Feast Day: Fourth Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 7.10-16; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25
“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
The Blessed Virgin Mary tends to get a lot of the spotlight in and around Christmas time and rightly so. She is of course the Theotokos, the mother of God. It was according to her flesh that the Son of God came among us and became the Son of Man. However, in Matthew’s account of the gospel a different figure comes to the fore—Joseph.
Joseph we do not know much about, the better part of his life buried somewhere in the pages of history. But here in the pages of Holy Scripture we have a glimpse of a man who had a part to play in God’s plan of salvation. He was to be the adoptive father of Jesus, to welcome Mary and the miraculous life growing inside her into his home, and to care for and protect them. However, Matthew does take care to tell us one important detail about Joseph. Namely, that he was a just, a righteous, man. What does this mean? Simply put, that he lived his life according to Scripture. He was open to God’s word and responded with a simple, prompt, and unspectacular obedience.
We hear that Joseph was engaged to Mary but they were not yet living together. In other words, she was still living under the roof of her father and they had not yet reached the stage in their engagement when Joseph would welcome his bride into his home thus completing or fulfilling the marriage.
And so we can begin to imagine the disgrace, the scandal, when Mary suddenly and unexpectedly becomes pregnant. What is Joseph to think but that Mary has broken their engagement. Imagine the pain. According to Mosaic law he could make a public spectacle of Mary and bring her to sure ruin. But he doesn’t, because he is a just man. Rather, he considers the matter and through crushing disappointment decides to make sure it all happens quietly so as not to disgrace Mary. For, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
But. I love when that little word appears in Scripture. But. But just when he had resolved to do this an angel of the Lord appear to him in a dream. Because sometimes the word of God simply breaks in to your life and disrupts all of your best laid plans. I remember when I was 17 and having a terrible week at a Christian summer camp when the word of God interrupted my life and set me on a trajectory that has brought me here. All the plans I had for myself, laid waste!
This is actually a really important point. So many of the world’s religions and philosophies are about human beings pursuing God or some higher knowledge. But that’s not the story of the Bible. In fact, the story of the Bible is just the opposite. It’s a story of God pursuing us. God is always the one who takes the first step. God pursued Joseph. God pursed me. And God purses you. Every moment of every day.
Even this very moment. To be confronted by the words of Scripture as we are even now is to be confronted with the same word of the Lord that confronted Joseph. What part of your life does God want to break into with his life-giving word? Do not harden your heart, do not turn away, he loves you and he comes to bring you life. Read the Bible, meditate upon it, inwardly digest it. This is how you will come to know and love God more deeply and come to hear his voice more clearly.
So, the word of God breaks in to Joseph’s life and when it does it brings clarity. “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.”
The child now conceived in Mary’s womb is not the result of natural means. Rather, this is an act of God who alone can make something out of nothing. The Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at creation bringing forth life out of nothing. Now the Holy Spirit hovers over Mary’s womb, fills it with life eternal, and makes the Son of God a real person in her and to her.
And this child will be given the name Jesus which means, “God saves.” To fulfill what the Lord spoke through the prophets, that God himself would be with us in this child. Emmanuel. The angel brings further clarity: “he will save his people from their sins.” Let’s look more closely at that statement.
Who will he save? His people, plural. Jesus of course saves individuals but his purpose is to save them together, to make them into a new society, citizens of God’s kingdom. And the Church is a sign of this, a sign of how the gospel of Jesus Christ is transforming the world and making it new. Look around you. You have no salvation apart from these people to whom you have been joined in baptism.
And what will he save his people from? Their sins. This is a subtle but important point. Popular Messianic expectation around the time of Jesus was that the Messiah would at the very least deliver his people from the sins of their enemies. However, here we are presented with a Messiah whose primary task is to liberate his people from their own sins. Because of course, if you are not healed there, at the very root, then however many good things you may find in life you are not truly healed at all. And so the gospel teaches us a profound self-criticism—not hatred of ones enemies and of their sins but hatred of ones own sins, the church’s sins. Are we a people that not only know our own sins but hate them as well?
God’s word brings clarity. Where is there fear and uncertainty in your life? Where is there confusion and doubt? Where is there a lack of trust? God’s word wants to break in and bring clarity.
The word of God breaks in, brings clarity and finally, it births faith. When Joseph awoke it says that he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife. A prompt, simple, and unspectacular obedience. Trust. Faith. Faith is always a gift from the Holy Spirit and never something that we simply drum up ourselves. As if to highlight this point how does Matthew portray Joseph when the word of God comes to him? He is asleep.
Perhaps you have lots of faith or a little faith or no faith. The most important question is not what do you have or what are you capable of or not. The most important question is what can God do? Can the word of God birth faith in me and in you? Certainly. In fact, he has already taken the initiative in Jesus Christ. And the same Holy Spirit who brought everything out of nothing and brought life to Mary’s womb will birth faith in you. “Every conversion is a virgin birth,” (Bruner 24).
Joseph was a just man. Not because he was morally superior to others but because he was open to the word of God and obeyed simply. For Joseph, the will of God was his joy and like a tree planted by the water the word of God produced good fruit in him. The same can be true for us. God’s word can break into your life, bring clarity, and birth faith. Indeed, God longs to do just this. Let us rejoice and be glad in him.