Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Matthew 1:20-21, 24-25
An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife. For it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived. She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus—because he will save his people from their sins." … . So when Joseph woke up, he married Mary, as the angel of the Lord had told him to. But he had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to her son. And Joseph named him Jesus.

She will have a son…

A little boy was asked what part he had in the Christmas play. He shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t really have much to do. He had hoped to be a king and wear a crown and a colourful cloak, or a least a shepherd with a crook and perhaps a stuffed lamb under his arm. But, he was a small and quiet boy so he was Joseph. He said, "I don't have much to do. I don't even have anything to say. And", he said with a good deal of emphasis, "I have to sit next to a girl".

You know, he’s right. We hear of Joseph’s part in the birth of Jesus especially in Matthew’s gospel. Again and again Joseph is told by heavenly messengers what he is to do. When he is wondering what to do with a pregnant fiancée who had clearly been unfaithful to him, or so it seemed, the angel tells him in a dream to marry her.
When the life of the baby Jesus, and no doubt Mary’s as well, are in danger, the angel tells him to escape to Egypt.
When Herod is dead and the danger is passed, the angel tells him to take the baby and his mother back to Israel,
and then told in another dream where they were to settle - to go Nazareth.

Joseph the carpenter was an ordinary man.
He worked in his shop day in and day out.
His life was regular and routine.
He wasn’t looking for adventure.
He wasn’t looking for fame to the point where people would know his name for the rest of time.
What he was looking for was a quiet life with Mary and the children they would have together.

Suddenly he is thrown into a set of events that he would not have imagined in a million years.

One day Mary explains to him that she’s pregnant. She explains, "Joseph, your not the father, but don’t worry about it, this is God's doing. The Holy Spirit has caused me to be pregnant". "Yeh, right!"
If your wife or daughter came home with that one, it wouldn’t go down too well! How is this to be explained to Mary’s parents, to Joseph’s parents, to friends? And what about the gossip.

No wonder the poor guy was bewildered.
But swallowing his pride, refusing to massage his personal hurt, not dwelling on the thought of what people might think of him, or how the situation will look to others, he marries Mary. (Marrying a pregnant Mary, something he was not responsible for, had not been his idea of the perfect wedding).

Then of all the times to call a census, the Roman emperor demands that everyone return to their home town.
They travel to Bethlehem – a slow journey because of Mary’s condition.
He can’t find any accommodation in Bethlehem and they rest in a stable where Mary gives birth to a son.
Not long afterward, he quietly packs up the baby and his mother and move stealthily through the darkened streets as a fugitive,
fearing discovery by Herod’s blood thirsty troops as they journeyed,
travelling the dangerous road to Egypt, a strange foreign country
and then back again.

A few months before, Joseph had been contented with the simple life. What an adventure God had taken him on!

And you know what – in all these events that turn his life upside down, not one single word from Joseph’s lips is recorded in any of the gospels.

Mary sings, so do old Zechariah and Elisabeth (parents of John the Baptist). We still their songs today. Joseph the carpenter left us no songs to sing, no dramatic monologues or dialogues, no stirring poetry about "seeing the salvation which God has prepared for all peoples" as old Simeon spoke when he saw the baby Jesus. Maybe Joseph couldn’t hold a tune or write poetry, but I’m sure he must have said something as he was caught up in the grand purposes of God. Joseph might have been a man of few words but it is clear that Joseph recognised the important role that he had in naming the baby thus giving him legitimacy and a place on the family tree. Joseph also had the important task of protecting Mary and her baby.

Like Mary, he was prepared to allow God turn his life upside down for the sake of the baby Mary was carrying.

Why should God cause so many problems for Joseph and Mary?
Why did Jesus have to be born? Why didn’t God just create him like he did Adam and Eve?
Couldn’t he have been conceived in the same way you and I were conceived?
Why does God's have to do it the hard way –
hard on Mary and Joseph,
hard on Jesus when he is treated as a criminal right from his earliest days
and hard on us as we try to understand God's way of doing things?

In his book "The Jesus I Never Knew", Philip Yancey shares an episode from his youth when the concept of "the Word becoming flesh" dawned on him with profound meaning:

"I learned about incarnation when I kept a salt-water aquarium. Management of a marine aquarium, I discovered, is no easy task. I had to run a portable chemical laboratory to monitor the nitrate levels and the ammonia content. I pumped in vitamins and antibiotics and sulpha drugs and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filtered the water through glass fibres and charcoal, and exposed it to ultraviolet light.

"You would think, in view of all the energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dived for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one emotion only: fear. Although I opened the lid and dropped in food on a regular schedule, three times a day, they responded to each visit as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. I could not convince them of my true concern. To my fish I was deity. I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My acts of mercy they saw as cruelty; my attempts at healing they viewed as destruction.

"To change their perceptions I began to see would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and ‘speak’ to them in a language they could understand." (pages 38,39 Strand Publishing 1995).

That’s what happened in the events of Christmas. Even though God is different from us in so many ways, nevertheless, he chose to enter our world in the best way possible so that "fish" like you and me could see what great love God has for us and experience how God wants to serve and help us.

Jesus could have come as a prince appearing on the scene in a flash and a cloud of smoke. God had done that in the past on Mt Sinai, but to his people he was always God. They feared him and didn’t appreciate his love for them and what he wanted to do for them.

So in the end he became a "fish" so that the fish in the tank of this world could understand what God was trying to tell them.

He becomes an embryo in the womb of a mother.
He asks two people to be part of an exceptional event, and even though it will dramatically change their direction in life, he places into their hands the life of his Son.
He risks during the nine months of gossip and innuendo that the couple would stay true to their commitment to be the parents of the "Son of the most high God".
He risks the unsanitary conditions of a stable and watches like any father as his Son emerged smeared with blood to face the harshness of this world.
He trusts these two people to ensure the safety of the little child when Herod’s jealousy leads to insanity.
He risks everything placing his Son amongst people who had a history of violently rejecting his prophets.

Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the stable were God's way of rolling up his sleeves and "getting down to earth" – he became one of us so that he could talk to us, show us what he is really like, demonstrate to us in no uncertain way that God loves us and will do absolutely anything to break down the barrier of sin between him and us. He turned the lives of Mary and Joseph upside down for us and they willingly did what they had to.
They believed that God knew what he was doing;
they trusted him even though the birth of this baby was going to mess up their own personal plans for life.

In Jesus, God found a new way of relating to human beings that did not involve fear.
In Jesus, God found a way of relating to humans in a way they could understand.
In Jesus, God found a way to as close to us as is possible.
In Jesus, God stands alongside of us.
In Jesus, God breaks out of one realm of existence which is something we can’t possibly imagine, unbound by time or space, unlimited in power,
and enters our existence, bound by time and space and power, to show us how important we are to him.
That’s why sometimes he is called "Immanuel" – God is with us.

I like that sort of God. He is within reach. He is close to us. We can grasp that kind of a God. In Jesus’ birth God is making a powerful statement about his love for us and to what extent he was prepared to go to save you and me.

Joseph married Mary as the angel had told him to. Mary gave birth to a son. Joseph named him Jesus – because he saves us from our sins.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
19th December, 2004
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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