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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

We are all used to Luke’s dramatic version of the Christmas story. We have a dramatic opening scene where an angel meets and greets Mary. Mary questions the angel, who declares that all things, even virgin birth, are possible for God. And we have Mary’s yes to God’s request, yes to fulfilling God’s promise by bearing the promised Messiah, the one who will save his people from their sins. Then we have Mary’s no less dramatic visit to Elizabeth, who recognizes Mary and greets her along with her unborn baby, who leaps in her womb. And Mary sings the Magnificat, a poem full of power about God’s dramatic reversal of the situation on earth in God’s new world. God will lift up the lowly and cast down the powerful and mighty. Finally we have the birth story itself. Though it is in a stable, it attracts the attention of angels, shepherds, townspeople, all with their messages of glory and awe at this wonderful birth. Dramatic scenes indeed, with sparks of God’s light flying everywhere. 

But Matthew’s version is different. The story is really spare. It is told in a matter of fact way with little mention of Mary and her wondrous experiences, and barely a verse given to the birth. The story is about Joseph and his side of this God-promised birth. But on looking again, is it really all that different? There are no fireworks, but God is present throughout the whole story. The Holy Spirit acts mightily to create the conditions necessary for Jesus’ birth.

 Joseph first revelation is not an angel bearing good news for Mary and the world, but the unwelcome new that Mary, who is engaged to him, is pregnant. Joseph had worked out a betrothal with Mary’s family, which was tantamount to a marriage. She was a virgin and considered a good girl from a good Jewish family. Mary was supposed to be righteous and meek. Now here she is, pregnant, having gone off the rails and had sex with another man.

Joseph had little choice. A betrothal, like a marriage, could only be severed by a divorce, if the husband did not decide to have the fiancée stoned to death. Joseph was a righteous man, but not a rigid one. He wanted to do the right thing, but he really regretted that he had to. He did not want to put Mary to the embarrassment of a public display, so he decided he would divorce her quietly.

After he had made his decision, Joseph went to sleep and the Holy Spirit went to work. He sent an angel to give Joseph some good news. First, he wanted to relive Joseph’s mind about Mary’s pregnancy. She had not been promiscuous, the angel said, but rather was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. We do not get a reaction from Joseph because he is sleeping, but when he awoke he must have been in awe that God had come Godself to bring about Mary’s pregnancy. We could get distracted by all sorts of questions like Mary – and we – have about how conception was possible, but we won’t. How Jesus was fully human and fully divine is not Matthew’s point. It is the why of the thing (Charles M. Wood). 

Then the Holy Spirit concerns itself with how Jesus, who will be the Messiah, is part of David’s line, since Joseph is not the father of the child. The angel tells Joseph to go ahead and marry Mary, so that he will legally be the child’s father, being Mary’s husband. He will be part of the house of David by adoption rather than by nature. The angel also gives Joseph naming rights, which belong to the father.

The crux of the matter is Jesus’ identity. Joseph is to name the baby Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Jesus is the Greek version of Joshua which means “one who saves”. Jesus will be the Messiah, but a different kind than the world expects, saving people spiritually, rather than physically from Roman domination. 

To underline who Jesus would be for the Jewish people, the angel uses a passage from Isaiah to say that this Messiah would be called Emmanuel, God with us. This child would be the very presence of God with the people, a wondrous, loving, caring way to show God’s people how much God loves us. God in the flesh, coming to be with humanity and experience all they experience. 

Finally, the Holy Spirit works on Joseph while he sleeps to imprint all this information in Joseph’s mind, so that on waking, Joseph will trust the will of God and will follow it. And he does. He marries Mary and he names the child Jesus. 

There are some questions for us to answer in this story. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to save God’s people, and all the nations for that matter. But do we need a savior in this day and age (Daniel Harris). Do you need a personal savior to save you from your sins or can you get along fine all by yourself. Are you pretty much in control of your life and happy with what it offers you, or do you have vulnerable spots that could use some help from someone more powerful than you are? Do you need daily forgiveness for the things you have done and left undone that are against God’s will or do you think you are a pretty moral person and probably do not need forgiveness all that much. God made good on God’s promise of a Messiah who showed how much he loved us by dying on the cross to be faithful to God’s will. Do we need that Jesus today? It is something worth thinking about. Do we need Emmanuel, “God with us”?

Can we follow and obey based on subtle signs God provides for us? Dreams are one way of letting us know what God wants for us, and the Bible has many characters who have God-inspired dreams, such as Jacob’s vision of the ladder. Do we put ourselves in a place where we can listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to us? Do we spend time in prayer and meditation or in journaling? We’re all very busy and sometimes we don’t think we have the time or the energy to do that, but we don’t get the subtle signs from God unless we do. Perhaps you feel God in nature. God knows who you are and how you are and God will approach you in the ways you are most likely to hear and understand. A walk on the beach, a hike through the woods, a stroll through the park, can all provide opportunities for you to have quiet time when you are open to God. God wants to communicate with us, just as the Holy Spirit wanted to put Joseph in a position to be obedient. Can we listen?

Are we ready to be part of the new creation? Joseph and Mary both assented to God and what God wanted for them and for all the people and became the human family for Jesus. What are we willing to do to bring Jesus into the world? Do we even think about our lives like that? Do we ask ourselves how we can bring Jesus into the world each and every day, in our close relationships, at work, in our service to others?

The Holy Spirit is prompting us, as it prompted Joseph. The Spirit is hoping to overcome our objections and fears about doing God’s work and make us ready and willing to be the bearers of the savior to those who want one. Joseph’s story may not be as flamboyant as Mary’s but it is one of faith and hope, just as hers was. Faith and hope work wonders with the Spirit’s help and all we have to do to get it is to ask.


     -- Rev. Ann Barker 

Works Cited:

Charles M. Wood, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 94
Daniel Harris, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, Homiletical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2010), 93