December 22, 2019, The Plot Revealed, Matthew 1:18-25 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000170
Ages and ages ago, when I was in school, my best friend was named Cindy. Sometimes we would go to a movie together. And Cindy was one of those people who ask a lot of questions during movies. Sometimes it was possible to answer the questions right then, but most often, the best answer was, “Just keep watching, it will all make sense later.”
It turns out, 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 says over and over: “This was to fulfill what it says in the Scriptures…” Because in the events of Jesus’ life, from his birth to his death, we can finally understand so many of the things that were written by prophets and priests and kings years and years ago.
Isaiah the prophet had spoken these words to King Ahaz of Judah in the 8th century BC, when the kings of Israel and Syria were gathering their forces together against him: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’.” Isaiah’s words had meaning in that moment for Ahaz, but the world had to wait another 750 years for the full meaning of that ancient prophecy to be revealed, when God put flesh on his promise, in the body of a young Jewish woman in a little backwater village called Nazareth.
I think one of the big surprises in the Bible is the way we see God’s prophecies fulfilled – not through divine power or heavenly proclamation, not by the deeds of impressive heroes – that’s how people always expected the prophecies to be fulfilled. But instead, as we see the prophecies unfolding in the gospel stories, again and again we see the promises of God fulfilled through ordinary men and women. And even more surprising – kind of shocking, if you think about it – we see God’s perfect promises fulfilled through the choices those ordinary men and women made in the freedom that God gave them to choose.
This morning we read about Joseph and a 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 that carpenter’s boy.” they said.
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 exactly 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 the marriage wasn’t fully recognized until it had been consummated. 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. If you remember, there was a time during Jesus’ ministry when a group of Jewish elders brought a woman to him for that very purpose. I wonder if he thought of his mother when he put those 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, faithful to the Law, 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, after wrestling with his conscience, he had decided that the best he could do was to write a certificate of divorce that would quietly set Mary free from their contract of betrothal.
But then the angel Gabriel came to Joseph, as he had come to Mary four months before, but this time in a dream – and Joseph was faced with a huge choice – he could carry on with the plans he had made, which seemed sensible, and righteous, and as gracious as possible – or he could 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. He would suffer her disgrace in the eyes of their neighbors and friends and family members. There was 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.
750 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.
I hear a lot of people 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 it’s easy to feel like it’s not really 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 lights and wreaths; you can take all those things or leave ’em, really, none of those things are particularly important – 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 Christ Child meets us at our crossroads of faith just as it did for Joseph:
He sets us free to choose faith instead of fear.
He sets us free to choose trust instead of condemnation.
He sets us free to choose hope instead of despair.
In the unfolding of time, the message of God’s salvation has been fully revealed, and it is this: that God loves us, loves you, loves me, loves our enemies, whoever they might be – that he loves the world so much that he made the choice that changed the world forever. It’s not kids’ stuff. It is the stuff of life for us, no matter how old or how young we are. Through the birth of a little child, God made the choice to be Emmanuel, “God with us”.