December 18, 2016, With Joseph at the Crossroads – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Though the service had to be cancelled because of the ice and treacherous roads, here is the sermon you would have heard:
Friday night, my grandchildren Alan and Katie came over for a movie night, and we watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was a little complicated for them because they hadn’t read the book yet, and so they kept asking a lot of questions about what was happening. I tried to explain things as well as I could, but sometimes the best answer was, “Just keep watching, it will all make sense later.”
It works that way with the prophecies of the Old Testament, too. It wasn’t until the time had unfolded to reveal their meaning, that people could finally understand them fully. That’s why, in his gospel, Matthew often uses this phrase: “This was to fulfill what it says in the Scriptures…” Because it was in the events of Jesus’ life, from birth to death, that we can finally made perfect sense out of the things that had been written long ago by the Old Testament prophets.
About 7 centuries ago, Isaiah had written these words: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’.” And the passage we read today in chapter 1 of Matthew reveals how a Jewish man and a Jewish woman put flesh on those very words, and how Mary and Joseph and their unexpected child made perfect sense of that ancient prophecy at long last.
I think one of the big surprises in the New Testament is that the way we see the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled is not through divine power or proclamation, or by the miraculous deeds of great heroes. That’s how people were expecting the prophecies to be fulfilled. But instead, as we read the story of Jesus’ life, again and again we see that the promises of God were fulfilled through ordinary men and women, and the choices they made in the freedom that God gave them to choose.
This morning we read about Joseph and the hard choice that he had to make. Like most of the people we read about in the Bible, Joseph wasn’t anybody particularly special. In fact, when Jesus grew up and had begun his ministry of teaching and healing, a lot of his old neighbors wouldn’t take him seriously exactly because he was Joseph’s son. “Who do you think you are, anyway? We know you, you’re just the carpenter’s boy.” they said. And they wouldn’t listen to him.
In today’s reading, we first meet Joseph as a poor carpenter from the village of Nazareth. Matthew says he was betrothed to a local girl named Mary, which means they were planning to get married. But betrothal in Jewish culture was not really very much like what we call engagement. It was a much more official thing. There were two stages of betrothal. The first stage had probably happened when Joseph and Mary were still children, and that choice belonged entirely to Joseph’s parents, when they found a nice girl for their son to marry when he came of age. But Joseph and Mary were in the second stage of betrothal. The second stage of betrothal was when the couple made a legally binding contract, officially and publicly, before witnesses.
Once a couple was really betrothed, they were considered to be husband and wife, even thought they wouldn’t have a marriage relationship until after their wedding. But this meant that when Mary was found to be pregnant, it was a much more serious thing than just a teen pregnancy. According to Jewish law, as Joseph’s wife, Mary was an adulteress – or that’s what it looked like. And by the law of Moses, adultery called for the death penalty. A woman guilty of adultery could be put to death by stoning. Remember one time, a group of Jewish elders brought a woman to Jesus for that very purpose. I wonder if he thought of his mother when he put the elders to shame and offered the woman kindness instead of condemnation.
Joseph was a kind man, too, and he wanted above all things to be both righteous and compassionate. It was a terrible decision for him. As a devout Jew, he couldn’t bring himself to marry a woman he thought was guilty of adultery. But as a man of compassion, he felt it would be wrong to expose his wife to public shame and condemnation. In the end, he had decided that the kindest thing he could do, in good conscience, was to write a certificate of divorce that would quietly set them both free from their contract of betrothal.
But then the angel Gabriel came to Joseph, as he had come to Mary four months before, and Joseph was faced with a huge choice – to carry on with the plans he had made, which seemed sensible, and righteous, and as gracious as possible – or to believe the unbelievable and take a leap of faith that would change the course of his life forever. “Don’t be afraid to go ahead and take Mary as your wife,” the angel told him. “What she told you is true – the child was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. It’s a boy, and you are to give him the name Jesus – which means “God saves” – because he will save the people of God from their sins.” That was a lot to take in.
We talk a lot about the choice Mary had to make, and the courage that it took for her to tell the angel, “Let it be to me as you have said.” Mary is a great example of faith for us. But Matthew show us how Joseph’s choice also took a lot of courage. It was a crossroads of faith for him; if he accepted Mary as his wife, he would share her shame and suffer her disgrace in the eyes of their neighbors and friends and family members. There would be no going back once he chose to believe the words of the angel and join himself to Mary.
And we know that he did; he chose to trust God on that day, and he chose to trust God on the long journey to Bethlehem where no decent place could be found to house the family of a poor laborer, and later he chose to trust God in the even longer flight to Egypt when King Herod sent his soldiers out to find and kill the child Joseph had taken as his own. His life was changed forever by that one choice – to believe Gabriel’s message, and to act on it.
700 years before Joseph lived, Isaiah had spoken God’s word, “Behold, the virgin will be with child, and will bear a son. And he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” But it wasn’t until the angel stood before Joseph on that day, saying, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” – not until then did the words of Isaiah make perfect sense. Finally, as Matthew wrote, the words were fulfilled, the meaning unfolded for all to see – if they choose to receive them, in faith, with the courage of Joseph.
It seems to me that I have heard an awful lot of people this year – more than usual – talk about how Christmas is really for children. We remember the “magic” of being little kids at Christmastime, and all the carefree happiness of childhood and all that stuff, and sometimes it feels like it’s not for us anymore. We just feel weary of the chaos, weary of the expectations, weary of the expense. Also, the longer we live, the more the joy of the holiday becomes mixed with the sorrows we have experienced – the loss of people we love, or the betrayal of those who failed to love us. It seems pretty reasonable to give Christmas up as a bad job and leave it to the young people who haven’t lived through all the pain that life deals out to us older people.
But the truth is that Christmas – and by that I don’t mean all the trappings and traditions, gifts and cards and decorations and trees and wreaths and things like that; you can take those or leave ’em, really, those aren’t of any real importance – but the simple remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ – Christmas is just exactly for those of us who have known suffering and loss and pain. Because in the face of our all-too-grown-up sadness and weariness and discouragement the birth of the child meets us at a crossroads of faith just like it did for Joseph:
It sets us free to choose faith instead of fear,
trust instead of condemnation,
hope instead of despair.
In the unfolding of time, the message of Christmas has been revealed, and it is this: that God loves us, loves you, loves me, loves our enemies, whoever they might be – so much that he made the choice that changed the world forever, the choice to be Emmanuel, “God with us”, in all our sorrow and all our pain and all our weakness and temptations, and even in our death. It’s not kids’ stuff. It is the stuff of life for us, no matter how old or how young we are.