A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 22, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Here we are—we are almost to the end of 2019. Just nine more days—can you believe it? (My, how time flies—and it seems like it just keeps getting faster with every passing year…) So today we find ourselves with only two more shopping days before Christmas. For most everyone here, I suspect that the holiday shopping frenzy is nearly over. (Okay—maybe not quite over for some of us who are serious procrastinators…) And then, following close on the heels of Christmas Day a week later is New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2019. Yes—things in 2019 are winding down…
Sadly for some of us, the end of the year marks the end of another football season. All the high school football schedules have long since been completed. In the NCAA, the only games left are some postseason bowl games, including the national college football playoffs. And in the NFL, only a few regular season games remain before the playoffs begin there as well. And then those playoffs lead up to the Super Bowl in early February. Following the Super Bowl, it will be six long months of impatient waiting before the beginning of the 2020 season. Sometimes it seems like forever during the offseason…
But while some things are winding down, other things are gearing up. This is the time of the year in the entertainment industry that is the beginning of what is known as “awards season.” This is the time of year when Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and Grammy awards are in the minds of a lot of people. The first of these award shows is the Golden Globes, honoring excellence in films that were released during the previous year by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Golden Globes are perhaps second only to the Oscars in importance and prestige. And they are thought by many to be a pretty good indicator how a film will likely do at the Oscars ceremony later on this spring. Nominations for this year’s Golden Globe awards have already been announced. The winners will be revealed on a prime time television broadcast the evening of January 5th.
Best picture, best director, best actor, best actress—these are some of the awards that are highly coveted by those in the movie industry. In addition, awards are given in other categories including “Best Supporting Actress” and “Best Supporting Actor.” These awards are given to those actors who are not the lead actor in a film, but who still play an important role in the arc of the storyline. It is the recognition of quality work done by an actor or actress, even though their character may not the central focus. To win a Golden Globe or Oscar for “Best Supporting Actor” is a notable and enviable achievement that any actor or actress would gladly want to add to their résumé.
The focus of today’s scripture text from Matthew 1 is Joseph. As you all know, Joseph is the husband of Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus. Truth be told, though he is part of the Christmas story, it
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seems to me that he receives a lot less attention each year than does Mary…or the angel Gabriel…or the shepherds…or the Wise Men, for that matter. I mean really—how many well-known Christmas carols can you name in which Joseph is the main emphasis? Not many, I would wager1…However, if the Christmas story were turned into a screenplay for a Hollywood movie, I would suggest to you that Joseph would be a shoo-in to win the “Best Supporting Actor” award…
We really do not know very many details about Joseph. We hear of Joseph for the first time in the opening section of Matthew 1, where Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham all the way to Jesus—a total of 42 generations. (You know the section—it is the part of Matthew that has all of those difficult-to-pronounce names that says that “So-and-so” begat “So-and-so” and on and on. And it does this for 14 straight verses. For the trained eye of the Bible scholar, those verses are important, because they establish that Jesus was a descendant of David. This is one proof of his identity as the long-awaited Messiah. But for most of the rest of us, I would suggest it is a part of the gospel that we are not likely to find very exciting or interesting. Consequently most of us have a tendency to skip over it, don’t we?
After that long string of mostly obscure names, Joseph is finally mentioned in verse 16. There it reads that “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”
Some traditions hold that Joseph was much older than Mary at the time when these events took place. That may well have been the case. The truth is that nobody really knows for sure. Scholars tell us that Mary was probably in her early-to-mid teens when she got engaged to Joseph. They say that because that was the usual age at which women in 1st Century Palestine got married. Men tended to marry later in their lives. Plus, contemporary records indicate that May/December marriages were pretty common back in those days. The last mention of Joseph that we have in the New Testament is the trip to the Temple when Jesus was twelve years old. This suggests that he may have passed away soon thereafter, adding fuel to the theory that he was much older than Mary. And for what it’s worth, several church leaders during the 3rd and 4th Centuries believed Joseph to have been around 80 years. But in the final analysis, it is all just speculation…No one actually knows how old Joseph was.
In verse 18, Joseph learns that Mary, his fiancée, is pregnant. The question arises: What’s he going to do? He knows that he is not the child’s father. Where do they go from here? In the eyes of the community, Mary was now considered to be an adulteress…or maybe even something worse…This was a predicament that was not anything that anyone could have predicted.
The next verse, verse 19, describes Joseph as “a righteous man.” So the situation in which he found himself must have been humiliating. He had publically announced his intention to become Mary’s husband. Everybody in town knew that. And now his bride-to-be was carrying someone else’s child. He must’ve have had some sleepless nights agonizing over what to do. He finally decided on a course of
1 The only one that I know of is the anonymous 15th Century English carol, “The Cherry Tree Carol,” though I would hesitate to call it a “well-known carol.” This song does not paint Joseph in a very good light either. It depicts him as very old, resentful and somewhat peevish. I became acquainted with “The Cherry Tree Carol” on the album Sing We All Merrily—A Colonial Christmas by Linda Russell & Companie (Flying Fish Records FF 70402).
