Matthew 1:18-25New International Version (NIV)
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.
I remember when I was a young man that there were times when we needed to go outside to do things after it got dark. Especially in the winter, it can get dark pretty early in the evening, and if chores aren’t done before the sun goes down, you still have to feed the livestock. When I hear people say that farmers work from sunup to sundown, I usually respond by saying that they are selling the farmer short!
In my later teenage years and in my early 20’s, it didn’t really bother me to work outside during the dark hours. But when I was first old enough to run out to the barn to check on animals or get something from the barn, I will admit (now) that I was scared. At 10-years-old, I would have to go outside to see if my pigs were giving birth, because they almost always gave birth in the middle of the coldest nights. I had regular chores from the fourth grade on, and sometimes it was dark until I got around to doing them.
I wasn’t afraid of a boogey man, “bad people,” or anything like that. I was afraid of nocturnal animals. If you meet up with an opossum, raccoon, or even a rat after dark, it can be unsettling. So I would take a flashlight, and if I could convince him, my little brother, along with me.
My little brother is two years younger than I am, and about a laid back as they come. I honestly don’t know what he would have done if we were attacked by a pack of rodents, but I was glad to have him with me.
Now, as an adult, I’m less easily scared, though who really wants to meet up with a rat in the dark? And the things that do scare me are different today. Some of us are scared by life events, like weddings, and graduations, because these things symbolize a major change in our lives. Some people fear taking tests, some fear receiving test results. We fear getting called into the boss’s office. We fear losing our jobs, our homes, our way of life.
Though my fears may have changed over the last 30 years, one thing is still consistent: when I need to enter into a situation that causes me some anxiety, I still want someone to go with me. Just as I wanted my brother to go with me out to the barn to do chores, I want someone to go with me to the doctor. I want someone to go with me to the bank. Even if there is nothing that they can do, I want someone there with me.
Interestingly enough, and I didn’t realize this until I sat down to write this sermon, in moments of celebration, I also want someone with me. Nobody wants to be alone on their birthday. When you get a promotion at work, you celebrate with friends. When holidays come around, you celebrate with family.
I like my alone time as much as anyone else. But I’ve come to realize that in those bad times, the scary times, and the good times, I do not want to be alone.
Our text this morning promises us that we don’t have to be alone. God is with us. And as I often try to do during these holiday sermons, I want to look at a scripture that is very familiar to us, and ask how this might have been experienced in the first century by the original hearers, and by the original actors. Because these people understood fear, and they understood celebration. But perhaps most important of all, they understood what it meant to have God with them in the middle of all the messiness of life.
We have to remember that each of the gospel writers wrote what they wrote how they wrote it for a reason. Our text for this morning starts at verse 18, mostly because the first 17 verses are, well, boring. I remember when I was in my early teens I sat down with my King James Bible and decided to read it from Matthew to Revelation. I don’t think I got through Matthew that year.
If you know your KJV, you know that Matthew begins with Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah. It goes on like this for three sets of 14 generations. I soon began to be weary of all of the begats.
This passage, known as the genealogy of Jesus, is different from many genealogies of the first century. Though it wasn’t the practice of the day, Jesus’s genealogy includes the names of five women: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah.” It is common for scholars to note that all four of the women from Old Testament had less-than-ideal sexual identities.
So I find it interesting that these women are named as a part of Jesus’s genealogy, even though women weren’t traditionally included in these types of documents. And Jesus’s genealogy ends with verse 16, “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.”
Scandal after scandal, red flag after red flag. You aren’t expecting this family to bear the messiah. But God moves in unexpected ways, and Matthew is just getting started. This Mary, the mother of Jesus, well she came into that role in a kind of unique role.
Luke tells the story in a much different fashion, but let’s try to avoid reading Luke into this text and stick with what Matthew presents us. Because Matthew doesn’t start with some grand announcement from the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. Matthew focuses on Joseph.
Matthew tells us that Mary is pledged (betrothed, promised…) to be married to Joseph. This isn’t quite the romantic engagement story that most of us are accustomed to. I doubt that Joseph got down on one knee while they were on a moon-lit walk in the park, or anything like that. It was more like a legal transaction where property or money may have been exchanged. We aren’t told the details of the arrangement, but they were betrothed, they were engaged.
Matthew makes sure to state several times that Mary and Joseph had not been together (wink, wink), yet Mary is found to be great with child. We find Joseph’s response in verse 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.”
