4th Sunday of Advent

December 22, 2019


Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:“ Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 ESV)

My father wasn’t present at my birth but I was present at my children’s births. The movement from the waiting room to the delivery room for Dads is relatively recent–about the last 50 years or so–but I suspect it is still not a global practice. Universally childbirth is the province of  women and their female relatives and the midwife and it is a social event–rather than a solo endurance run with a medical team –and the place and role of men is changing. Well, not changing too much because they have always been present at the beginning of the pregnancy and it is a problem if they haven’t been present.

In this 4thSunday of Advent –the coming God is very near –the Gospel writer Matthew gives us Jesus and his genealogy–son of David and son of Abraham –the family tree of Joseph and then immediately presents us with the problem Joseph faces –that of giving his lineage, his family tree to a child that is not his own. We’re not talking about the delivery room or the waiting room, we’re talking about the bedroom and Joseph knows he hasn’t been there with Mary.

We don’t know any more details. Did Mary come and speak with him? How did he react if she did? Has grapevine village gossip got to him and he’s found out the truth? Is Matthew recording one day and one night in the life of Joseph or some weeks or months? We also don’t know their relationship. Are they of similar ages? Has it been an arranged marriage in reality or in name only and they are in love? We might surmise that there is a relationship between them –at least he thought so –because he doesn’t act like we know spurned fiancésc an act. Again we don’t know such details from the Bible though Church traditions have their views. But it comes back to the issue of whether Joseph wants to be present at the birth of Mary’s child and he doesn’t. We can imagine many emotions churning but it is fear that is mentioned. Fear of the scandal? Fear of being a fool –a father to a child not his own –fear of a marriage and life together if this is what has happened already? Again we can imagine but be cautious about being definite.

What happens to Joseph? The Word of God comes to him–a message in a dream from an angel of the Lord –and it is direct and clear –don’t be afraid, be married to Mary, she is pregnant but by the Holy Spirit, she is going to have a boy and you (singular –you,Joseph) will name him ‘Jesus’ for he will save their people from their sins. It is this last part that has me stumped as I imagine Joseph trying to think through what it means and how it can be that Jesus will save his people from their sins? This declaration isoutside the norm, outsidethe boundaries set by the Temple and the Pentateuch and the priests and the sacrifices. ‘Who is this kid?’ I imagine Joseph wondering.

And then comes the clincher –the something that makes the dream more than a dream –that grounds this message in truth for Joseph –God’s Word but newly seen. The reference for all this is Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz who was terrified because Syria and the Northern Kingdom, Israel, were teaming up against him in Judah and God told him not to worry and to calm him, Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for any sign that God is going to support him and Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign because he feels that’s putting God to the test. So God says, ‘Well I’ll give you a sign …’ and we get the message of a virgin conceiving and having a son and within a few years the enemies will be no more. Isaiah and probably Ahaz are thinkingthat all young women are virgins until they are not and in such a context a young woman / virgin –wheredo you put the emphasis in the Hebrew is the youngwomanbut in the Greek translation it is virgin?–but it can be naturally understood. But not this night for Joseph! For him, God’s Word which he will have heard before suddenly makes sense in a new way and explains Mary’s situation in a way he wouldn’t have thought possible. And then to top it of there is the name ‘Immanuel’ –God with us –plural! –and God’s Word speaks to Joseph directly and he acts. He and Mary will stay together –husband and wife –and God is with us–and maybe there’s an element here of ‘and with us against the world’.

We see in the birth of Jesus dilemma, problems, fear, pragmatic decisions –it’s called being realistic, the struggle of knowing what to do, and then the intervention of God’s Word. Who really bases their life on a dream –on the experience itself? I don’t remember most of my dreams –and I’m not about to make them or one of them the north star in my life. Of course it is how the message is interpreted and received that makes it significant and for Joseph his dream is as God’s Word, God’s message. The words remake the world he thought he knew to be something new and a different course of action is now required. He can’t prove it is God’s Word to you or me. The world can claim he’s nuts –just as they will make claims about Mary’s version of things. But for them both they are responding to God’s message which have remade their lives and they both are on a new journey –both are behaving differently than they expected when they first got together –because God is with them. For them it is literally.

We hear Immanuel and‘God with us’and probably each of us translatesthat in our heads as ‘God with me’. For us it is also literally but because our senses don’t register Jesus,our experience of God isthrough faith. And this faith draws on what God has given to us –accounts of Jesus, letters about Jesus and discipleship and a revelation from Jesus –and it is these words –and the Jesus’ Scriptures (whichwe call the ‘Old Testament’) that draw us back to God –wherewe discover that he never left us and wants us to live with him.

We, too, have our dilemmas, problems, fears, pragmatic decisions because we are realists in a real world and we struggle what to do. And today, we have another issue, and that is impatience –we want instant fixes in the same way we want the lightswitch to workand the pain killer to be fast. But God has entered time and he usually works at time’s pace –pregnancy,growing up, walking, even dying–they all have their times and today we are called to remember that in all our times, God is with his people. Doing what? Firstly,forgiving their sinsand then helping them live as forgiven people.

Joseph behaved differently towards Mary after he followed God’s Word.

How do we behave differently after receiving forgiveness? After daily returning to our Baptism? After receiving Holy Communion? I don’t know –but we are strengthened, uplifted, set free not to do the same thing again but to do something different –even if small –to break the pattern or cycle of past behaviours in favour of new behaviours. Of course we’re never going to get this right but living is engaging God’s Word into our life –here or there, totally or specifically –because God’s Word speaks to us and our situations.

Advent and Christmas again draw us –remind us –that before we think of the Bible as God’s Word, let us think of the Word made flesh –Jesus –who entered our world at the right time and stayed in time, lived life one day at a time, died for us, and was raised and is here in this time through words, water, bread and wine. Jesus speaks to us so that we may live lives that the world may regard as foolish or strange or weird but for us, where love casts out fear, we will follow Jesus, one day at a time, usingGod’s Word to give us meaning and purpose –and many things to do –in life.

Bible References

  • Matthew 1:18 - 25