A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
In the gospel lesson this morning we are given a rare gift – a glimpse inside the thoughts and intentions of Joseph, Mary’s husband. From what we can tell from the text, Joseph was a law-abiding citizen, willing to follow the customs and directions of both the religious and civil authorities. But the text tells us specifically that Joseph was a righteous man.
What would a righteous man do when he discovered that the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant with another man’s child? Joseph refuses to disgrace Mary, no matter what she has done. In this way he proves himself both a loyal husband and a worthy father before the child is even born.
If you were to open a Bible and look at the 17 verses in Matthew that precede this, you would discover a list, a list of the ancestors of Joseph, all the way back to Abraham. Joseph bears a great lineage, not only is he a son of Abraham, he is also a son of David. Jewish men knew their pedigree. It was a source of pride and of connection to their tribe and to the nation as a whole.
But the writer of Matthew doesn’t let this exercise in genealogy and pedigrees get in the way of the story of the birth of the Messiah. After all of this preparation, listing generation after generation of men, and even two women (Rahab and Ruth), the gospel writer throws in a sudden surprised. The messiah is begotten, not by Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit.
Some of the prophecies of the Messiah suggested that he would come through the line of David – a branch will come forth from the root of Jesse. It would be from Bethlehem, the city of David that great things would come.
And now here, a righteous man, a descendent of David, is faced with a difficult decision. An angel appears to him to allay his fears. Angels only ever appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures at points when God was very close to the men and women of those stories, and these were usually turning points for everyone.
Joseph is participating in God’s plan for the world, just as so many of his ancestors before him. Is this what prepared him for this moment – the story of the lives of his ancestors? Might he have asked himself, “What would David do?” Joseph’s heritage was considerable. Perhaps it served as inspiration for his decision making, indeed his destiny.
An angel appears to Joseph and not only seeks to calm his fears but also to prophesy about this child. This is no ordinary child. Indeed this extraordinary lineage is only the beginning of the story.
This child will be called Jesus – the same root as the name for Joshua, meaning “Yahweh is Salvation.” Again, God has come to the need of the children of Israel, including all those names in the genealogy. God has broken in by means of the Holy Spirit, the same spirit that brooded over the deep at creation. It is the same spirit that breathed life into the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision. God’s spirit is blowing again.
Joseph, himself a man of considerable pedigree, a worthy man indeed, is called upon to protect Mary and this child – this child who is also called Emmanuel, God with us. Not only will this child save, but this child also represents something new – God has come among us.
This is the beautiful beginning of a long story, a story that stretches out before us this morning. We will see this child grow into a man, a man of God who does great things. We will hear of his miracles and listen to his teachings. The writer of Matthew is carefully connecting the Messiah to the strongest branch of the tribes of Israel. This Jesus would not be just any child, but a child born of the best pedigree. Don’t forget this heritage as the story of Jesus as told by Matthew unfolds before us in the weeks and months to come.
But this morning we celebrate this other righteous man, this Joseph, son of Abraham, son of David. May the courage and the example of righteous Joseph change our hearts this morning. May we like Joseph listen for the voice of God even in the midst of great anxiety and doubt. May we like Joseph choose to do the right thing, no matter what the cost may be of public scandal and ridicule. Joseph shares in a great heritage, but none greater than his heritage as a son of God who listens and obeys. Amen.