Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Matthew 1:18b-21, 24, 25
Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married, she found out that she was going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit. Joseph was a man who always did what was right, but he did not want to disgrace Mary publicly; so he made plans to break the engagement privately. While he was thinking about this, 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 Jesusóbecause 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.

Joseph's story

At Christmas we hear a lot about the baby Jesus, Mary his mother, the shepherds and angels but there is one character that stands in the background more than all the others. But without this man, Mary would have found it difficult when it was time to give birth to Jesus. The man I am referring to is Joseph. Imagine he has sent us a Christmas card and letter to tell us about the first Christmas. It might go something like this.

Dear worshippers,

As it is the time of year again when you will celebrate the events that took place long ago when Jesus was born, I thought I would jot down a few lines to give you an idea of what happened.

Firstly, I should introduce myself. As you know, my name is Joseph. I understand that some of you have books that trace your familyís history back to those early pioneers who came to Australia, or perhaps back to your origins in Europe or wherever. I too have a long family history. I can trace my family back to King David Ė you know the King David in the Old Testament. He lived about a thousand years before I was born.

Where shall I start? I was born in Bethlehem and spent my early years there. I finished my apprenticeship as a carpenter and moved to Nazareth looking for work. I set up a small business making furniture, yoke for oxen, doors and shutters, as well as repairing tables and chairs and whatever else people managed to break. I was a member of the local church and liked listening to the teachers at the synagogue. The Law of Moses tells us how to live as God's people, and even though it is tough going, I try my best. I try to live out my faith in my daily life. People knew that I was honest and fair, so they felt comfortable bringing me their business. I think the Bible sums up the kind of person I am very well when it describes me as "a man who always does what is right" (1:19).

I enjoyed living in Nazareth but what made it even more enjoyable was Mary. We were engaged and had begun to plan our wedding. Perhaps I should explain that engagement back in our time was a lot more permanent than it is today. Engagements lasted about a year and this gave the coupleís families plenty of time to get to know each other. A search was done of the Temple records (your equivalent of the Registrar of Marriages). In a small country like ours one could never be too sure who we were related to.

Engagement in our day was almost the same as marriage, Mary was known as my "wife" and if something happened to me before our marriage she would be regarded as a "widow". If a couple decided to break off their engagement that would be the same as a divorce.

During my engagement to Mary, we did what other couples did. We talked about the home I would build, the children that would run through the house, and the wonderful life that we would have together.

One evening as we sat out back watching the sun sink and enjoying the cool evening breeze, Mary told me that she had some very important news and to listen very carefully. I could sense the excitement in her voice and yet her face was worried. In hindsight I can see that she was worried about how I would react to the news she was about to tell me. With both excitement and hesitation she said it, "Iím pregnant". I didnít hear anything else. My mind went into a whirl.

Pregnant! A baby! How? I knew I wasnít the father. We loved each other; trusted each other; we had a future. She went on to tell me what the angel had said about how she would become pregnant, saying, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God's power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). It was bad enough that she told me that she was pregnant but to go on to tell me a blasphemous story that this baby was the Son of God. It was bad enough that Mary was pregnant but to drag in God and blame him for her condition Ė that was going just a bit too far. I didnít know what to think. Perhaps Mary had been out in the sun too long, or was having a nervous breakdown.

I can tell you I was a mess. I didnít know what to think. One moment I pitied her, the next moment I was angry with her. There were even moments when I wanted to get back at Mary for the way she had wrecked all my hopes and dreams of a happy life.

I loved her with all my heart but to all intents and purposes she had betrayed me. She had been with another man and that hurt me deeply. As you know, I took the Law of Moses seriously. It regarded this kind of thing as adultery and was punishable by stoning. Thereís another thing, people are going to assume that Maryís baby is mine, that we had sex. People will talk, my family will be upset and ashamed; my business will be ruined.

In the end I decided that I wouldnít be nasty to Mary. I thought that the best thing to do would be to quietly break off our engagement. I tried to go back to work. I tried to fix the broken leg on a stool, but I just couldnít put my mind to it. I tossed and turned in my bed at night. When I did doze off I had this strange dream. There was a bright light and an angel appeared. He said, "Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit. Go ahead and marry her. Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:20,21 CEV). 

Here I was slinging off at Mary about her angel story and now it happened to me. This sort of thing doesnít happen to ordinary blokes like me. Angels appear to prophets, not woodworkers. For a moment, I even entertained the idea that this was a trick of my subconscious mind. But as I reflected on the angelís message I realised that what Mary had told me was true.

I told Mary about my dreams. You should have seen her face when I said that I believed her. I believed her baby was from God, and I believed that this child was the Son of the Most High God. She was even more excited when I asked her to marry me as soon as possible. We were both excited and had no idea what lay ahead of us.

What happened next made life very difficult. Caesar ordered that a census be taken and that everyone had to return to their place of birth. This meant a trip of about 140 kms from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Thatís not such a big deal with your cars and trains but back then we travelled by foot. And remember Mary was heavily pregnant. The journey was a long one for her.

At last, we got to Bethlehem and as you know the place was crowded with visitors. Even my relatives didnít have any room. I tell you, I was getting a bit desperate because Mary was so exhausted and it was clear the birth of the baby was not far away. Finally, I found shelter in a stable and no sooner had I put out some fresh straw for Mary to lie on than she went into labour. Iím a carpenter, what did I know about delivering babies, but thank God everything went well. We soon held in our arms the most precious thing that I had ever seen.

Not too long after the baby had settled down in a manger of hay than these scruffy looking fellows appeared at the stable door. After my initial fear that they wanted to cause trouble, they told us about the angels who had told them where the Saviour had been born. As I led them over to the manger, I could hardly control my excitement. They just stood there staring at the baby, saying nothing. And as they left, they were so happy. I could hear them saying that this was a night that would be remembered for all history.

Thereís a lot more that I could tell you. For instance, when we took Jesus to the temple there were two old people there Simeon and Anna, who were waiting for the coming of the Messiah and knew instantly that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. On another occasion a bunch of men from somewhere in the east visited Jesus. They had followed a star until it stopped over our house. King Herod had heard about the birth of a king and in a jealous rage ordered all the baby boys of Bethlehem to be killed. Again, an angel warned me of the danger and we left during the night for Egypt.

But for all of that, Iím glad that God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus and me to be his earthly father.
When he fell on the streets of Nazareth and skinned his knee, we considered it a privilege from God to be able to comfort him and to bandage his knee.
I will never forget him sitting on my lap and telling him the stories of the Bible until he fell asleep.
I remember teaching him how to use a saw in my carpentry shop.
God used ordinary people like Mary and me to raise a boy who would bring salvation to the world.

In fact, he uses all of us to carry out his will in the world. It doesnít matter how ordinary and plain you think you are, there is no one too ordinary and too plain that God canít use. Itís just that we resist God's plans for us with all kinds of excuses and reasons. I thought I had a very good reason to have nothing to do with God's plan but he still used me.

Let me add that when God does use us to carry out his plans, be ready for the unpredictable and to be surprised. He will challenge you,
take you down new paths,
open up new possibilities,
and confront you when you are ready to dismiss his ways as too hard or irrelevant.
God did that with Mary and me. Before I met Mary, I would never have guessed what God would do in my life. Yes, I was a reluctant participant in the beginning, I didnít understand everything that God wanted me to do, but I havenít regretted one moment.

Iím not the main character in the story, Jesus is. And as you celebrate his birthday again this year, remember why God went to so much trouble to come to earth in our baby son. He loves you. He has chosen you to be his child just as he chose me to be part of story.

With Christmas greetings,


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
23rd December 2007

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