Read Matthew 1: 18-25 here.
Read Isaiah 7: 1-17 here.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Which means (obviously) that Christmas is right around the corner – this year, it’s one week away. Oftentimes, this means it’s the last few days we have to buy Christmas gifts, buy supplies for Christmas dinners, and take care of whatever other final details you have before Christmas. Hopefully this isn’t the case for any of you, as you’ve been diligent to take care of everything in a timely fashion.
Maybe you’ve got a system. Maybe you’ve been doing it for so long – Christmas planning and preparation – that there aren’t really any surprises any more. You know exactly what to do and exactly what to expect. As far as avoiding Christmas stress, that’s a good approach.
For those of us who have been attending church for awhile, Christmas can (in some ways) be like that. We know exactly what to do and we know exactly what to expect. And that doesn’t mean that it’s not special, and it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it or appreciate it. I simply mean that there’s a familiarity with the Christmas season, and with the Christmas story, that comes with being part of the church for awhile. Usually, inasmuch as church life goes, there’s not much in the Christmas season that surprises us. But maybe there should be.
Today we are looking at Matthew 1:18-25 as our scripture text. It reads:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.Matthew 1: 18-25
Now as I suggested, most of us are probably pretty familiar with this story. Usually during Christmas time, we focus more on Mary (and she is present in this story), but we also know Joseph’s part in the story.
As the text tells us, Joseph was the man who was betrothed to Mary (he was pledged to marry her). But when Joseph found out Mary was already pregnant, he found himself in a difficult situation. Now note that the text says he considered divorcing her quietly. But if they weren’t yet married (merely betrothed, or pledged), then why would this even be necessary? Simply, betrothal in this culture was a much more serious thing than engagement usually is in our world.
But an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit – that is, not as a result of infidelity. Therefore, Joseph can and should go ahead and marry Mary. And the angel tells Joseph that the son to be born is to be named Jesus and that He will save his people from their sins.
Now I want to touch briefly on vv. 22 and 23, which is essentially a commentary by the writer – a detail which he includes to help the reader understand what’s going on in the gospel. We read that the words of the angel to Joseph fulfill the words of the prophet. Specifically, the passage says:
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).Matthew 1: 22-23
We should recognize these verses from our Old Testament reading today which was from the book of Isaiah. To review, Isaiah 7:10-17 say:
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”Isaiah 7: 10-17
The context of the Isaiah passage, very simply, has to do with a threat against the kingdom of Judah by the kingdom of Israel and its allies. The passage is basically God’s promise that He will deliver Judah from its enemies. We’re not going to get into the significance of Ahaz’s reluctance to test God, but the child born of a virgin, to be called Immanuel, is a sign or confirmation of God’s deliverance.
Now this is the immediate historical context of the passage or the prophecy. But at some point, like other passages in Isaiah, it took on Messianic significance. That is, the sign of a child was understood as a sign of the Messiah who would bring ultimate deliverance to God’s people (that is, beyond this immediate historical situation) – the deliverance that God’s people in exile were truly waiting for.
And we’ve talked before about these Messianic expectations so I don’t want to dwell on them here. But what’s significant for our purposes (ignoring the difference between what the angel actually tells Joseph and the author’s commentary) is that there’s no way that Joseph could have expected any of this.
Let me try to say it a different way. What on earth do you think might have been going through Joseph’s mind? Consider the series of events.
The first thing that we learn is about Joseph is that he is betrothed to Mary. Once again, in this world, this is serious business. And I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not in our own world. But in Joseph’s world, betrothal is a much more serious matter than engagement typically is in ours. But he discovers that Mary is pregnant which is scandalous. Again, in our world, depending on the circles you travel in, this may be surprising, but hardly unheard of. But in Joseph’s world, to find out that his betrothed is pregnant, and with a child that is not his, he would have been completely mortified. Therefore, we read that Joseph “had in mind to divorce Mary.” And the fact that a formal divorce would have been necessary, even before they married, should give us a hint of how serious a matter betrothal was. Quite simply, Joseph’s world would have been shaken.
