Dec 2017, Christ Mountain Top
64.1-9 (advent wreath)
1.18-25 (message focus)
retreat at Steve’s farmhouse: home that has been in the family for
generations. He found the old photos of
his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents in the attic and put them up
in the dining room. It’s a mini-portrait
gallery that tells the family story, that reveals a little bit about who Steve
a little like that family album.
We have portraits of Jesus’ family; we get a sense of who he is by who
he comes from. Matthew and Luke have
extended openings, a series of stories that takes place before Jesus grows up
and begins his active ministry. Matthew
focuses on Joseph; Luke focuses on Mary.
Mark and John leap right into Jesus as adult. Mark dives into the story of Jesus’ cousin
John, who baptizes Jesus. John (the
gospel) also refers to cousin John, but opens the gospel by zooming out to get
a perspective on Jesus in the world from the beginning.
Joseph. Interestingly, there is
almost nothing about the pregnancy and birth.
All we have are a couple lines:
next story, the story of the visiting Wise Men or Magi or “three kings” appears
to have taken place when Jesus is a young toddler (2.16, “two years old and
younger”), rather than a newborn. In
that story, the parent on whom Matthew focuses is Joseph, who – through another
dream – is led to take his family to Egypt as refugees to escape the anger of
Herod the King.
passage has puzzled readers with its language around marriage and divorce,
so we need to take a few moments to clarify that. English lacks the appropriate language for
the ancient Jewish customs, and New Testament Greek does as well, for that
matter. “When his mother Mary had been
engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together” (1.18) and “He planned to
dismiss/divorce her quietly” (1.19).
The typical wedding process in the early
first century had two steps, usually separated by a year. In the first step, the bride (often at the
age of 12 or 13) is promised to the groom in a public ceremony with witnesses,
but the bride continues to live in the home of her parents until everything is
ready for the groom to take her to his home.
During that time, they are considered married, in legal terms, even
though the marriage is not typically consummated until the second
celebration. Adultery during this period
would typically result in divorce. (See
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp 123-124.)
Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. We,
as readers, are let in on the secret that this is “by the Holy Spirit”, but
Joseph is unaware. From his perspective,
Mary has been unfaithful.
opening of Matthew’s gospel, which immediately precedes this text, is a genealogy,
typically a boring list of names by generation.
Matthew is a skillful writer and theologian, however. His opening words, literally in Greek, “the book
of the genesis of Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of
Abraham” (1.1). The genealogy proceeds,
listing fathers and sons, and including four scandalous relationships – four
women – along the way. Matthew completely
ignores the four great Hebrew matriarchs of the Genesis story in favor of the
stories of these women: The first posed as a prostitute to get pregnant by her
father-in-law, the second was a prostitute in a spy story, the third was a
foreign woman who popped the question to her future husband after uncovering
him in his sleep, and the fourth woman was either coerced or complicit in
Matthew abruptly drops the father-son sequence and adds a fifth woman: “Joseph
the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Christ” (1.16). He avoids referring to Joseph as the father
of Jesus and raises the question of scandal that was in the mind of everyone in
Jesus’ village: Jesus as illegitimate child, mother Mary as adulteress, father
today. It seems we read a new one in the
news every day. “Now the birth (genesis
in Greek) of Jesus the Christ took place in this way” (1.18; see Brown,
“Annunciation”, 483 and Bruner, 23). The
linguistic cue ties the reader to the genealogy and the scandals. Since the ancient world revolved around honor
and shame, in much more significant ways than we do, Joseph’s shame was a big
deal. It is an end-of-my-world deal.
the traditional cycle of advent Scriptures, the first week’s gospel reading is
devoted to Jesus’ preaching on the “end”, the “apocalypse” – the sun darkened,
the stars falling, the elect gathered, the end coming. Watch!
Stay awake! In this case, these
are not the words of Chicken Little, these are not words to ignore, these are
the words of Jesus himself.
differently this year, we still encounter this theme. Joseph’s life, everything he imagined it
would be, all the things he expected to share with Mary – it is all over. He can divorce her and, maybe, start over,
maybe find someone else to love. He can
marry her and live with the stigma, the shame, for the rest of his life. It is a real grief, a profound pain, a
shame was a big stinkin’ deal. The “honorable”
thing to do was to expose and punish the person who caused the shame, to
expose and punish Mary. But instead of
pursuing his lost honor, Joseph chooses kindness and mercy. He resolves “to divorce her quietly”. Not that divorce is ever private, and in the
ancient world in which a woman’s livelihood depended on a man, Mary would have
been condemned to an extraordinarily difficult life. But Joseph does not wish to humiliate Mary to
recover his own honor. No wonder Matthew
calls him a “righteous man” (1.19).
He is not obsessed with his own honor; he is not defensive. His sense of justice is shaped by mercy and
this righteous man, the angel appears and gives him two words: The first
thing the angel says, “Do not be afraid” (1.20). The world ending? Don’t be afraid. Your life is over? Don’t be afraid. Things are uncertain. We can’t be sure about what will happen. But we do not have to be afraid.
afraid. Then, the angel tells him what
we as readers already know: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy
Spirit.” This is no scandal (good luck
convincing your friends, though) – this is a God thing, a grace thing, a Holy
Spirit miracle of new life. Frederick
Dale Bruner comments, “Every conversion is a virgin birth. ‘With
human beings this [new life] is impossible, but with God absolutely everything
is possible’ (Matt 19:26)” (p 24, italics his).
His point is that there is a parallel between this incredible miracle of
Christ becoming flesh, of “the virgin will conceive”, and Christ being
conceived and born in our lives today.
As Charles Wesley wrote in that great carol, “Hark! the Herald Angels
Sing”, Jesus is “born to give us second birth”.
addition to these two words for Joseph, the angel also gives the baby two
names. The first name, “Jesus
for he shall save his people from their sins” (1.21). Do you struggle with your addictive behavior?
Find it impossible to experience forgiveness? Jesus saves us from our sins.
“God is with us” (1.23). It comes from a
story in Isaiah of a king who was afraid of the world ending, afraid of two
superpowers who were prepared to divide and conquer Judah. Isaiah declares, “If you do not stand firm in
your faith, you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7.9). Like Joseph, king Ahaz has reasons to
fear. Unlike Joseph, Ahaz doesn’t seem
to get the message, doesn’t seem to accept that God our Savior is indeed with
him, with you, with me, with us.
you do not stand firm in your faith . . . .”
I suggest that Joseph is a model for standing firm in faith, in two
chose to live on faith, not fear.
everything went wrong, he did not protect his own honor but practiced
Jesus, Savior, with Emmanuel, God with us, that new life, that second birth,
can be ours.
E. Brown. 1977, 1978. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy
Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York: Doubleday, Image.
E. Brown. 1987. “The Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25).” Worship, 61:6,
pp 482-492. Electronic edition, ATLAS Serials, EBSCO.
Dale Bruner. 2004. Matthew: A Commentary.
Matthew 1-12, The Christbook, revised and expanded edition. Grand