Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2022
Matthew 1:18-25 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
Oddly, we close out Advent this year with the birthing story. Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t usually get much attention on Christmas day because it’s rather anti-climactic in comparison to the Luke’s—our tried and true Christmas story. As I discuss in the textual points section below, we don’t even get the actual story of Jesus’ birth from Matthew: Matthew makes Jesus’ birth part of the account of how God enfolded Joseph into the incarnation plan.
But it is this enfolding that makes this an Advent text. Like in other years, when we hear the stories about Mary and Elizabeth saying yes to God, this year we hear about how Joseph said yes, learned a new measure of righteousness, and how his obedience supported another’s calling.
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” to the angel of the Lord. Typically, couples would be betrothed (engaged) to one another for about a year before they actually got married. This betrothal was legally binding, meaning that Joseph had legal rights over/regarding Mary, and to their community, they would already be considered joined. The angel came to Mary during this betrothal period, before the public ceremony and consummation.
So when the text says that Joseph was a righteous man who was trying to figure out how to show kindness to the pregnant Mary by dissolving their union privately, the text is implying that Joseph feels stuck between a rock and a hard spot. Mary, for all intents and purposes, 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.
We don’t actually know what Mary has told Joseph about all this. (But I do LOVE the fact that the she said yes to God without asking Joseph’s permission first.) Matthew lets us, his listeners, know what’s up– that Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit”—without making clear what Joseph knew.
So you can either give Joseph some credit and assume he didn’t know, or you can sympathize with him for having been told an impossible thing was true and that he simply didn’t believe it. In either of those cases, Mary has done wrong, and as a righteous man, Joseph felt that that needed to be addressed.
It is then, when his mind is made up, that the angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him the situation, and reveals to him that he has a role to play alongside Mary. In fact, his participation is vital for not only Mary, but the Messiah as well.
It is through his willingness to choose to heed the word of the Lord from the angel that Mary and the vulnerable baby Jesus will be supported, protected, and provided for. And, it is through the 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. I’d call that an honour, wouldn’t you?
What we see here is what we see throughout the pages of Scriptures. So many of God’s miracles, whether by Yahweh, by Jesus, or by the Holy Spirit, enfold people into each other’s callings. So many of the miracles build a network of community. Elijah and Elisha both encounter and become intertwined with the lives of widows… Those who are healed by miracles can’t shut up about it, telling others in their communities about this amazing man, Jesus… The Holy Spirit moves hearts and minds so that people share their wealth and belongings, open their homes for worshipping communities, support missionaries going out to people unlike themselves… the list can go on, but miracles are not isolated events for individuals. Like most things of God, they are communal entanglements, things that usually make our sense of right and wrong, possible and impossible, messier instead of more clear-cut.
By saying yes, and being willing to accept that the way God was leading him now was different than the way he had been taught to act, Joseph joins Mary as a model of faithfulness. Joseph seems to play a silent role of support in the background—we don’t ever get much about his personal feelings or thoughts beyond this story. But consider what his support, his yes to being part of God’s work provided the world. He wasn’t the center-stage star, but his supporting role was pivotal.
The angel tells Joseph to not be afraid to marry Mary. 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. Joseph has to be willing to sacrifice some of his pride regarding how others will perceive him if it sticks with Mary—people are gonna talk and few are gonna believe the incarnation truth. Joseph has to set that aside, de-center himself, and lift up another’s central place.
I appreciate that Joseph was a man of reflection. The way Matthew tells it, Joseph didn’t jump to any decision about how to pursue what was right, but thought about it. And then, the angel comes and as God’s agent, asks him to do something different. I assume that Joseph also thought carefully about this as well.
I wonder what might happen if we thought about our roles as Josephs more. If we took time more often to reflect on those we are in relationship with, and what God has asked them to do, and how we might support them as we wait for the advent of our King. By doing so, we enter the Kingdom economics of God’s miraculous providence.
Did you notice the repetition of the fact that the Holy Spirit is the source of the child Mary births? Similarly, there isn’t really an account of Jesus’ birth… just that when Joseph awoke, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him”—even the detail about Mary giving birth is couched in a statement more focused on communicating that Mary was a virgin when it happened than on Jesus being born. That’s because, as Donald A. Hagner points out in his commentary, this particular aspect of the narrative is more focused on the significance of the event than the actual event. So it is significant that this child is from the Holy Spirit, and Joseph has a role to play in order to make sure that others understand this significance as well.
There is this meme that starts with “Get yourself a man who looks at you like _____.” Whatever fills in the blank is usually depicted visually as a still photo or screenshot from a movie or TV scene. The implications are always positive: love, happiness, joy, contentment, bliss… and that the person doing the ‘getting’ knows that this is someone who will support them. If there was one for Joseph, it’d probably go like this: “Get yourself a man who looks at you like you have a purpose from the Lord.” The beauty is that we don’t have to ‘get’ our Josephs, God provides them. Sometimes for a season, sometimes for our whole lives. And we are somebody else’s metaphorical Joseph.
When I took my first call, I moved across the continent to the West Coast. My mentor and former internship supervisor came out for my ordination, bearing a nativity gift set from the Bible study group I had led for close to three years. The problem was, it was ceramic, and Joseph was the only figurine who survived the trek. A dozen years later, I’ve come to love the symbolism: for a season, that small group and church was a Joseph to me, allowing me stretch and explore my newfound calling as a minister, affirming and encouraging me. I keep Joseph out all year long as a reminder of God’s provision through others.
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