We don’t know if Joseph and Mary had a conversation about her pregnancy or if he heard about it on the street. Had they spoken face-to-face, I’m sure she would have told him how she came to be pregnant. But again, this is the kind of betrothal that we might be used to. It is possible that they had not met before Joseph got word that she was pregnant. And if we steal a little bit of insight from Luke, Luke’s gospel tells us that as soon as Mary received this news, she got up and ran to stay with her relative, Elizabeth, for a few months. Either way, Joseph knew that she was pregnant, and he knew that it wasn’t his child. So he decides to break off the engagement.
This is so interesting, because on one hand, Joseph is said to be faithful to the law. On the other hand, he is breaking the law. Deuteronomy 22:13-30 deals with what the editors of the NIV call “Marriage Violations.” In your free time, feel free to read through that section. A lot of it deals with whether the relationship was consensual and where it happened. Verses 23-24a are pertinent to our text: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”
It isn’t suggested that they be taken to the gate of the town and stoned. It was ordered, it was commanded, it was the law.
Matthew emphasizes that Joseph was faithful to the law, but chose to take a different route. He chose to divorce her quietly. I believe that to say that he was going to divorce her quietly is to say that he was keeping it all a secret. He knew what the law said, but he thought that he could divorce her, and maybe nobody would know that they were ever betrothed. She might not have a great life in the 1st century as a divorcee, but at least she wouldn’t be killed.
This kind of reminds me of something that Joseph’s adopted son would later do when a woman is caught in the act of adultery and threatened with stoning.
Just think of the emotional roller coaster that Joseph experiences in this story. Here he is, a young man, engaged to be married. He has found a woman with whom he will start a family, someone that he will live with for the rest of his life. Times are really good, but they turn really bad. Now he finds himself back at square one. And he is alone. And because he is planning to break the law and divorce Mary rather than have her stoned, it is possible that even his own family would turn their backs on him.
People will talk about this. Neighbors will gossip and spread the news.
But we know that the story doesn’t end there. The angel of the Lord visits Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary has not been unfaithful. The child that she carries is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Continuing in verse 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.”
Matthew then connects this entire story to a passage from the prophet Isaiah. In verse 23, Matthew paraphrases Isaiah, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”
God with us. Through the highs and the lows, the good times and the bad, Joseph was not alone. God was with him, just as God is with us today.
Joseph then takes the angel’s advice, and marries Mary. But Matthew is intentional to note that Joseph and Mary did not “consummate” their marriage until after the birth of their son, Jesus.
My friends, this is the beauty of the Christmas story. We find a mixed up, messed up situation where an unmarried teenager is pregnant in an age when this was even more taboo than it might be today. And this teenager is a part of a lineage of people with questionable histories. Tamar tricked her father-in-law into thinking that she was a prostitute so he would sleep with her. Rahab was best known for being a prostitute. Ruth may have used sexual favors to gain the attention of her future husband (I’ll leave it at that). And “the wife of Uriah” slept with the king and then deceived him so that her son would become heir to the throne. Matthew didn’t need to name these women, but he did. This is Jesus’s heritage!
Do you think your family is messed up? Guess who can sympathize? Our Lord and Savior, Immanuel. Jesus the one called “Christ.” His mother was a virgin and his father was a law breaker. And God enters into that situation because God isn’t afraid of the dark. God isn’t afraid of nocturnal animals, or test results, or meetings with your boss. God enters into our lives, no matter how messy.
For you shall him Immanuel, which means God with us.
Here’s the funny thing about church. We gather on Sundays, putting on our best clothes, making sure our hair is just right, and slapping a smile and a little aftershave on our faces. We try to look like we have it all together, when in reality, none of us do.
This phenomenon is even more apparent on social media. If you use social media, like Facebook, you carefully choose your profile picture. Maybe you use one that is 10 years old, when you had more hair or were thinner. You post things that portray an image of how you want other to think about you. This article will make me sound smart. This meme will make me look really religious. This recipe or craft will make me look like a super mom or dad. Check out this picture of my perfect family, my perfect home, my perfect Christmas tree.
I think that one of my biggest fears is that one day someone might figure out that it is all just a lie, that I really don’t have it all together. You just might find out that I gave my daughter a corndog for breakfast last week and realize what a terrible person I am.
The world around us says that we need to get it all together and put our best face on, but that’s not the gospel, that’s gossip. Gossip says you must have every aspect of your life polished, shined, positioned, and proper. The Gospel says that God is with us, no matter how disorganized, messed up, and dirty we have made our lives. The Gospel isn’t about trying to make something happen or to earn something. The Gospel is realizing that God is already with us, alongside us, in the messiness of life.
The Gospel is a God who enters our world, not through kings and queens, rock stars and actors, but through virgin and her law breaking husband who can trace his lineage back to prostitutes and liars. God is with us, no matter what we have done.