December 16, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph
Third Sunday of Advent
Whose Child Is This?
In our scripture today, Matthew’s account of Joseph’s story, begins with a scandal. Getting right to the point, Matthew tells us that, while Joseph and Mary were engaged, Mary became pregnant and Joseph was not the father. Mary’s pregnancy must have been upsetting to Joseph. This was an act of infidelity. But we soon get a hint of Joseph’s character when we read his response to this news.
As Christians, we know that Mary was not unfaithful, but Joseph did not know that until God sent a messenger to appear to Joseph in a dream, confirming that the child in Mary’s womb was from the Holy Spirit.
Before we dig deeper into Joseph and Mary’s relationship, we must first consider Matthew’s gospel that precedes this story, a part that is often overlooked. Let’s consider the genealogy of Jesus. However, first, will you pray with me?
If you turn in your Bibles to the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the first sixteen verses give us Jesus’ family tree. We typically skip over these because their importance is not immediately apparent. Somebody begat somebody, who begat somebody. Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy for a reason.
Adam Hamilton writes this in his book, Faithful: “For Matthew, recounting Jesus’ lineage – his ancestors – tells us something about how God works and foreshadows Jesus’ life and ministry. One reason his ancestry is included is to establish that Jesus was in fact a descendant of David and hence eligible to be the Messiah.”
Hamilton continues: “In 2 Samuel 7:16 God had sworn to David, ‘Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever.’ Jews understood this to mean that when God sent the Messiah, the king God would raise up to liberate the Jewish people and to rule over them, this messianic king would be a descendant of David.”
Yet Matthew begins his genealogy of Jesus not with David but with Abraham. Matthew does this because the Jewish people all consider themselves descendants of Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 was this: I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you. For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. And we see the blessing of all the nations in Jesus’ final words, Go and make disciples of all nations.
But Matthew gives us a condensed version of Jesus’ genealogy, leaving out multiple generations. How do we know? Because we can find passages with genealogies of these ancestors of Jesus in the Old Testament. In Matthew’s genealogy he makes a point of adding four names to the family tree of Joseph and Jesus who are women. It was usually not customary to include women in a Jewish genealogy. But Matthew wants to make an important point about how God has worked in the past, and how that foreshadows how God will work in the life of Jesus. Matthew doesn’t list familiar women that we might know, such as Sarah, Rachel and Leah, or Rebecca. Instead, Matthew lists Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. They are included because of their unusual stories.
Hamilton writes, “Tamar, whose story we find in Genesis, was forced to play the part of a prostitute in order to have children after her husband died. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who helped the Israelites as they were beginning to take the Promised Land. Ruth was a Moabite woman, a foreigner who lost her husband but ultimately won the heart of Boaz, an older man who was willing to accept this widowed foreigner as his wife. And Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of King David’s most loyal officers. While her husband, Uriah, was away at war fighting on the king’s behalf, David summoned Bathsheba to the palace, where he initiated what at best was an adulterous relationship with her and at worst may have been rape.” Hamilton ends, “David then proceeded to have Bathsheba’s husband killed.”
The story of Jesus’ birth, like the stories of these four women in his lineage, would be considered by many to have been marks of illegitimacy. Each of these four women knew pain, brokenness, and hardship. In one way or another, each had been scorned as unclean or as a sinner and shamed by people in their communities. But ultimately God used them, blessed them, and blessed their offspring, and they became a part of God’s redemptive work in the world.
I think God was preparing us for the birth of Jesus. At first glance, the birth of Jesus appears to be a child conceived out of wedlock – and even worse, perhaps the result of an adulterous affair. We know, of course, that this is not what happened. But the text makes clear that this troubling scenario is precisely what Joseph thought must have happened when Mary explained that she was pregnant.
Here is what is important about this genealogy. Most of us have been through painful experiences of our own. Some of you, like me, have lost a spouse. Some were raped. Some have known poverty that drove you to do things you never thought you would do. Some were conceived out of wedlock, and some conceived your own children out of wedlock.
Matthew begins his Gospel by drawing attention to the fact that God has used just such people in the past, in all their painful and difficult circumstances, to accomplish his purposes. And this is what God does in our lives. If we look back on our lives, I think we will find that many of the best things about us may well have come from those painful experiences, redeemed by a God, who wants to bring glory to his name.
