THE GOSPEL reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent we find written early in the “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”. After the genealogical exactness recounted by the infant Christian community, we read of a grace-filled gift to the world:
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 of 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 this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of 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 fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Put Her Away…
According to Hebraic Law, human traditions, and common sense… any man who found his betrothed pregnant by another is entitled to have second thoughts. There is no doubt that Joseph, as a stated descendant from the line of King David… had the right to think twice about Mary. Different from many cultures we have today, marriage in those days was a matter of contract between a woman’s family and her male suitor. Betrothal was in fact marriage… but a year was to be waited by the couple to confirm the contract… to ensure that the young woman was a virgin. In Joseph’s particularity, it was in this last requirement that he found himself faced with an unwanted dilemma.
Thus it was in this dilemma concerning the story of Jesus birth. As found both in Matthew and Luke, the gospels relate about forgiving grace. They described blessings given in the face of paradox. This text, which was added to the basic framework of Mark’s gospel, reveals human and divine drama caused by the prophetic, mighty works of God.
As we read, two things unfolded in rapid succession. First, Mary was found to be pregnant. The situation was problematic to be sure, but especially so for a family that lived in a small community. Quick decisions had to be made. Joseph was considered a “just” man by those around him. As told by the early Matthean church located in Syria, under the law and being just, as the new husband he could have rightly put Mary away. She could be put away… shunned by her family and community. In fact, in the worst case, the travesty could be punished by stoning her to death according to the Law…
"If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall purge the evil from Israel.
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.” (Deuteronomy 22:22-24)
You see, Joseph could have taken the easy, prideful way of stoning the woman. He could have saved face in the community. Mary’s pregnancy effectively robbed both her family of the contractual agreement and attending status, and Joseph of his rightful property. All this could be communally recognized by lawful punishment.
However, though stoning would have maintained Joseph as a “just” man contractually injured, he could also choose to be quietly merciful. A hard decision was required. In the throes of wrestling with the offense, Joseph thought to simply rescind the promise of marriage. He could decide to leave her family deal alone with the shame and contract fracture, caused by the apparent infidelity of Mary.
Considering this latter path, within the far more lenient course is where we find Joseph presented in the reading. A just man, but also a gentle man… he simply chose to obtain quiet divorce from the contract without shaming her.
Have Faith in Faith?
In scriptural witness, therefore, Joseph was likely quite resolved as he lay on his bed so long ago. But, as a gentle man… a just and quiet man, he certainly tossed in his sleep with concern over his plans. Though today we know little about him, we can almost feel his emotional witness concerning faith and love. I firmly believe he tossed and turned, for as we read in scripture…
The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:28-29)
Joseph dreamed fitfully that night, and within that dream an angel spoke to him. Now this was not a hallucinogenic phantasm talking to a demented individual after a bad meal of chipotle. Nor was this a feverish dream of a deranged, religious man. This was more a word given by God to a “just” and gentle man. Like Jacob of old, this man Joseph wrestled with God and could not let go. Thus a dream was cast upon him by an angelic messenger sent by God.
However, we might rightly ask ourselves, “The next morning how could Joseph tell it was little more than a nightmare?” As students of scripture, we recognize that whenever we wonder whether dreams are of God, we need remember to reflect them over against scripture. We must ask ourselves and other authorities a very important question, “Does this ring true with the unchanging and merciful Law and Gospel… expressed within the Word of God?”
Joseph received answer to his dilemma . A messenger from God spoke, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear…” How important this was for the Matthean community to hear, and all Christians even unto today’s world to wrestle with… these startling words of God given to Joseph.
We today thus rightly may read from the message, “Church now living in the faith of Joseph, do not be afraid to go against what society says or thinks. Do not worry about the scientific, philosophical or politically-correct community!” Ask of scripture, “What mission does a forgiven heart receive when immersed in God’s Word rightly interpreted?” What exactly was it that God’s Word given by that angel impressed upon Joseph? First, let’s grant that he most surely knew about the promise of forgiveness, as told by the prophets…
"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Thus in the dream the angel told Joseph not to be afraid. This was needed… because “Neighbors will talk!” Joseph’s relatives would consider him victimized, possibly by a demon. As a Christian, however, I think that Joseph quickly came then to understand the angelic message of deliverance and promise. I consider that this “just” man in biblical history was proven to be very familiar with Word of God and firmly believed in the salvation that God had promised.
Consequently, using the scriptural traditions available to Joseph and his ancestors back then, it was certain that the angel of God indeed spoke to him of divine deliverance. The deliverance unbeknown to Joseph, was not just for Mary… but for all people. We look to Isaiah’s prophecy about the approaching forgiveness and power…
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test."
And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el. (Isaiah 7:14)
Indeed, Joseph the carpenter arose from his bed, walked amid his people… and took Mary as his wife. He chose to go against the community and worldly flow. He threw aside the sin of unbelief. Joseph chose marriage and abundant life for Mary and her unborn child.
By example, if only we can imitate his care expressed for unborn children in our own day! By the will of God expressed by an angel in a dream, the man Joseph received the child of God as the One who had been miraculously named Immanuel by his Father, meaning “He Shall Deliver”
Consider how miraculous it could be if an unborn child now growing within a mother’s womb should cure cancer… or should find a clean, environmentally-friendly energy source… or find a path in beneficial space travel beyond the sun. Thus such hopes and dreams worked of such promise and more. Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary.
Our faith teaches that the only begotten child of God was indeed born from a virgin. She became pregnant and gave birth by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was raised up by an obedient man.
We note that scholarly arguments exist in that the Hebrew word “ ‘almah”, in the reading from Isaiah means either young woman or virgin. Here I find that arguments about the nuances are moot. Take note that God fulfilled his prophecy in the extreme!
God is indeed extremely miraculous and exuberant in his gifts. For this reason I believe Mary to have been a virgin, yet became pregnant with the child Jesus… for indeed with God all things are possible. For the church to wrangle about whether she remained a virgin for the remainder of her life, though seemingly important to theological thought and doctrine about Mary, I consider the argument as little more than vain striving.
You see, I think that the Father is more than just a worker of the miraculous. God has a wry sense of humor and is a perfect Creator of human paradox. The angel in this dream of Joseph gave a faithful man a part in the singular and unique gift of reconciliation. With a certain irony, God gracefully gave lowly Joseph that which Moses himself did not receive within his lifetime. Blessed and lowly Joseph, as a simple craftsman and a just, obedient man, stood up to be counted. He believed God. He acted according to the divine will, and by doing so within his lifetime he got firsthand to see the face of God.
As we approach our celebration of Christmas, think heartily concerning this… because he did believe God, and we Christians have received the gift of salvation through His Son, we shall also see God! By the power of baptism into eternal life through the life, death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, that blessed child born to Joseph and Mary, we today have been saved by grace alone through faith alone, given by the Holy Spirit. We are privileged by this faith given to us... to come before the altar and thank the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit... and sing heartfelt praises during this holy Christmas season.