[This message was delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Pittsford, NY, on Advent #4, December 22, 2019, from Matthew 1:18-25.]
The spotlight can be blinding. Some people gravitate toward the spotlight, while others seek to avoid it. The spotlight can show every imperfection. On stage, it can even melt the actor’s makeup. It can disorient the players. Yet, some people are drawn to the spotlight. Not these two. Not Joseph and Mary. They are the most ordinary of the ordinary. Simple Galileans. Content to live out their days in the backwater town of Nazareth, they find themselves thrust into a spotlight not of their choosing. Eager to get married in the traditional way, to honor custom, they find themselves in a spotlight they don’t desire. All Joseph wants is to be a good carpenter, a faithful husband, a quietly righteous man, loving God and neighbor. All Mary wants is to be a faithful wife, a careful homemaker, and a nurturing mother, loving God and neighbor. They have entered the final stage of their engagement, which was more advanced than ours today. It means they are just about legally married, but have not consummated their union in the physical sense. Their commitment to each other is public. A wedding is coming soon. Though they are poor, they have scrimped and saved and will have a lovely wedding, making their vows under a canopy. Nazareth is eager for their wedding; these are good people, good neighbors. The wedding won’t be opulent, but it will be simply beautiful.
And, then, a piercing spotlight nearly blinds them. It fascinates me every December how the four gospel writers handle this. Mark says nothing at all about it. His is generally acknowledged to be the first written gospel, and he just doesn’t know about Christmas shopping, children’s Christmas pageants, and Christmas Eve candlelight services. Mark begins with the spotlight on John the Baptist and then shifts quickly to Jesus, with both fully grown. No wonder the common lectionary we use is on a three-year cycle. If we had to use Mark, it wouldn’t be much of a Christmas. There is a bit of Scrooge in Mark.
John, on the other hand, takes a cosmic perspective. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us….” Thrilling! I love John’s lofty, starry take on this. But we couldn’t have a Christmas pageant based on John.
Luke gives us the fullest account, with the most active spotlight, first on an old priest named Zechariah, then on his old, barren wife Elizabeth, and then on a very young woman named Mary. In Luke 1, each of them gets a song (where they the forerunners of Peter, Paul, and Mary?) Joseph is merely mentioned in Luke 2 as taking Mary to Bethlehem. He pretty much stays out of the way, which is fine with him.
But Matthew won’t let him off so easy. Matthew puts the cosmic spotlight right on Joseph. Matthew builds carefully. The first 17 verses trace the line of Jesus from Abraham through 42 generations. That list travels through men, as was the common way then, but it has four women named. Three of them were “Me, too,” women. Tamar, Bathsheba, and Rahab had been violated and abused by men. The fourth was Ruth, who was a widowed foreigner from Moab, a long-standing enemy of Israel. And God includes them—three Me, too women and a brokenhearted foreigner—in the line of Jesus. That line culminates in this: “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew doesn’t call him the father of Jesus, but the husband of the mother of Jesus.
Matthew describes Joseph so simply: “… Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” I can’t help thinking of my father, who died 30 years ago. Like Joseph, my father was a carpenter. Like Joseph, my father never sought any spotlight. Like Joseph, my father loved his wife, my mother. Like many of his generation, my dad served in World War 2 and never talked about it. I wish I had asked him more about his service. I’m not sure he would have told me much, because that wasn’t his way. My day was not big on words. I don’t remember him telling me that he loved me, but I always knew he did. While he didn’t say it, he showed it. In playing catch with me and hitting me baseballs until there was no more light in the evening sky. In taking me to endless games and coaching teams I played on. Its why I continue to love baseball, because my dad taught me to love baseball and he taught me well. I see Joseph teaching young Jesus carpentry in the same way.
Joseph doesn’t say much. I like to memorize some scripture each week for the sermon I’ll be preaching. This week I memorized everything Joseph says in the New Testament. First, we need to know that Mark never mentions him, John does but twice, Luke five times, and Matthew seven. That makes 14 mentions of Joseph. Listen to all that Joseph says. Ready? [Silence.] That’s it. The New Testament never quotes one word from the lips of Joseph. If God was planning a quartet in Luke 1, it became a trio: Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary sing praises to God; Joseph doesn’t even hum along. He is a carpenter, a silent, righteous man,
But there is this major dilemma. They aren’t fully married yet and Mary tells him that she is expecting, which he was not expecting. And she is so young. The current issue of Time magazine is the end of year “Person of the Year” issue. That person is on the cover, a 16-year-old named Greta. A friend of mine who questions whether Greta should be named “person of the year,’ said to me that she is just a minor. Yes, and that makes Mary even more minor, probably younger than Greta by two years. Being pregnant before full marriage could ruin her life. Joseph has a huge dilemma on his splintered, carpenter’s hands: What to do? All wisdom said that he should end the relationship. Perhaps Mary could move to the next village and get a fresh start. Maybe he would have to move to yet another village. He could end the relationship in public court, which would be to his financial advantage, perhaps saving his reputation while ruining hers. Or he could do it quietly, relinquishing his legal rights while keeping her from public disgrace. Knowing this silent, righteous man, we know he will choose to protect Mary as best he can.
The truth is that just about everyone in this story is troubled. Zechariah is troubled when the angel says his old wife is going to have a baby. Mary is troubled when the angel greets her, sensing that something strange is about to happen—she is right. Joseph is troubled that his almost bride is pregnant not by him. And Herod is so troubled he orders the slaughter of the boy children of Bethlehem. This birth announcement is causing no small amount of trouble.
Then an angel steps in. “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.” My guess is that that sounds better to us than it did to Joseph. How do you tell the men drinking coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts that your intended is pregnant, not by you, but by the Holy Spirit? Even a Pentecostal would be hard pressed to fall for that line. Like George Bailey, Joseph does what needs to be done. He is a righteous man. “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.”
What shall Joseph name this baby—Jesus (as the angel said) or Emmanuel (as the prophet said)? It’s alright for a baby to have two names. Jesus means “God saves,” which tells what he has come to do. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” which is who he is. We may call him Jesus and Emmanuel.
“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.” Thank you, Joseph, for being a quiet and righteous man. Thank you for obeying an angel’s voice, when common sense might have told you otherwise. Thank you for standing by your woman. Thanks for taking good care of that child. The one who saves. The one who is God with us.