If we bring together Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth stories, Luke tells us that after Mary learned from the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant, she went to visit her older cousin Elizabeth in Bethlehem, who was pregnant with Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Now Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, so it seems quite possible that, after telling Elizabeth of her pregnancy, the two of them traveled to Bethlehem to explain this to Joseph. Mary, likely accompanied by Elizabeth, told Joseph that a messenger from God had appeared to her announcing she was to have a child. The messenger had told Mary she would become pregnant through the work of the Holy Spirit.
That may have been exactly what Mary said, but I suspect it was not exactly what Joseph heard. He seems simply to have heard that his fiancée was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. Our scripture says that Joseph “was a righteous man,” by which Matthew may have intended us to know that Joseph would not condone adultery. So our scripture says that “Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.” Clearly Joseph did not believe Mary’s story that she had conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit.
In Joseph’s day, Jewish marriages were usually arranged by the parents, sometimes with the help of a matchmaker and often when the bride and groom were still young children. As the girl entered puberty, the parents’ agreement turned into a formal engagement, and the marriage ceremony usually followed between one and two years after that. To cement the formal engagement, the father of the groom paid a certain sum to the father of the bride. It was a large sum comparable to the price of a one-bedroom house. The bride’s price was compensation for the father’s “loss” of his daughter’s work for the family.
At this time in the engagement process, the parties prepared a legal document in which the groom made certain binding promises to care for his bride. He would pledge to provide a house, a living, and his love. He had to make these promises publicly before at least two witnesses. Upon signing this legal document, the bride and groom legally became husband and wife. They could not sleep together until after the actual wedding ceremony; but, if either of them slept with someone else during this period of time, they would be considered adulterers. Maybe now, you can understand the predicament Joseph was in when Mary told him about her pregnancy.
The news that Joseph received from Mary was devastating. The legal agreement had been signed and the dowry paid. Joseph and Mary were not yet living together as husband and wife, but Joseph undoubtedly felt utterly betrayed and humiliated. Once Mary became visibly pregnant, people were going to talk.
So, Joseph faced a dilemma. On the one hand, he could do what was customary in such circumstances and call off the marriage. To do this publicly would be to call Mary out as an adulteress. She would be publicly scorned and humiliated, just like the women in the genealogy were. An even harsher penalty, by the Law of Moses, would be for the city’s elders to bring her to the door of her father’s house and stone her until dead, because she betrayed the man to whom she was engaged, her entire family, and God. The Law says to “Remove such evil from your community!”
But Joseph did not want that to happen, and so, he showed mercy to Mary. He decided to divorce her quietly. As it became evident that Mary was pregnant, people would assume that Joseph was the father and that he had a change of heart after being intimate with her. He, not Mary, would be seen as the dishonorable party in the relationship. He would take all the blame. As our scripture says, “Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.”
Infidelity can bring emotional shock and pain, just like Joseph must have felt when he thought Mary had betrayed him. Later, Jesus would state that infidelity breaks the marriage covenant and is grounds for divorce. One is not required to stay in a marriage where there is infidelity. But Joseph shows us that one might divorce and still be compassionate toward one’s former spouse rather than seeking to humiliate or be vengeful. Showing such compassion requires grace. We certainly see grace when parents make a commitment not to speak poorly about their former spouse to their children or others.
In marriages that can survive infidelity, or those that do not, the people who practice forgiveness and grace are eventually able to move beyond their pain and avoid living a life of bitterness and resentment.
Adam Hamilton writes this, “That was what Joseph practiced even as he must have been dealing with the pain from what he believed was Mary’s betrayal. When I think of three words that describe the humble carpenter in this brief passage of Scripture, they are “merciful,” “gracious,” and “forgiving.” Hamilton continues, “And that leads me to wonder: How many more times, as Jesus was growing up, did he see these same attributes in Joseph? How often did he watch Joseph show mercy to those who wronged him? How often was Joseph gracious to those who hurt him? How often was he the image of forgiveness?”
Folks, is it any surprise that Jesus grew to be a man who showed mercy to sinners, who taught his disciples to forgive, who called them to love their enemies, and who hung on a cross and cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Prayer: Lord, how grateful we are to you for your mercy and grace. You see the ways that we fall short, the times when we have strayed from your path, the moments when we brought pain to other people and to you. Please forgive us. Wash us clean and make us new. And help us to be, like Joseph, people who show mercy to those who have wronged us. Help us to forgive and to release our urge to seek retribution. In Jesus’ name. Amen.