My sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2022, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent! Can you believe another Advent Season and another year have almost wrapped up!? Next Sunday is Christmas Day and the next is New Years! Our four candles are lit, and only the Christ Candle remains for when we celebrate his birth next weekend! God is good.
Our Gospel reading shifts on us a bit this week. We’ve been spending more time this year with John the Baptizer and Jesus, but this week we pivot back to Mary and Joseph, especially Joseph. Matthew doesn’t tell the broad sweeping narrative of Luke’s Gospel… in Luke we hear of Gabriel appearing to Zechariah and to Mary announcing the births of John and Jesus, and we have the travels of Mary to see Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Matthew seems much less interested in the dramatic and leans more toward the pragmatic; he shortens the story to a few lines of what happened and an unnamed angel who is sent to save the day when things get a bit too uncomfortable for Joseph.
I’m glad that Joseph gets a few lines in Matthew’s Gospel. We get to see a bit of the man’s character and I think we get a healthy reminder that God also chose Joseph just as Mary was chosen. Joseph has gotten a short shrift in some corners of the church over the years… some traditions, reading outside the Gospel accounts, have assumed him to have been very old when marrying Mary and incapable at his age of being a true husband and partner to her. They have viewed him as too old to be fathering the siblings of Jesus. He has been made in some traditions to be little more than a placeholder.
In the Gospels however, we find a much more relatable groom, looking forward to his wedding and seemingly crushed when things go awry. Matthew presents us with a Joseph who is fully “engaged.” Rather than a placeholder with no intentions of having a family with his new bride, Matthew goes so far as to point out that Joseph will later wait until after the birth of Jesus to consummate his marriage. This is not placeholder groom playing at the role of husband, but a committed partner to Mary. I think we’re reminded that God chose Joseph just as God chose Mary, to raise Jesus. We know from the Gospels that Joseph did just that; we last see Joseph when Jesus is 12 years old, but Jesus is still known by the locals as the carpenter’s son, Joseph, years later during his ministry. What a gift to have the stories of both Mary’s faith and Joseph’s faith when God comes calling on them. When God comes calling and it sometimes makes life a little complicated, scary even!
Life can get messy, even for good people!
Joseph is happily engaged when the unthinkable happens: his fiancé turns up pregnant! All Joseph knows for sure is that the baby isn’t his. I bet Luke would have given us some dialogue between Joseph and Mary if he told this part of the story, but Matthew simply tells us who Joseph is and what he plans to do:
- Joseph is a good man, the scriptures say he was righteous; he’s a decent and non-vindictive man, and so
- Joseph plans to end his engagement from Mary in the least damaging way for her that he can.
Do you think Mary tried to relate the message from Gabriel to her soon-to-be husband? Do you think he tried to wrap his mind around everything happening and had to ask himself, “Is this the kind of start I want to my marriage?” Has anyone told you a story lately that’s just too much to believe, even if you want to believe it? I suppose I can’t find much fault at all with Joseph if he’s struggling to accept things as explained to him, when all of it on the surface just looks so bad, so embarrassing and not what he thought he was getting into with this new chapter of life.
What do good people do when life gets difficult? What do good people do when someone lets them down or hurts them? What happens to good people in bad situations? I think that Joseph being a righteous person, a good person, must have been a main part of the reason for God choosing him as part of the parental team to raise Jesus. It’s surely a big part of why Joseph reacts the way he does. He doesn’t blast Mary on social media and he doesn’t add to rumors or pile on his own anger or disappointment to what must have been a tense time for her… you can imagine the rumors that must have been flying around. No, Joseph sets out to minimize the trouble and to protect Mary from anything more if possible. He’s going to quietly end their engagement and save her from what trouble he can.
Wow. That can’t have been an easy decision. He’s got to be feeling some major hurt from the whole situation. But he’s going to minimize what Mary has to face in her life. What do good people do when life gets difficult? What happens to good people in bad situations? Hopefully, they remain good. Hopefully, they do good. Cultivating goodness in one’s self can be a powerful anchor in the storms of life.
Now, let’s turn the story around.
I think that the goodness of Joseph is also part of his ability to receive, believe and trust a message from God’s angel. When the angel comes and explains things to Joseph in a dream a good man’s heart is strengthened and he awakes ready to follow God’s call and raise this unexpected child.
And what was the message from the angel? The message was that Joseph can trust God and trust that God will be doing good things through the situation in which Joseph finds himself. Don’t be afraid. Trust. Because of all this, all you don’t really understand, all that has been promised and foretold, boils down to this: God is with us.
What can we do if we remember that God is with us? What can we achieve and overcome if we remember that God is with us? What can we faithfully dream and do if we remember that God has also called us, called us and placed us in the church and never leaves our side?
I think of all of Paul’s letters to the churches, we find in his letter to the Ephesians a constant reminder of their calling, and our calling, in Christ Jesus.
…from Ephesians 1
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.
…from Ephesians 2
17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; 21 in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
…from Ephesians 4
14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
This is what it all comes to: we are a called people, just like Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth! We are a people given a message of hope and strength for our times. We can cultivate goodness in our selves and be ready for what life brings us, remembering always that God is with us. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev Todd