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action. He was unwilling to make a public spectacle of Mary, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
Joseph found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, being a righteous man, he surely knew what the Old Testament law had to say about such situations. The law was very clear. Deuteronomy 22:21 says that, if a young woman was found to be promiscuous, then “she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must therefore purge the evil from among you.” A death sentence…That was the prescription. A harsh punishment for sexual infidelity to be sure, but that is what the law required…2
If Joseph would have blindly followed what the Bible said, then he would have handed Mary over to be stoned to death. End of the story. But as you know, that is not what happened. He turned it over and over in his mind, and no doubt slept on it. Eventually his great love for Mary won out over any slavish devotion to the Bible. He would not seek to have her put to death. Instead he decided that he would just break the engagement quietly. Then they could both put this regrettable incident behind them. They could both move on with their lives. And perhaps they would both be the wiser for the experience.
But then God intervened. Verse 20 tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel told him that he should go ahead and take Mary as his wife, because the child that she was carrying had been conceived of the Holy Spirit. The angel went further to tell him that he was to name the child “Jesus.” The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the name “Joshua,” which means “The Lord saves.” The angel said this would be his name because Jesus would save his people from their sins.
There is something noteworthy in this verse that might be easy to rush past and miss. When the scripture was read a few minutes ago, did you notice that the angel of the Lord addressed Joseph as “the son of David?” Does that phrase sound familiar to you? Perhaps it is because that this is the only place in the New Testament where anyone other than Jesus is referred to as “the son of David.” What do you make of that?
“The Son of David” was regarded in Jesus’ day as one of the titles used in describing the Messiah. In 2 Samuel 7, God made this promise to David through the prophet Nathan. God told him, “I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth…The Lord himself will establish a house for you. When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise your offspring to succeed you and I will establish his kingdom…Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (Verses 9, 11-12, 16)
2 I find it interesting that contemporary writings in the 1st Century AD suggest that this sentence for adultery was almost never actually carried out. My guess is that the occupying Roman government probably put the stop to it.
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Legally speaking, Joseph was regarded as the husband of Mary. And so therefore, Joseph would also be regarded as the father of Jesus. You may remember that, in Luke 4:22, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. As he teaches in the local synagogue, the people are amazed and refer to him as “Joseph’s son.” By establishing Joseph’s lineage as a descendent of David, this was just one more way that helped to identify Jesus as the Messiah that God had promised would come through David’s royal line.
But I think that there is another reason as well. It seems to me that the phrase “the son of David” also goes to describing Joseph’s character. In 1 Samuel 13:14, the prophet describes David as “a man after [God’s] own heart.” So what the use of the phrase “the son of David” indicates in this passage is that Joseph had also found favor with God because he was also a man after God’s own heart. The attitude of his heart was that of earnestly serving the Lord. He lived a life that he dedicated to the Lord, just as his ancestor had.
What is remarkable about Joseph in the Christmas story is that he is one who was spiritually open to listening to God and open to receiving direction from him. Four times in the first two chapters of the gospel of Matthew, Joseph receives a word from the Lord through dreams. Here is a brief summary of those instances—
The first time is in today’s passage. Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream that tells him that he should proceed with his intention to make Mary his wife. Then, after Jesus is born and the Wise Men have visited, the angel returns in 2:13 to warn Joseph that King Herod is out to kill the baby Jesus. He instructs Joseph to immediately take his little family and hurry to Egypt to escape the king’s murderous fury. A little while later, when they had been safely in Egypt for a while, the angel appeared to him a third time. This time around, the angel told Joseph to take the family back to Israel because Herod was now dead. The final angel visitation occurs in 2:22. Joseph is once more warned in a dream that, even though Herod was gone, his son Archelaus had taken his place. It turns out that Archelaus was just as bloodthirsty and paranoid as his father had been. It was still not safe for them to settle in Judah. So the angel instructed Joseph to bypass that area and instead to return to Nazareth in Galilee.
One of the constants in all of these instances is that Joseph obeyed the Lord’s direction every single time. For that reason, Joseph can be considered as a model disciple and follower of God’s will. In fact, Joseph’s obedience and submission to the will of God in the Christmas story is scarcely less remarkable than that of Mary.
In Luke 1, Mary is visited by the angel who informs her that she has been chosen to be the one who would bear the son of God. After a few questions, she then wholeheartedly embraces God’s plan with the words, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
Joseph’s experience is hardly less remarkable. The angel of the Lord visits him in dreams on four separate occasions. And while his exact words are not recorded, Joseph’s response is no less wholehearted in his desire to follow whatever it is that God wants him to do. That included those times
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when he may have doubted. Or when it involved believing and trusting in God even when he could not see the way clear in front of him. Or when it frankly may not have made any sense. It did not matter. Regardless he put his trust in the Lord and in what he understood of what God wanted him to do. And as a result, God used him to help bring to fruition the single most important event in human history—the time when God became a human being and lived among us as the man known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Joseph is one whose life can serve as an example for us today during this Advent season. Joseph was open to hearing God speak to him. He was sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, giving him direction in the ways that he should go. And then he had the courage to not only listen, but also to do what the Lord intended for him to do. May we all emulate Joseph’s dedication to the Lord during the season…and always.
To God alone be the glory! Amen