The Gospel: 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 righteous 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.
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that you have inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation and that you will empower our application. Amen
The Message: Here we are Advent week 4. We are looking at Matthew chapter 1. I am sure that there are a number of people, who know the scriptures well, who are here this morning and they are relieved that we have skipped over the first 17 verses of this chapter. Matthew painstakingly records the lineage of Jesus.
It could be compared, in our modern understanding of the world and all our computer-savvy means and opportunities, to the Ancestry.com search results that we might find if we did a deep dive into Jesus' family.
Of course, I have to say that we do miss out on discovering that Tamar (the mother of two of her father-in-law Judah's children), Ruth (a Moabitess) and then we have a woman who is described as "the wife of Uriah" (who by the way is Bathsheba), are all part of the lineage of Jesus.
One of the commentators for this week said it is worth reading these first 17 verses just to understand that God is truly in the work of redeeming families. So, no matter where you have come from, who your family members are, or what they might have done Jesus understands and identifies with you. Your lineage and you personally are redeemable.
But, moving on from that wonderful pronouncement which should fill us all with hope and expectation this Advent. I want to get into some potentially murky waters.
I am not sure how many of you were here, several years ago, when I asked the question in my sermon: "what would have happened if Jesus had not come?" I remember that for a number of people, at that time, that was something of a revelation moment.
Not in the way that we understand the Book of Revelation - you know thunderous destruction, with the presence of unearthly creatures and strange visions - but the kind of personal revelation of awareness of a new possibility and a new opportunity of thinking about the story of Jesus in a new way. I had a number of people come to me afterward and say that they had never stopped to think about how different our world who be if Jesus had never been born.
So, this Advent as I was preparing for this message I was struck by what seems to me to be a very new and challenging thought. I hope I can do it justice this morning.
Let me preface what I want to say by asking a couple of questions:
"Are you willing to have a Joseph moment?"
"Do you think that you have ever missed out on what you might have experienced in your life because you made a decision and then you held on to your justification for that decision?"
Perhaps you had a decision that you needed to make and that decision shaped your future and the future of those around you. Now when it came to making that decision you knew that you examined the options and you came to a decision and you could rightly justify your actions.
Morally and ethically you were justified according to all of the best that society could provide you with to make this decision. You might even have taken into account your faith convictions. Everything that you could draw from, all the religious tenants that you upheld, pointed you to making that decision.
So, let us turn to our passage from Matthew this morning and see if there is anything we can learn or glean from this story about Joseph and Mary.
From what we know about Joseph, and to be honest, there is not a great deal, we know that he was an honorable man.
The incident we are talking about this morning takes place before they have begun to live together. They are engaged, but I think it is safe to say, from what the passage gives us, that Joseph is waiting to be a husband to Mary until they are married. Then he discovers that she is "with child." If that is not astounding enough he is told she is "with child by the Holy Spirit."
So, Joseph takes a step back and considers his options. He once again shows himself to be an honorable man and he plans to not disgrace Mary and to "put her aside quietly." Now that doesn't sound like such a nice way to deal with Mary in our modern world context. But, he, in the society he lived in and under the religious tenants of his faith, would have been justified to publicly denounce her and could possibly have called for her to be stoned for her "indiscretion."
Joseph has considered his options, he has looked into the guidelines offered by his society, he has considered his religious guidelines and he has made a decision which offers some protection to Mary, and means that he can walk away with his honor intact. This is a highly justifiable result for all involved.
Now, we know that God intervenes in this situation. An Angel visits Joseph and Joseph listens and fulfills the ordained path for his life. We know what the results of that decision are and all of us live under the bounty of the grace that is extended in that situation.
We could go on from this point and celebrate Joseph and his obedience and disciplined response to the life God called him to. There are plenty of lessons for us in that result.
But I would like to raise a devil's advocate question for us all this morning. You know what a devil's advocate question is right? It is a question that looks at other possibilities and challenges us to consider other outcomes.
They can be dangerous questions because they can open us up to wishy-washy theology and potential quagmires of ambiguity in our faith convictions. But just for this morning, I am willing to take the risk because we have actually seen what the end result of this story is. We know that Joseph made the decision he did and we are challenged by his conviction in that decision.
Do you remember the question I asked earlier: "Do you think that you have ever missed out on what you might have experienced in your life because you made a decision and then you held on to your justification for that decision?" I also have to say that I am not questioning God's sovereignty in this situation. God can do what God can and wants to do. He would have brought about his end result whatever Joseph decided.
So just briefly let us consider what might have happened if Joseph had decided to set Mary aside instead of taking her as his wife.
I can't help but think about Charles Dickens and his wonderful character Ebenezer Scrooge when I think about Joseph if he had stood by his justifications and put Mary aside.
Dickens creates a character in Scrooge that we can all relate to. A person who at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, is full of self-righteousness and self-justification for the decisions he has made. He also isn't that far off in his social, moral, and even to some degree religious basis for the tenants on which he has based his life.
But he is living a hollow existence which has not only cut him off from all his acquaintances and work colleagues but also from his family and any possibility of friends. Scrooge is the epitome of empty platitudes and is morally bereft of any sense of human goodness.
Now, I am not saying that we do not need to consider our moral, social, and religious convictions. I do need to have an established understanding of all of these factors.
But what might we learn from Joseph, and from Scrooge, as we consider the decisions we have to make that would appear to demand a moral or ethical, or perhaps a religious response? How do we seek to hear what the Lord is calling us to do when we are faced with these kinds of decisions?
Joseph's response goes beyond the established patterns of his world. God breaks in and challenges him to a new ordained path and pattern.
How can we be sensitive to what God might want to do with us, through us, and in us? What might we miss out on if we are not open to the possibility of the Lord calling us to do and be something new?
Bishops & Father Mike