Sermon: Joseph

Children’s Story

I’d like to invite the children forward at this time.

Christmas is coming soon. Last week, we talked about two people, a priest and his wife, who were very old. Does anyone remember their names? (Zechariah and Elizabeth) They wanted a baby, but they also were waiting for God to come and save his people. For them, the promise of Christmas was that their wait was over. Jesus was coming.

This week, I have someone else with me. Who do you think this is? (Joseph) What do you know about Joseph? 

An angel came to Mary and told her that she was going to have a baby, and that through the Holy Spirit that baby would be Jesus, the Son of God. But people didn’t understand. Mary and Joseph were doing the right thing, they were following God, but other people thought they were bad. 

I wonder what it felt like to be Mary and Joseph. I wonder what it felt like to do the right thing and have people try to get you in trouble.

Even though it was hard, Mary and Joseph did what God asked them to do. And through them, God the Father sent Jesus to save us from our sins. Even though what God asked them to do was hard, God used it to do something pretty amazing. Kinda cool, huh? Well, before I send you back to your parents, let’s bow our heads and close our eyes and pray together.

Jesus, we thank you that you came for us. We thank you that you were born, that you grew up and learned, and that you taught us about God. And we thank you that you died and rose from the dead for us. Help us, like Mary and Joseph, to follow you no matter what people say. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation. It is the season where our hope and longing is set alongside the hope and longing of Israel for the Messiah and we wait for Jesus to come again. Advent is a season where we remember the first coming of Jesus, to turn our hearts toward his coming again in glory. 

This advent, we are paying particular attention to the characters in the Christmas story. These people whose lives got shaken up and transformed by the good news of the coming of Jesus. Our hope is that by hearing their stories, God might do some shaking and transforming in us for the sake of God’s mission in the world. 

This morning we are looking at the story of Joseph. It is in Matthew 1:18-25. If you have a Bible with you, feel free to turn there with me. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Matthew 1:18-25. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

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 fulfill 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

This was not how the story was supposed to go for Joseph. You work hard, you keep your nose clean, you do the right thing, find the right girl, build a house, build a family, and stay faithful to God. Things won’t always be easy. Sure, there will be hardships along the way, but it will be a good life. 

In his wildest imaginations, I doubt Joseph would have expected anything like this. To dream dreams like another Joseph long before him. To be caught up in the story at the center of history, where the Messiah would come to save sinners. To see prophecy fulfilled before his eyes, in his lifetime, and in the womb of his bride-to-be. 

In his wildest imaginations, I doubt Joseph would have expected anything like this. To be a man whose life would fall apart around him. To be asked to trust and obey a message that seems impossible in our eyes. To be called to bear the cost of being part of the story. 

I doubt Joseph could have imagined it would be like this. 

This is the opening narrative of the gospel of Matthew. There is the genealogy of Jesus before this, but this is the first story. It is a very familiar story to many of us, but it is also a challenging, and – honestly – downright embarrassing story. Yet in and through all of this, I believe God has something to say to us here this morning through Joseph about living with God when life falls apart and the cost and joy of being part of the mission of God. Since this is a shorter passage, I’d like to walk through it a couple verses at a time and see what God brings forward for us. Does that sound alright?  Let’s walk through it together.

Starting at verse 18:

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.

The opening phrase tells us the nature of this story. This is a birth narrative. And not just any birth narrative, this is how Jesus was born. Even before the story starts, we need to know who is the center of the story. It is about Jesus. While Mary and Joseph will play key roles and be invited into this amazing story of the Word becoming flesh, this story is about Jesus. 

Joseph’s story will have twists and turns, ups and downs, but at the outset, his unique, personal, individual story is caught up in a bigger story – a story about what God is doing in the world, the story of Jesus. I believe this is true of us as well. For all the particular contours of our lives, in fact, in those very contours, our story is part of a larger story. The story is bigger than my own story. Your life has a bigger context that your current circumstance. This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about. My life, your life, with its incredible joys and crushing sorrows is part of the larger story of God’s mission in the world. Just as it was with Mary and Joseph.

After this opening statement of purpose, we get some of the context. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. If scholars are right and this marriage was typical of that time, Mary would have been quite young, maybe 14 or 15. It was typical for a girl to become engaged not long after she was physically capable of having children. She probably knew Joseph, but there would not have been a romantic courtship in the way we think of it. Joseph would have been older, we don’t know how much, but at least old enough that he had built a home and had enough responsibility in the family business to provide for himself and Mary. The two families would have watched the two of them, noticed their faithfulness to God, and outstanding character, and seen that these two were a good match. 

Then there would be a formal ceremony prior to the wedding, where they would become engaged. In its literal meaning, Mary was being ‘set aside’ for the one particular man, Joseph. Like in our day, it was a pledge that they would be married, that they would come together and he would take her into his home. According to the Law, that is the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, at this point they were husband and wife, except for sex. That had to wait until the night of the actual wedding. 

And breaking this command, sleeping with someone who is engaged, even your own betrothed, was a very serious sin. According to Jewish tradition, it was even more serious than adultery after marriage. It carried the death penalty – the same punishment for sleeping with someone who was too closely related to you. 

So now we begin to see the scandal brewing. but before they came together, Mary was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Mary, who is pledged to be married to Joseph is found to be pregnant. In the eyes of the community, either Joseph and Mary sinned together, or Mary sinned with another man. I think Matthew adds ‘through the Holy Spirit’ not because it was common knowledge among the people or that anyone believed Mary if she said so, but to clarify for us. He wants us to have no doubt about how this happened. Jesus was born, not because of some sin of Mary, or any other form of human initiative, but through the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that brings the word into personal life. It is the Holy Spirit that causes Jesus to grow in the womb of Mary. 

