Today we begin a three part Christmas series, in which we will look at three historical figures (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) and the role they play in the Christmas narrative. Our objective, through this series, is to anchor our faith in the fulfilled promises of God to help us grow in our understanding of what Christmas is, and what implications it has on humanity and creation. Today’s sermon is titled, “Joseph: Man of Promise”, taken from Matthew 1:18-25 which reads as follows: 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
1. A bit of Context
Before we launch into exploring the universal principles embedded in this historical account allow me to paint a picture of the background. Matthew, like the other gospels, is an ancient biography about Jesus the Messiah. So the main character in this biography is Jesus. It is important for us to note that although Matthew speaks of the same Jesus that Mark, Luke, and John speak of; Matthew reports on Jesus in a distinct way. Commentators believe that Matthew is written to a predominantly Jewish audience hence the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus, plays a pivotal role. This theme of fulfilment recurs throughout the Matthew through the phrase “When Jesus had finished…” (Matt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). Chapter 1:1-1:17 of Matthew is a genealogy that contains the heritage of Joseph dating back to Abraham. Now these “son of so and so…” passages can seem trivial or unimportant. They, however, play a major role, not only in underlining where someone comes from, but also the credibility of their station in life. Matthew is telling us that Joseph is both the son of Abraham and the son of David, and is more than credible in parenting Jesus In the passage we’ve just read, a few themes are at play…
1.1 Engagement and Marriage
A teenage girl engaged to be married falls pregnant before her wedding day. Let me at this point say, the term “teenager” is actually an invention of the 1950’s. In the Bible, there is no such thing. Rather, passage into womanhood or manhood came much earlier than 18. So Mary is most probably a teenager (biblically acceptable in those times) who falls pregnant before her wedding night, (morally questionable and explosive stuff). This pregnancy has implications broader than Mary and her husband to be, as we shall see in weeks to follow. In Bible times, engagement carried weight. It was not a season of “checking out”, “viewing”, or “considering options”. To be engaged in the Judeo culture meant that one had already “considered,” “viewed,” and “prayed about it.” All that remained was the marriage. To be engaged meant that one already belonged to someone. Now here’s the story, a teenage girl engaged to Joseph falls pregnant by “someone” else. She’s either morally corrupt or she’s morally corrupt. It’s as simple as that. Or is it?
1.2 Engagement and Divorce
We often think of divorce as the dissolution of marriage, well this passage gives us a different perspective. Divorce is not just the dissolution of marriage but the dissolution of the pledge to be married also. Matthew 1:19 even calls Joseph, Mary’s husband before they are married. What I like about this passage is that it teaches us not to trivialise engagement but to esteem it as highly. This is one of the reasons why “pre-engagement counselling” and “pre-marital counselling are offered here at CityHill. If you want more info on these please see Sitho and Miranda, Mufaro and Maureen, or Sibs and Rumbi. Now that we covered a bit of the background to Matthew and the passage here are our headings for today:
Joseph faithful to the Law
Joseph kind to Mary
Joseph obedient to Yahweh
2. Joseph: faithful to the Law
Matthew 1:19 reads 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous, just or faithful man” who lived his life in obedience to the Law. Now this does not mean that Joseph was sinless, but it means the moral direction of his life was governed by Torah. This moral direction is seen on a few levels:
Firstly, if Joseph had in his mind taken Mary fully knowing that she was pregnant, then he would have been violating another man’s right and responsibility to raise his child. You see in the ancient world, one could improve their station in life by having offspring. To have children meant that a man or woman could receive honour beyond what honour they already had. So if Joseph were to take a child that belonged to another man he would have been performing an act of “honour theft”. A grave sin indeed.
Secondly, if Joseph had in his mind taken Mary fully knowing that she was pregnant, he would’ve been announcing to the community he was a part of that he consummated his marriage to Mary before their wedding, another grave sin.
So Joseph is stuck, he cannot go ahead with the wedding, based on his faithfulness to the Law. There’s but one option…
My question to us today is this, are we facing situations where we are being provoked to compromise our faithfulness to God’s commands? Are we stuck in difficult places where faithfulness to God’s law seems the hardest decision? If we are then Joseph gives an example for us to follow.
Another question is, have we robbed another person of their honour to improve our own station and standing? Maybe a colleague, a friend or a neighbour. What honour have we amassed at the expense of another’s own station? Whom have we trampled on to “arrive”? Joseph gives a principle that is timeless and universal, it is this, “Faithfulness to the Yahweh is more important than honour and station”. Joseph is prepared to lose his wife than compromise his obedience to the law. Are we?
3. Joseph: kind to Mary
19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
From the verse above Joseph acts in a counter-intuitive way. We hear nothing of Joseph questioning why Mary gave herself to another. We hear nothing of how Joseph questions Mary’s integrity and love for him. Nothing at all of who the other man is. No, this account is silent on these obvious soul searching themes. What we hear, however, is grace and kindness towards Mary.
In a culture where women who fell pregnant out of wedlock where shamed and treated as second class, Joseph does the opposite. He does not shame his wife nor treat her as she “deserves”, no he does something counter-cultural, given the circumstances. Joseph covers Mary’s shame by giving her grace.
In a culture where public courts defined who was to be respected or shamed through gossip, Joseph does the opposite. He does not throw his wife to the gossip anchors but quietly resolves to divorce his wife protecting her from the devastating slander of the community. Joseph is kind to Mary. I believe Joseph intended to divorce Mary, releasing her to be married to the “unknown man”, protecting her from shame and a probable stoning.
What person is at the mercy of your tongue? What person can you throw to the wolves based on their conduct and shameful sin? You see Joseph is not only protecting Mary in the present, he is also protecting Mary’s future, the child’s future, and the “unknown man’s” reputation. Unbeknown to Joseph, he is actually protecting God’s honour!
Joseph does not excuse sin, he does something about it. However, he does not destroy his wife and the child she carries. We too can follow the same pattern, being gracious and kind even when dealing with those who may have sinned.
4. Joseph: obedient to Yahweh
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Sometimes obedience to God does not make sense to those looking from the outside. How does sacrificing one’s son after waiting 100yrs for him to be born make sense? How does sparing an enemy king when you have been anointed the new king make sense? How does refusing to bow before an idol make sense when you know you will be thrown into a fiery furnace for doing so? How does praying three times a day when you know the punishment for doing so is the lion’s den, make sense? How does taking a pay cut to free up time to serve others make sense? How does dying a criminal’s death on a wooden cross to save humanity from the wrath of God, make sense? How does marrying a girl pregnant by another make sense?
Friends those who obey God by following the leading of his Spirit are following a greater commandment. Sometimes in their obedience to Yahweh, they do not make sense to onlookers. Joseph was such a man. The angel calls him son of David, to remind him that he is part of God’s plan to bring about the fulfilment of his purposes through the Messiah. His counter-intuitive obedience was not in vain, it was for the plan and purposes of God. Friends when we obey God as Joseph did, we should do so knowing that our obedience is bigger than us. It is about joy to the world, the healing of the world, the salvation of many, through the one that Mary carried, the one who died and rose again. The liberator and champion of our salvation. Jesus the Messiah.