Advent 4

… 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 …

TEXTS:  Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25

Advent is a season of expectation. So far, our Advent gospel lessons have focused on Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus, telling us the Son of Man will come when we least expect it. John telling us the expected Messiah has come. And then, John, in prison, disappointed because his own expectations of Jesus have not been fulfilled.

Today, finally, we hear something like a Christmas story! But it’s kind of low-key. There’s no thundering angelic choir. No guiding star. There’s just one man … and a dream. Today, we hear about Joseph.

Yes. Ordinary, quiet, faithful Joseph. Shortly before we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, the mystery of God coming to us as a child, we hear about this man, who … Well, this man who very quickly disappears from the gospel narrative.

He is mentioned in the second chapter of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke … And then he just sort of fades away.

But that seems to be his lot. In Christmas pageants, Mary has the starring role. While we’ve all probably heard plenty of stories about little girls who felt slighted because they did not get to play Mary in the Christmas pageant, we rarely hear about little boys who were upset because they did not get to play Joseph.

No. If you are a little boy, you want to be one of the three kings—or, if not a king, at least a shepherd.  That way, you can wear a bathrobe in church—with your dad’s necktie wrapped around your head!

When you think of Christmas pageants, the images that come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, of the three kings bearing gifts, of shepherds and angels … maybe even oxen and sheep.

Poor Joseph! He almost seems like an afterthought.

If Mary was the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the revelation that Mary was pregnant was—at first—anything but good news. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not possibly be his. As the gospel tells us, “Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, [but] before they came together, she was found to be with child …”

In those days, there were two steps leading to marriage. The first was betrothal. This was a legally binding arrangement that lasted for one year before the couple actually married and started living together. If anything happened during the betrothal to dissolve the relationship, it was legally the same as getting a divorce.

Mary and Joseph were in this first stage—legally bound to one another, awaiting the day of their marriage. So when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, it was not good news. It was very bad news.

Joseph must have felt hurt—and betrayed. He must have been humiliated, disappointed … and angry! At least, that’s what you would expect. The woman to whom he was engaged was pregnant—and not by him. What more was there to say?

However, Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. That meant he loved God. It meant he tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man would try to follow the commands of God. So, when Joseph got the news about Mary, he turned to God’s law for guidance.

According to the law, he had two options. His first option was to bring charges against Mary in public, accusing her of the sin of adultery. According to the law, the penalty for adultery was … death.

His second option was to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, Joseph could draw up a paper of divorce and present it to her. In that case, there would be no public charges against her—and no penalty.

Mary would eventually be exposed to public disgrace, as people found out that she was pregnant and unwed, but at least she would be spared capital punishment.

Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. As much as he might have loved Mary, he could not disregard the law. Still—as Joseph certainly would have known—God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. So, he resolved to dismiss Mary quietly.

However, at this point in the story, something extraordinary happens. This simple, righteous man has a dream. And in this dream an angel of the Lord says: “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.”

Wow! That was some dream. I’ve never dreamed about an angelic visitor, have you?

I’m not sure what I would do if I had a dream like that. But we know what Joseph did. When he awoke from his dream, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. Period. No questions asked.

Does that seem remarkable? It is! And it points out something about Joseph’s character. Here was a man who had spent his entire life trying to do what God had commanded. Out of a lifetime of devotion to God—and to the law of God—Joseph recognized a message from the Lord when he heard it. He needed no further explanation.

Young Mary, when told she was about to give birth to the Messiah, quite naturally asked, “How can this be?” Joseph, though … well, he was older. A lifetime of devotion to God—and to God’s law—had had an effect upon Joseph. He was tuned in to God’s channel.

Joseph would surely have known the passage from Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel—which means ‘God with us.’”

And so, when Joseph awoke, he did exactly what the angel of the Lord had told him to do. He took Mary as his wife, and they named their child Jesus.

Here is the wonder of this story. Through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was able to something extraordinary. The good news that God is sending his Son to be born of a virgin, to be the Saviour and Redeemer of the world … this amazing news is worked out in the faith and obedience of a humble man like Joseph.

The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and—unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance, saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”—Joseph says … well … nothing! Apparently, Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter. He was a practical man.

Yes. A down-to-earth, practical man. And also—though he didn’t make a big deal about it—he was a faithful man. He listened for God’s word, and he tried to obey it.

And when God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He took Mary as his wife. He got her to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. Through Joseph and his no-nonsense, faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world.

This is amazing, isn’t it? When God came among us, he chose to take on the flesh and blood of an ordinary human baby, born to very ordinary people. Born not in a mansion or a palace—but in a barn, for goodness sake! Who would have expected that?

And yet … that seems to be the way our God works. Unexpectedly. Through a stuttering fugitive who led his people out of slavery. Through a shepherd boy whose own father did not believe he was kingly material. Through rough, unsophisticated fishermen. Through a hated tax collector, and a tentmaker from Tarsus, and the son of a Nazarene carpenter. And—finally—through ordinary, unremarkable people like you and me.

Throughout Advent, we are called to prepare the way of the Lord by preparing our own very human hearts. We are called to be vigilant, because we do not know the day or the hour when our Lord may return. We are called to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, doing good to others and loving our neighbours as ourselves. We are called, even in our moments of doubt and fear, to look for evidence of the risen Christ at work in the world—and then to bear witness to what we have seen, and what we have heard. We are called to practice—daily—a discipline of regular contact with God, through prayer and the study of his Word.

If we answer that call, we will grow into the kind of faith that Joseph had—faith that is not only strong, but also discerning, and courageous, and wise.

May it be so for us—whether we hear from an angel, or not.

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