By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, December 25, 2022
Reading: Matthew 1:18-25
The Christmas story as we usually hear it at this time of year – the one we showed last night in our wonderful pageant, with Mary and Joseph, and the angels and shepherds and Magi – knits together two different birth stories from Matthew’s and Luke’s biography of Jesus. Stories of Jesus’ birth are not to be found in the gospels of Mark and John, but are included by Matthew and Luke to help us have a sense of who Jesus is by focusing on his family background and helping us to see that even before he was born, Jesus’ existence was not just an ordinary existence – and this definitely corresponds to the beginning of the gospel of John, which refers to Jesus as “the Word” of God, and places Him right at the very beginning of time, as co-creator of the universe.
According to Luke and Matthew there was something so extraordinary about Jesus that even the angels of heaven were moved to sing, which juxtaposes against his lowly birth in a smelly old barn, to a poor, young, unmarried couple.
Luke’s version of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus focus on Mary and literally sing her praises: the visitation by the angel and her interaction with him; Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, who is carrying Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist; the rough trip to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, and the birth in the stable, with the visiting shepherds and angels. Every once in a while, in the gospel of Luke somebody bursts into song like an Andrew Lloyd Webber production.
But in all the song and dance, the one person who is barely mentioned at all is poor Joseph.
In today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, we get a little glimpse of what these events may have been like for Jesus’ earthly father, as Joseph is the one who takes centre stage in this version of events.
A humble, working-class carpenter, Joseph’s family had arranged a suitable bride for him according to tradition. Young Mary was likely the daughter of a humble, working-class family, a simple but faithful girl, well-trained in the responsibilities of being a woman and a godly wife; and Joseph would be a good husband.
Their engagement would have been a very normal one among the popular classes of society: they would be promised to each other by their families – betrothed, which meant that they were legally already husband and wife – bound to each other in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God. although they wouldn’t begin to live as such until there was a formal wedding complete with a wedding banquet as lavish as their families could possibly afford.
Theirs would have been a normal engagement; normal, that is, until Mary came to Joseph to tell him she was pregnant; and, well, they both knew it wasn’t his child.
Because they were already legally husband and wife when Mary told Joseph that she was pregnant he would not be able to simply break off the engagement the way we might nowadays; he would actually need to file for a legal divorce, which would have been granted without question in a situation like this. The only dilemma was whether to lay onto her and her family the shame she had brought on him and his family, through a public trial announcing the injustice that had been inflicted on him, which he had every legal and social right to do.
The alternative was to show compassion by divorcing her quietly and without scandal.
Because honour was such a matter of high importance in this culture, the public shaming – including the public punishment – was usually the more appealing and expected way to go. It would be important to most families to show the world that they were too dignified and pious to allow some young woman like Mary to bring shame onto their family.
But, we read, because Joseph was a man of compassion and righteousness, he chose to forego his right to vengeance; instead, he chose to divorce her quietly, without causing her any more shame than she was already expecting. He forewent his right to vengeance, which is fine; but even an honest, compassionate man was still entitled to justice, right? He was still entitled to divorce her and find a more suitable bride.
This would already have been a nice story – a happy ending even – if it had ended at verse 19, with the words, “Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Mary made a grave mistake, and Joseph showed her grace and compassion. And that would have been the last anyone ever heard of ordinary Joseph, good and righteous man that he may be.
But then the angel of the Lord came to Joseph and told him that even an act of justice instead of vengeance is not quite what the Lord requires of him: Joseph is to actually fulfill the betrothal commitment and take Mary to be his wife – the same Mary who, in the eyes of an unbelieving world had committed a most dishonourable thing. This was even more than could be expected of a good and righteous man. This called for complete and total humility (although in the eyes of the world it would be more like humiliation). Many in his town would think that because he wasn’t divorcing her, he too had committed a shameful act. He would be ridiculed, scorned, and criticized by everyone.
Often humility feels to us more like humiliation, shame. When harm is done to us, we want to speak up about it: we want everyone to know that we were the recipient of an injustice; we want people to commiserate with us; we want restitution; we want justice; we want the other person’s error or shortcoming made known. If we just let things go, people might think we have no dignity; that we’re not worthy of any better.
Sometimes, God asks us to humble ourselves, like He did with Joseph, and set aside our own rights, so that God’s grace may be made known to others through us. Sometimes we are called to set aside our own personal interests, for the greater good. Sometimes, we may not even understand why. I’m sure that when Joseph obeyed God and took Mary to be his wife, he had no idea of the future greatness that was in store for this baby boy who would at that time be called “illegitimate” or worse.
But, as the Apostle Paul says, God’s strength is shown all the more in our weakness. God’s grace shines more brightly when we show humility. The message of Christmas is that it is God who was the first one to humble himself – and humble himself so completely – by choosing to put on feeble humanity, despite his omnipotent divinity. It’s like someone has a beautiful Christian Dior gown hanging in her closet; but when she heads out to the ball, she instead chooses to put on something she picked up at the Thrift Store.
Whenever we set aside our own personal glory, God’s glory shines through us, and when that happens, we are the ones who are the most blessed of all.
When we celebrate Christmas, we often think that Mary was the blessed one, for being chosen to give birth to the Messiah. In some ways hers was a passive trust; she was receptive, hospitable to God’s actions, and was blessed for it. To this day she even gets all the Christmas carols! Nobody writes carols about Joseph! But Joseph was just as blessed as she was, and his role in this morning’s Bible story shows us that the human response of active trust in God’s great acts also brings great blessings.
Joseph was given the awesome responsibility and privilege of being the earthly caregiver and educator of God’s very own son. When you hire a babysitter for a child, someone who is going to watch over them for a couple of hours, you want to find the best person you can, right? You don’t want to leave your child with just anyone. So, who is good enough to look after God’s son? When God went looking for someone to raise His child to assume His divine mission, He wanted to find the best. And we see in this text that the best is not someone with wealth and power or even great learning, or a fine home; rather, the person God trusts with this important task is an “ordinary Joe” someone with a humble and obedient heart, in tune with God, and inclined to His will.
In ancient Jewish culture, the role of the father was even more important in many ways than the role of the mother, so the choice of Joseph to father God’s son tells us something very important about what qualities God considers important. He is going to give important missions and tasks to a person who is willing to trust Him and obey His will.
In one little Christmas story I read – fictional of course, but historically accurate in some ways - Mary and Joseph are conversing, and Mary puts it this way: “In many ways, he will be more your son than mine...A father is so important in Israel. A son needs his father to teach him the ways of the world, and of God and the Law. Once I have borne and suckled this child, my task will be largely finished. But yours, Joseph, yours will be only beginning.”
God needed a man he could trust to teach Jesus the ways of God, beginning with the very self-sacrificial love that Joseph modelled in his marriage to Mary: self-sacrificial love would become the very core of Jesus’ own divine mission, and the mission of Jesus’ followers. The fact that Joseph was able to humble himself enabled him to be the recipient of God’s special blessing and honour.
It is impossible to know the great blessings that God has in store for each one of us, unless we are willing to humble ourselves and trust in Him when everything inside us is screaming to have things the way we want them. When we choose to set aside our own personal interests and even sometimes our perceived “rights” then we open ourselves up to receive what God wants to give us – free of charge, without having to work for it!
If Joseph had settled for the justice he was entitled to, his story would have been over at verse 19. Because he listened to God, even to the point of humbling himself, he received the privilege and honour of nurturing the very son of Almighty God. Who knows what great blessing God has in mind for your life if you open yourself up to his holy and perfect will. Amen.