angel had told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. God’s message to Joseph is: don’t be afraid to do the thing I’m asking you to do, even if it looks like the wrong thing to do. Don’t be afraid of what other people think. Even if your knees shake, stand confidently on my promises before your peers. Trusting God’s judgement is all that matters. Joseph has to be willing to sacrifice some of his pride regarding how others will perceive him if he sticks with Mary – people are going to talk, and few are going to believe the incarnational truth.
Like Joseph, when WE follow what God says, the whole world benefits. God reminds us, through angels of all kinds, “Do Not Be Afraid!” We find true JOY when we trust God enough to put our fears aside. Amen.