I don’t know if Mary tried to tell Joseph or not. Obviously, people began to notice the signs of her pregnancy, and began to wonder, to whisper, and to judge. Let’s look at the next verse and see what Joseph does.

Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Joseph has a dilemma. The most obvious interpretation of events doesn’t look good for Mary. We know what is going on. We know that Mary has done nothing wrong, that the child is from the Holy Spirit. We know all this, but Joseph does not. According to the Law of Moses, he can divorce Mary. But it is also within his right to judge her ‘sins’ publicly. Think of the later story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. That was legal and justified, sin is a very serious business with very serious consequences. But Joseph, not softening his stance on what he thinks is Mary’s sin (granted, we know he is misunderstanding), Joseph doesn’t soften his stance on the sin, but he does temper it with compassion. and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. Faced with what he believes is sin, Joseph has the wisdom to hold justice and compassion together. Or in the words of Psalm 85:10 “Love and faithfulness meet together. Righteousness and peace kiss each other.”

We should take a moment to recognize the character of Joseph here. In dealing with Mary, in dealing with what he believes to be clear and obvious sin, Joseph chooses compassion over shame. Without compromising his biblical convictions on the nature of sin and what is right (and this is important), Joseph acts with compassion toward Mary. He plans to divorce her, as was his right, but refuses to shame her. He holds together conviction with compassion, love and faithfulness. Would that the same would be said of us!

Yet, even in divorcing her quietly, unguilty Joseph is willing to take on the public shame and embarrassment of the divorce. He plans to file for divorce, but by not publicly pinning it on Mary, Joseph opens himself to ridicule. Joseph shows that righteousness is not only being morally upstanding, but willing to bear the sins of others.

But then an angel shows up. Verse 20-23:

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 fulfill 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.”

Now Joseph gets let in on what we have known since the beginning – this story is a lot bigger than he imagined. Not only has Mary not sinned, but the one whom is growing in her womb is the one God has sent to save the people from their sins. The one to whom Mary will give birth is the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, Immanuel – God with us. 

His first hint that this story is bigger is the angel’s address: Joseph, son of David. David is almost 30 generations removed from Joseph, yet the angel’s message concerns this larger story that includes God’s promises made long ago to David. Joseph is now given the truth about Mary’s pregnancy. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. And now Joseph is invited into deeper personal sacrifice by taking Mary as his wife. Everyone knows his fiancé is pregnant, he is already seen as a fool, I’m guessing. But if he divorces her, at least he is a righteous fool. But to take her as his bride, that seems to make him double the fool. Yes, we know that Mary wasn’t unfaithful and now Joseph knows the truth of what God is doing. But who would believe them? The angel’s command is to enter into shame, embarrassment, and ridicule for the sake of God’s mission in the world. 

Joseph is invited to bear the cost of discipleship. Following the Lord, for Joseph and Mary, will include a life of being misunderstood. The public around him won’t understand. Will Joseph bear the personal cost for the sake of God’s mission? 

Verses 24-25:

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.

Joseph bears the cost for the sake of the mission. Joseph takes God at his word, and obeys. Biblical Bethlehem was probably around 250 people and Nazareth between three and four hundred. In that small of a community, I bet these two bore the cost of discipleship for years. It’s possible that this was the reason there was no room at the inn, or, in other words, no room at the family homestead, for Joseph and Mary. Joseph and Mary risked being misunderstood, bring misjudged, and mislabeled, for the sake of God’s mission in the world. 

But in doing so, they were brought into a much bigger story. Mary gave birth to Jesus. They taught Immanuel to walk and to read. And this Jesus grew to do just as the angel had said, to save the people from their sins. 

There was a cost for being part of the story. For Mary and Joseph, there was a cost to obeying God and participating in God’s mission in the world. But for Mary and Joseph, it was a cost well worth paying.

As we close our look at Joseph, let’s take a moment to look at just what God asks of Joseph and what this might say to us in our life with God. 

God asks Joseph to take him at his word. Everything Joseph knows, every reasonable and simple explanation says that Mary has done wrong and Joseph is justified. The only thing contradicting that story is the voice of the angel. Who will he believe – which story will he believe is true? 

Without a word, Joseph gets up and does as the angel commands. Joseph trusts and obeys, he takes God at his Word. Unlike Zechariah, who we saw last week mumbled in disbelief and was struck dumb, Joseph responds with obedience without uttering a word. 

There will be times in our life with God where we will need to trust our eyes more than our eyes. There will be times where we are called to trust the Word of the Lord when everything around us is telling a different story. May we have the willingness of Joseph to have our stories, our understanding, turned around and changed by listening well to the Word of the Lord. 

The first thing we see in Joseph that, I believe, speaks to us is that Joseph takes God at his Word. He is immediately and completely obedient, willing to shift his understanding and actions because of what God has said. 

The second thing is this: Joseph is willing to suffer for the sake of God’s mission in the world. By taking Mary as his wife and raising Jesus as his son, Joseph will enter into a lifetime of misunderstanding, ridicule, and shame. This will be the cost for Joseph of being part of the story of God’s redemption. We hear at the beginning of this passage that the story is the story of Jesus. Yet, Joseph and Mary are brought into the story, but at a cost. 

Brothers and sisters, sometimes there will be a cost for joining in God’s mission in the world. The call to make disciples, to share Christ in community, is not a lifestyle choice that we can hop in and out of like a new pair of shoes. It is a costly and beautiful way of life. It is an invitation to be misunderstood, to endure shame, and even loss because Christ and his gospel are worth it. For Mary and Joseph, the cost was worth paying to be part of the story, to be part of what God was doing in the world. 

May we count the cost of joining God’s mission worth everything. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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