The First Presbyterian Church of Watertown
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
How many of us can relate to Joseph? I don’t imagine that many of us could see ourselves in the place of someone who lived over 2,000 years ago, but how many of us can connect to the situation that Joseph finds himself in this morning? How many of us could resonate with the fears and feelings of distrust that Joseph probably wrestled with before an angel of God spoke to him in a dream? Did Joseph really know what was going on and how this fit into God’s larger narrative? Maybe the title of my reflection is a little misleading, because Joseph didn’t know… But then maybe it’s appropriate, because it reflects our journey of life and faith as well.
The Scripture passage tells us this morning that Joseph was a “just” man… Some translations of this text say that Joseph was a “righteous” man, but I think in this situation there isn’t enough of a distinction to make a difference. And Joseph was a just man, not wanting Mary to suffer any kind of public indignation or persecution, but the justice Joseph demonstrated may not be worthy of our admiration and praise… at least not quite yet…
Justice is one of those funny words and becomes increasingly complex, especially when you throw in the element of faith. Because when you throw faith into the mix what you find is that there is a division between the divine justice of God and our human sense of justice… We find such an act of human justice in Joseph’s decision to break off his relationship with Mary … Joseph was probably afraid, was probably angry, and probably suspicious of Mary. As a result, Joseph did what many of us would have done, which is to fall back on a old coping mechanism that makes us feel like we have some control over the world around us.
Recently I was reminded that Christmas can often feel like one big paradox… We dedicate a time of the year to celebrating peace, love, and joy, but are often swept up in a sea of chaos that comes with juggling work and family, finances and generosity, and enjoying the company of some, but remembering that there’s that “one” person you hope not to run into at a Christmas party… With everything that goes on in our lives it can feel as though there isn’t enough left to give to those who has something to share. But instead of withdrawing from those who need to be heard we should don a spirit of humility and allow ourselves to be challenged and empathic to those who are hurting as well.
This isn’t included in this familiar Bible story, but I would imagine that Mary tried to tell Joseph what had happened to her. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Joseph, because as we see in the unfolding of this text Joseph was ready to quitely “dismiss” her. There are a lot of stories out there that have not been heard, there are a lot of stories that have been dismissed. There are a myriad of stories from women and the oppressed that have not been heard… They haven’t been heard not because of a shortage of ears to hear, but because of a shortage of grace, compassion, and justice that searches for truth rather than preserving the status quo, which we seek out during this season of Christmas.
Could Joseph have really known what was going on around him? I don’t think Joseph could have imagined fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his future family in order to escape unjust systematic oppression. I don’t think that Joseph fully understood the words of God who told him that this child inside of Mary would become the savior for all peoples, all nations, all classes, and all races… I don’t think that Joseph could have fully understood what was going on, and to be honest I don’t think we always no what is going on as well.
I don’t mean to give Joseph a hard time or make it seem like Joseph was a bad person, but I bring up these things, because I think this is a story we need to hear. And the stories that we need to hear are often the ones that we don’t want to listen to the most. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope or grace left for us… What this means is that there are multiple opportunities for us to try and try again until we perfect this spiritual gift of Christmas listening…
Here is where the divine grace of God enters into the picture… While Joseph, while we ourselves, are left with many questions and doubts, God speaks to us and tells us what we need to hear… For Joseph, it was that Mary was telling the truth… And that Joseph needed to set aside his fears in order to take on the responsibilities that God gave him. For us, it was and is and always shall be God reminding us to hear and actively listen to those who tell us their stories… That while it may be difficult, we are to uphold one another to a standard where compassion, empathy, and love rules our lives instead of fear, mismanaged power, and distrust.
Maybe God was talking directly to Joseph when the angel of the Lord said, “And he will save the people from their sins.” We all are in need of salvation… Salvation that liberates us from the bondage of sin and death and brings us into the one community, the one body of Jesus Christ. There will be many times where we will find ourselves unable to believe. Maybe it’s because we are unwilling or maybe it’s because we are recovering from our own hurts. But that is why Christ came into the world in the form of a humble child… Joseph needed salvation from his doubt, his anger, and his fear, and we need the salvation that is offered so freely from the Christ Child in order that we might one day come together and dwell in unison in the Kingdom of God listening to the stories that have long been silenced.
Can we use this Christmas time to cultivate a level of belief that takes us outside our fears, our distrust, and our own biases? Are we willing to let the Christ Child, the one who shall be called Emmanuel, enter our hearts so that the voices of those who have been silenced and marginalized can be heard? It takes faith… It takes courage… It took the coming of God to Joseph in a dream to believe the story of Mary… But we don’t have any excuse not to believe, because Christ himself came into the world to open our hearts, to open our ears, to open our eyes… There are no more excuses left… All that there is is to accept this Christmas miracle, this great gift that bears a great deal of responsibility, and go out into the world believing and seeking true justice in love, faith, and Christian fellowship. Amen.