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Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25

One liability of having heard the Christmas story over and over again is that we know how it turns out. There is no way to recapture the initial shock of the news: that God is coming in the flesh to show us what real life looks like. Waiting is not a skill that comes naturally, and so the impulse to ignore Advent is a strong one. By this the fourth Sunday of Advent it is almost irresistible. Many congregations open the floodgates, break out the Christmas carols, and rename it “Christmas Sunday.” However, this gospel text from Matthew takes a different path and directs us to Joseph.

Joseph was a man of true faith. According to his ancestry, Joseph carried the bloodline of the royal family of David, the family that received God’s promise to restore the fortunes of Judah. We know that Joseph’s descendants could have qualified as persons who could carry out God’s work of salvation, just like Joseph was qualified. But Joseph was not yet married, and his fiancée had gotten pregnant without Joseph’s approval or assistance.

A plane hit a patch of severe turbulence and the passengers were holding on tight as it rocked and reeled through the night. A little old lady turned to the minister who was sitting behind her and said, “You’re a man of God. Can’t you do something about this?” He replied, “Sorry, I can’t. I’m in sales, not management.” Don’t you know that is how Joseph felt…wanting to do something but limited by his own humanity.

Even today, some folks struggle with the idea of being in a relationship with a woman who is carrying someone else’ baby. Imagine how scandalous it was back then. Joseph could lie about the baby’s father and marry Mary quickly and quietly, but he would always bear the wound of knowing that his firstborn child was a result of Mary’s unfaithfulness to him. He would have to bear that disgrace until the day he died.

There are three steps in a Jewish marriage. First, the two families agreed to the union. Second, a public announcement was made. At this point, the couple was “pledged.” This was similar to engagement today, except that their relationship could be broken only through death or divorce – even though sexual relations were not yet permitted. Third, the couple was married and began living together. Because Mary and Joseph were engaged, Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness carried a severe social stigma.

Then, on the other hand, Joseph could protect his reputation by exposing Mary to public condemnation and allow her to bear the scar of shame for the rest of her life, unless she was publicly stoned to death first. But Joseph is a righteous man. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t shame publicly the woman he has vowed to marry. Joseph keeps thinking about his decision until he figures out the right thing for everyone. He could let her go quietly to have her child somewhere away from her hometown where she would be safe from the gossip and scorn of neighbors. Back and forth he goes in his mind. You can imagine a long sheet of paper with the pros and cons spelled out. Finally, he decides that the right thing to do is to privately dissolve their relationship.

So, now he is ready to get some rest and goes off to bed. But God has another idea. During his sleep, he dreamed that an angel stood before him and addressed him saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Whoa! What a dream! It is like the angel knew everything he had been wrestling with. The messenger knew he was a descendant of David, so he knew about the whole bloodline issue. The angel knew about his betrothal to Mary and the option of getting married immediately. The most startling news was that Mary wasn’t bearing an “illegitimate” child. Mary was bearing a son who would save God’s people from their sins. The child was a holy gift of God, rather than a source of humiliation and disgrace. Mary’s child was quite “legitimate” after all.

As the story goes, Joseph woke up, immediately obeyed the angel in his dream and married Mary. He refused to consummate the marriage until after the child was born. The faith of Joseph is amazing. He does not hesitate or doubt that he is doing the right thing. He acts on unquestioning faith. Once he realizes that the child is a gift of God, he musters a character that is purer than his ancestor David. He defends and protects Mary, his wife, as she embodies the sign of God’s promise as spoken through Isaiah. He assists in the birth of hope for the salvation of the world. He is truly a righteous man of God.

Once Mary gives birth to a son, Joseph names him Jesus, the Lord saves. This is a moment of deep faith for a man like Joseph. By naming Jesus, Joseph commissions him for the mission God intends for him. Joseph believes the sign of God’s promise as deeply as he cares for the infant in his arms.

What an interesting and delightful story! The Son of God, Immanuel, God with us, is born in an extraordinary way. His mother is an unlikely young woman, not yet married, whose innocence is protected and preserved until the birth of this holy child. He is holy because his mother is holy. His real father is the Spirit of God that brought him into being. He is holy because he is the child of God. His bloodline is traced back to the greatest king in the nation’s memory because a righteous man, Joseph, adopted him as his own son and made him an heir in the family. The promise of God is fulfilled, not in customary or conventional means, but in unlikely and wonderful ways. Jesus comes to life because Joseph risked responding in faith instead of reacting in fear.

So the question remains for us each year, “How do we respond in faith?” The truth is that our world gets messy and difficult, full of heartache and disenchantment, not because we’ve created all this chaos for ourselves but because we responded to God’s calling on our lives. All of a sudden, we are faced with the most difficult choices of our lives. In light of the story, it is helpful to think about ways that the faithful thing to do and the faithful way to be are sometimes at odds with society. This is a difficult truth to learn. Joseph did not violate convention to be politically rebellious or even to know his own goodness. He violated convention and remained faithful to Mary because God, as God often does, intervened in an unexpected way. God sent an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream. The angel basically said, “I know this is not what you expected, Joseph, but it is going to be okay. God is about to do something wonderful, despite the fact that according to Jewish custom and law you are in a rather socially unacceptable situation.”

The message this text brings – that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work. Amid all our less-than-picture-perfect Christmases, the Christmas trees that have a big hole in the back that need to go against the wall, the presents that were wrapped by the end of the role, maybe just a bit shy of covering the end of the box, our lives that are far from perfect, God does something new.

Somehow Joseph has to trust this strange news, somehow Joseph has to trust his dream: that this child is from the Holy Spirit; that he already has a name, Jesus; and that he will save people from their sins. What does it mean to us to be saved from sins by an infant lying in a manger. Often, we think too much, get caught up in later debates about exactly how Jesus pulls it off. That is for another time.

What begins here – what God announces – is a human being who will somehow show us a different way to be. Show us a different way to be – to save us. We can be saved from a lot of situations in a variety of ways – saved from doing something or from becoming someone we might regret. How many times has the wisdom or love of another shaped your actions - shaped who you have become?

The news catches Joseph off guard. He had a plan and was totally unaware of the journey that is to take place – the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from the temple to the cross to the empty tomb. If Joseph were told the whole story, the news might overwhelm him even more than the news he received. So many times, God opens a door for us, or gives us a vision, beckoning us to trust and follow.

Think of those times in your life when God called you to something strange and unexpected and you just went. Those are the small steps God calls us to. As Mary and Joseph journeyed to the first Christmas, they did not know where God would take them; all they knew was that something wonderful had been promised and that they were beckoned to follow. So, too, we are called to rise and follow God’s call, not knowing where the journey will take us, or the path that God has set before us.

Things don’t happen until it’s time for them to happen. The Bible has a poetic way of putting it: Things happen in the fullness of time. Time ripens history. Joseph had a plan. God had a plan. Within minutes, Joseph experienced a change of heart. Things can’t happen in life until their time, and they sometimes won’t happen unless we cooperate. These last days of Advent are a time to prepare our hearts, to open the doors of our lives to Joseph’s faith. And we will be amazed at its appearing. Amen.

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