Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 1:18-25 The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
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 fulfil 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.
Last week, we learned about Jesus’ grandmothers, the ones from whom he inherited keen intelligence, fierce resilience, and probably a love of people who are on the margins of respectable society. Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus’ dad, who is probably the one who taught him something about deep, sacrificial love. The story of Joseph becoming Jesus’ stepfather might be really familiar to you. Or, it might be the first time you’ve heard it. Regardless of whether you’ve heard this story only once or you’ve heard it a hundred times, it’s important to remember that Jesus’ family didn’t have to look like this. Any other man might have made a different choice than Joseph did. To understand Joseph’s choice, it’s important to remember a few things about the time when Joseph and Mary were living.
Where Joseph and Mary grew up, people thought you did things in a certain order. First, you get married. Then, if you want, you have a baby. If you did things out of order, people didn’t like it. Sometimes you could even get in trouble if a lot of people in your community thought you did things in the wrong order. Part of what makes Joseph’s story special is that he knew that while not everyone thought it was ok to make a family in a different way, he would choose to do just that. At first, you’ll remember, he was ready to go along with what everyone else wanted. But, an angel helped him be brave enough to realize that he could still make a family with Mary, even if people got mad. What was most important was the baby would be taken care of and God was confident that Joseph could take care of this baby.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man who was engaged to be married to Mary. He did not want to humiliate Mary when she said that she was pregnant and it was not his child. If Joseph had done what most people would have said was the right thing, he would not have married her. The story tells that he had just settled upon a course of action that would afford Mary as much dignity as possible, while also allowing him not to marry her, when suddenly an angel intervenes through his dreams. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” That phrase gets used a lot around Jesus’ birth, both here in Matthew and also in Luke. Angels show up in some very scary times and they tell people not to be afraid. I think Joseph really needed someone to help him not be afraid.
Marriage and parenthood can be pretty scary, mostly because people want to do the right thing and not hurt people they care about. Even if you are excited to be married and excited to have a child, you might find yourself afraid. That is true even without the complications that Joseph and Mary have in their relationship. If you think the community might judge you harshly or are worried about whether or not your fiancée is lying to you, you might be even more frightened. Thank goodness the Angel came to help him be brave.
“Do not be afraid.” Fear can often keep us from imagining a life beyond what other people tell us is possible or good. Fear can keep us from trusting people we love, even when they tell us the truth. Fear, and its cousin, Anger can make us break relationships instead of build them. When the angel told Joseph that he didn’t have to be afraid, Joseph heard, maybe for the first time, that he had other options for how he could treat Mary, and, that maybe, they could still be a family.
There is an artist and poet named Jan Richardson who has spoken about what is like for her to fall in love with someone who already had a child. In a reflection on this portion of Matthew, she once wrote, “The man whom I love has a son, and his son whom I love has changed how I read Joseph’s story. I am intrigued by this Joseph who claimed a child who was not his own, this man who drew a circle of family not only around Mary but also around her son, her Word-made-flesh.” Richardson’s stepson, who has a way with words like his father and like poet step-mother, has become beloved to her precisely because she chose to build a family with him and his father. Ten years ago, when she wrote the commentary I read this week, she said, “Ten years since first meeting this man and his child, I still choose this stretching into a vast, unknown terrain that the journey with this father and son calls me to.” I am certain she feels the same way now, 20 years after first choosing to make this family together. A child that is not your child by blood can still be a gift.
The angel tells Joseph to marry his fiancée and that this child, too, is a gift, this one, from God to their whole people. Mary will have a son. The angel tells Joseph give the boy a special name, a name that will tell people something about who the child is. In Greek, that name is Jesus. In Hebrew, it’s Yeshua... Joshua. That name means “The Lord helps.” This child will save his people. But, he will need parents to care for him first. He will need Joseph, who will help him learn to love beyond what most people thing is either possible or appropriate.
Joseph, great-great-great-grandson of Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab, and Tamar, with the help of an angel, realized that this family was still possible. Looking at Mary and her complex and scandalous story, remembering the scandalous women of his own family, he summons all of his bravery, and he marries her. Together, they create, with the Holy Spirit, a new and extraordinary family. The love that came to life in their son Jesus still lives on in us today.
Carolyn Brown, a religious educator who writes really wonderful Sunday school material for kids, pointed out something very important about this reading. Even with the help of the angels, Joseph and Mary must have trusted each other a lot to make this choice to build a family together, especially under such strange circumstances. How curious they must have been to meet the boy and help him grow into the mission of his adulthood. How much better this world is because they trusted God and each other enough to take this risk together.
Jan Richardson, in honor of her own beloved stepson and the family she and her husband chose to make, wrote this Advent Prayer. I want to share it with you today:
A Prayer for Choosing
What we choose
Who we love
How we create
Where we live
So in all our choosing,
O God, make us wise;
in all our loving,
O Christ, make us bold;
in all our creating,
O Spirit, give us courage;
in all our living
may we become whole.
We have been blessed by Joseph’s courageous love. May we offer the world our own courageous love when we have the opportunity.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.