My sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25.
If you sneeze you just might miss it. Matthew’s retelling of the actual birth of Jesus is comprised in merely a few words. “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way,” he writes. We then get Joseph’s backstory, and finally this, “he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.”
That’s it. No angels or shepherds or mangers or bands of cloth. Simply Mary bore a son and Joseph named him. What takes Luke twenty-some verses to tell, Matthew reduces simply to a statement. Now it’s slightly possible that Matthew’s readers — a Jewish audience probably living in Antioch—have heard some of Luke’s account. But it’s more likely that as Jews their concern lay elsewhere: Jesus’ relation to the Torah, the law and to Judaism.
So Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy beginning from Abraham—the father of the Jewish faith—through David all the way to Joseph. Matthew writes in a verse we didn’t read, “and Jacob [was] the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” The lineage held significance because a descendent of David would reign forever according to God’s promise made to David in 2nd Samuel 7, and this promise pointed to the Messiah.
But—and it doesn’t take an OB/GYN to figure this out—Joseph wasn’t involved in the conception of Jesus. Doesn’t it seem slightly odd that Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage from Joseph back through David?
“Now the birth of Jesus,” Matthew writes, and he intentionally uses the Greek word “genesis” here meaning in this context “birth,” although it also means “beginnings.” And I must note, this is the second time Matthew uses this word, it’s also in the very first sentence of his gospel, “An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah.” He doesn’t want his readers to miss it because in their Greek version of the Torah, the first book is, like ours today, called “Genesis.” This is a new beginning, and just as God acted at the very start of the world, so God is moving again.
And it is God’s action that causes the first miracle in this gospel. The Holy Spirit is moving once again—remember that it was the Spirit of God that hovered over the face of the waters of the formless and void earth at the very start of creation and then it all began. Rather than the void earth, it’s the Spirit being sent to a young virgin named Mary who miraculously conceives a child.
Matthew is very clear that it isn’t God the Father who takes part. He isn’t merely co-opting the familiar trope of the Greeks whose gods came down disguised as men, seduced women and created demi-gods like Hercules. Doing so would make Jesus half-man and half-god, and not both fully human and fully God. Rather the Spirit hovers over Mary and new life begins again. Genesis. A new beginning.
But Joseph doesn’t know about any of this. He just knows that his future wife is pregnant, and he didn’t have anything to do with it. This is a major breach of the legal covenant in addition to be a huge slap in the face. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, legally bound to be married—much stronger than our own style of engagement—but the final consecration of the marriage hadn’t happened yet (the time from the betrothal to the wedding would take up to one year). For Mary to have engaged in marital relations with another man meant a huge betrayal and shaming for both she and Joseph.
Joseph had a couple of options. The Torah had initially declared that such women could be stoned by the community. Additionally by this time, the rabbis had given another option, that men could divorce their betrothed in front of a court in order to be awarded financial recompense. The women in such cases would be utterly ruined and humiliated—their reputation would be destroyed and they would have no financial resources.
But Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew writes. He didn’t want to publically disgrace Mary regardless of her apparent failings. He determined to divorce her quietly, not in the courts, but in front of only two witnesses and without any financial recourse.
Just when Joseph had decided to do this, Matthew sets the action of his Gospel in motion. An angel visits Joseph’s dreams and says, “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.” When he wakes up, Joseph does exactly what the angel tells him. He doesn’t assume that the shadowy world of his dreams wasn’t to be trusted, or that he had eaten the wrong thing to close to going to bed. He was a righteous man, and he took Mary as his wife.
Let’s be clear about one thing; people would be talking. They would soon see that Mary was pregnant. Doing what the angel requested would make his own reputation take a hit. “Maybe he really is the father,” some might say. “Obviously, he had no self-control,” others would jeer. Disgrace would reign down. But he was a righteous man and did the honorable thing and lived with integrity. At some point the actual wedding took place—he took her as his wife as instructed by the angel—and Joseph consistently showed his righteousness. He could have proven Mary was a virgin by consummating his marriage on their wedding night and presenting the sheet—a practice still done in many cultures today—but he waited until after Jesus was born (and notice the angel didn’t ask him to do this—he did it through his own level of respect and integrity). While others may have thought he had no self-control, he exhibited it in spades, and Matthew points it out to make clear that Joseph is not the biological father
Matthew then describes what means the most for him: Joseph names the child Jesus. In so doing he obeyed God and made the child his own. Through his naming by Joseph, Jesus becomes a descendant of David. That’s why Matthew traces the lineage through Joseph to David. Joseph becomes Jesus’ adopted father when he names him, and God chose him because he was a righteous man.
What’s the point of all this, you may be wondering as we enter the week leading to Christmas. For me the question is this: What makes a person righteous? We often want to do the right thing, and we turn to the Bible to give us guidance, just like Joseph would have turned to the Torah. Hear these words from the Torah: “If evidence of young woman’s virginity was not found [upon her wedding night] then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act… So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deut 22:20-21). Joseph could have been seen as a just man if he demanded this for Mary, since he would have been following the Torah.
But Matthew tells us something new is going on. This is a genesis moment. The Spirit is moving and with the coming of Jesus a morality based in love and integrity and mercy and trust and obedience is shown in greater detail than ever before. By taking Mary as his wife even though he had cause to divorce her or more, Joseph acts with love.
That’s why Jesus came of course. In just a couple days we will share in the greatest gift the world has received, the coming of Christ Jesus to our world. He came to show us love and save us from our sins. Those two things are not incompatible or unrelated. Forgiveness springs from love, and God deeply loves humanity and wants all of us to experience the amazing love shown through Jesus. Even prior to the birth of God-with-us, Joseph shows how that deep love and forgiveness comes about when the Spirit moves.
How might love come to the forefront in your Christmas celebrations? Who do you need to forgive, and whose forgiveness do you need to seek? How might you need saving from Jesus, this one who shows us God’s mercy and who longs to save us from our sins?
With his coming there is a new beginning. I hope that as we get ready to welcome him once again, he would find in us a mansion prepared for him. I hope that his gift of unconditional love might transform us so that we too might be open to the Spirit’s work in our lives and experience the joy that all new beginnings bring. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.