Next, we read that Joseph has a dream in which an angel appears to him. Now this is not the same kind of angelic appearance that we read about in other scripture passages – that is, it happens in a dream as opposed to a face-to-face appearance (such as Mary’s in Luke), but we should consider this no less significant. Indeed, God speaking to people through dreams is well attested in scripture. And the text makes it clear (in my opinion) that Joseph understands this as a supernatural event. An angel of the Lord speaking to him is equivalent to God speaking to Joseph.
Thirdly, we read that the angel tells Joseph that he should marry Mary, and to essentially raise the child as his own. He learns, shockingly, that Mary’s pregnancy is not the result of unfaithfulness (or something worse), but that it is a result of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus and that “He will save his people from their sins.” Now we don’t know, based on the text, what Joseph makes of this pronouncement. However, it seems to me impossible to think that Joseph wouldn’t have had some inkling of the significance of this. We can probably assume that Joseph was a faithful jew – we read in v. 19 that Joseph was faithful to the Law – and thus understood the history of Israel, its calling, its relationship to God, its sin as spoken about by the prophets, which resulted in its exile and etc. And so to hear that his adopted son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, would save his people from their sins was an incredible revelation.
Now we don’t know if Joseph made the connection between “save his people from their sins” and Israel’s messianic expectations, but the narrator makes this link clear in the next verses. In a direct reference to the words of the prophet Isaiah, we read about this Jesus that, “They will call him Immanuel.” So the shock and surprise of Joseph is elevated for the readers when we find out that this Jesus will be the fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the deliverance and restoration of Israel, the redemption of the people of God.
So all of this amounts to an escalation of the unexpected throughout the Joseph story (or Joseph’s part of the story). Joseph, a simple carpenter, with what we can only assume is a simple, uneventful life, finds himself a significant part of the cosmic story of redemption. God steps into Joseph’s life and he finds his world turned upside down.
Now the point I want to make from this story, as we enter the final week before Christmas, and I hope you can forgive the tired cliché, is that, in this season of anticipation, we need to expect the unexpected. Like we talked about Mary’s faithfulness being found in her openness to God’s working, so we might understand Joseph’s faithfulness to be found in his openness to this unforeseen occurrence. And so my encouragement to this community is to be open to God’s moving, God’s working, God showing up in unexpected, unanticipated ways, this Christmas season.
When we are young, we are captivated (most likely) by the Christmas season. When we’re young, we amazed by the festivities, we are enchanted by the lights and the decorations, and we’re thrilled by the promise of Santa Claus and the gifts we receive. As we get older, Christmas (for many) loses its lustre. The work, the stress, and the sheer repetition buries the joy and wonder of the season. And even if we still enjoy Christmas, even if it’s still our favourite time of the year, it’s simply harder to hold on to that same feeling, that same sentiment, as we get older.
And in the life of the early church, the anticipation of Jesus’ immanent return pervaded the life of the early Christians. And though we speak in sweeping generalizations, the expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetimes to bring the fulfillment of the kingdom energized their mission, their worship, and their spirituality. But then the first generation of Christians passed, then the next, and each succeeding generation had to figure out how to make sense of their faith, how to walk in the anticipation.
And with each new generation figuring out doctrine, understanding worship, instituting polity, and spreading the word of Jesus’ kingdom (all of which are good and necessary things), the anticipation grew less as we became more and more settled in our present. And becoming more and more settled, more and more comfortable, it became more and more difficult to keep our eyes and our minds fixed on what is coming.
Maybe when you first became saved, when you first heard and accepted the message of Jesus, you were filled with joy, filled with wonder, and excited about what each new saved day would bring. But now, with years of the walk under your belt, years of reading scripture, of hearing the story, it has all become the same, each day has become predictable, and the urgency and excitement of the anticipation has faded into the background. Because each of the previous days seem routine, we find that we are no longer open to the unexpected.
But God is coming. Jesus is returning soon. And He is coming to give us more than what we could have ever expected, more than we could ever imagine. He is returning to restore what we never knew we were missing. So as we approach this last week leading to Christmas, I invite you to keep your hearts and your minds open to the possibilities we find in Christ. Let us be open to what God is doing. Let us be open to what God is going to do. And through that openness, let us be prepared to receive Jesus Christ, our King.