Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
|Text: Matthew 1:24
When Joseph woke up, he married Mary, as the angel of the Lord had told him to.
As we try to imagine what it was like that first Christmas, we build an image in our mind of a stable or a cave where animals are kept, maybe some animals in various corners of the stable, of course there is hay and the smells that go with a stable. There is a young woman giving birth with all the pain and panting and then pure joy as her tiny child comes into the world. Excitedly she holds this messy little thing in her arms for the first time and realises she is holding not just any child, not just her child, but “the Son of the Most High God”.
She beams with delight as she looks up at her husband Joseph. She loves this man so much. He has been the rock in her life these past months. He has stood by her, encouraged her, watched over her, got her to Bethlehem safely, protected her, panicked for her when he couldn’t find a place to stay, helped her bring this child into the world and now stands over them guarding them from any danger. She can see he is beside himself with excitement. What he had been told by the angel has come true. He kneels beside the mother and her child and whispers, “Your name is Jesus”, he says to the baby, “because you will save all people from their sin”.
Well, that’s how I imagine that moment when Jesus was born.
An interesting side to the Christmas story is that we don’t really get to see or hear much about Joseph. Mary is a central person in the story and we have a lot recorded about what she said and did, but Joseph is very much a background figure.
Much to the dismay of the boys who play the role of Joseph in the Christmas play, Joseph doesn’t say anything. We have no recorded words of Joseph. This short passage in Matthew’s Gospel is the only place where we find out most of what we know about Joseph. After this he fades even more into the background. He is mentioned when Jesus is twelve and his parents look for him in Jerusalem, but after that we don't see him at all, despite Jesus’ mother and brothers making a number of appearances. It has been suggested that perhaps he had died by the time Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan River.
We’re told elsewhere that Joseph was a carpenter and that he passed this trade on to his son. He was a quiet and just man who strove to live a godly life.
This is the man into whose care God entrusted his very own Son, a helpless baby, a vulnerable child. God entrusted to him the responsibility of caring for Mary when she was heavily pregnant, was required to take Mary on a strenuous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and assist Mary as she gave birth in a less than desirable place.
It was Joseph who was given the responsibility to protect the mother and child when Herod’s murderous soldiers came to Bethlehem. Again he risked his own life as he led mother and child on that perilous journey. It’s a long way to Egypt and long back to Nazareth after Herod’s death.
God trusted this man with one of the greatest responsibilities in the history of the world. Joseph only has a few lines in the Bible but he is the man God trusted to adopt and care for his infant son.
If you had asked Joseph 12 months earlier what his future plans were, his answer would have included none of the above. Joseph had his life planned out. He was an organised man; he knew what he wanted and he knew where his future lay. He was engaged to Mary. He had a good job. No doubt, in his spare time he used his carpentry skills to build a house for them and their future children. Their families were happy and everything was set for a bright and rosy future.
But you and I know that our very organised lives can very easily come undone. Joseph’s life was no different. One day Mary explains to him that she’s pregnant. He knows he’s not the father. She explains, “I’m sorry Joseph, this must be hard to understand but don’t worry about it; God has everything under control”. “Yeh, right!” Joseph says as suddenly he realises that everything he had planned had now gone down the drain. Not only that, for Joseph to marry Mary now was unthinkable. According to Old Testament law she is under God's judgement. A righteous man should have nothing to do with her.
Relationship troubles usually bring out the worst in people. The kindest and sweetest of people can turn bitter and vindictive and twisted. But not so in Joseph's case. Here was a man full of mercy in the most trying of circumstances. He considers dumping Mary but being the kind man that he is; he will do it gently and quietly, and then get on with his life.
the kind of man who is given the responsibility to care for the tiny Son of God;
a man who is not hot-headed and vengeful;
a man who strove to do the right thing, but was guided by mercy;
a man in whom grace triumphs over judgement;
and in the end, a man who is prepared to allow his life to be totally disrupted in order to take care of Mary and her child.
I can’t help but wonder, “Just as Jesus learnt from Joseph about being a carpenter, I wonder how much Jesus learnt about mercy, humility, kindness, courage, persistence, strength and grace from his earthly father. Joseph certainly demonstrated all these qualities in the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and then in Bethlehem, and then as he protected mother and child as they fled from Herod’s soldiers. If Jesus spent time with Joseph in his workshop in Nazareth, you would think that the boy Jesus would have learnt by observing these qualities as Joseph went about his business. Did God choose Joseph specifically to teach these important qualities to the boy Jesus as he was growing up? I think God knew what he was doing when he chose Joseph.
Of course Jesus also learnt these from the same place Joseph did – from our heavenly Father. It’s probably a good time to reflect on how well these qualities are a part of our lives. We have Jesus as our saviour. He is part of us and in us and fills us with his Spirit. The challenge before each one of us is to let the light of Christ shine through us ever brighter, to let those qualities that he gives us through the power of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, humility, gentleness and self-control – change and affect every relationship, not just some relationships and not just the people we think deserve our love. May we seek more earnestly to follow our master and teacher and let his love and peace flow through us to others.
I mentioned before that life can take some strange twists and turns some times and of course that was the case with Joseph. Every time God spoke to him in a dream, and there are 4 occasions this happens, there was a major upheaval in Joseph’s life involving difficult and dangerous tasks. Three times he is told to make journeys across dangerous and hostile terrain. These could easily have ended up in disaster, especially travelling with a young child.
Of course, God was watching over this
family as they travelled, but we could ask, was Joseph chosen because he was a
man who truly trusted God, who relied on God when the going was tough, who was
prepared to commit his travels and the safety of his little family into God’s
hands and trust him to get them safely to their destination?
Did God choose Joseph because he was a man of faith who looked to God for strength and courage and endurance and called on God to him protect and defend the mother and child God had entrusted to his care?
When the going gets tough and life’s path doesn’t go the direction we think it ought to go, maybe there is something to be learnt from the man called by God to watch over the Christ-child and his mother. Maybe we too can learn from him to lean on God, pray for his strength and courage to face hardship and whatever threatens our safety and happiness. Maybe we can learn that in the end God is in control, even though it seems greater earthly powers have the upper hand.
Another thing we can learn from Joseph is his willingness to let God turn his life upside down. He came to understand that God was doing something wonderful not only for him and Mary but for the whole world. He came to see that even though his life was going down a path that he didn’t plan, God had a much bigger plan that needed to be followed. This is a plan that had been in the making for many centuries ever since sin entered the world and had been foretold by prophets.
He and Mary and the baby were God's way of rolling up his sleeves and “getting down to earth” – God 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 he 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.
In Jesus, God found a new way of
passing on to us, in a way we can understand, what he is like, and explain to us in
the clearest way possible that his greatest desire is to love and forgive every
In Jesus, God found a way to be as close to us as possible.
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 and full of grace he is to us.
In Jesus, God simply says, “You are mine. I love you”.
Joseph knew God as well as any
person of his time.
But with that first Christmas he came to see God in a whole new way.
This baby he was given to care for and protect is God come to earth.
He has come to save people from their sin.
He is God here on earth with us.
This is our saviour God and king.
Pastor Vince Gerhardy
22nd December 2013