A mother took her 5 year old to the mall the week before Christmas because she thought it would be magical for both of them. Trouble is, the little boy did nothing but whine and moan about wanting to go home. At one point, his shoe came untied and he begged his mom to help him tie it. ‘Can’t you just..’ she said but when she knelt down to tie his shoe, she saw the mall from his perspective. No magic, Christmas trees and lights. Just legs, knees and angry people.
She thought to herself, ‘well, I’ll try to make the best of this’ so she took him to see Santa. When the boy sat on Santa’s lap, he asked, ‘and what would you like little boy?’ And he said, ‘I would like to get down.’
I’m sure that we’re about done with the mall in our own hearts. We’re tired of 30 days of missing the point. So let’s get back to the Christmas story.
Our Advent question has been, ‘what do you do in times of uncertainty and anxiety.’ We have seen how Herod got by and how John the Baptist wrestled with his own expectations of what messiah ought to look like. Today we are privileged to look at who tradition calls ‘step-father of God.’ OK that’s my term but it works.
We don’t know a lot about Joseph, but Matthew spends a great deal of time letting us know he is in the lineage of king David. We also know the description he provides, that Joseph was a ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ man. We know that he was a carpenter who lived a simple life and struggled to make ends meet.
We first meet Joseph engaged or betrothed to Mary. When a couple was betrothed in first century Palestine it was usually all arranged by the parents. Money and gifts would be exchanged on both sides and the couple were legally bound together. They were married in every way except one, that of consummation.
When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, and he knew he had nothing to do with it, it was his right to disown Mary and bring her to public shame and humiliation. Since they were legally bound together, she (he thought) had violated the marriage vow.
When the Scripture says that someone is ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ what always follows is a story of how they are just and righteous. The story of Joseph is no exception. So, when someone violates the marriage vow, how does a ‘just’ and ‘righteous’ man respond? When you are in the right, the other is in the wrong, what do you do?
Most of us like being right. Most of us like to win in the game of personal relationships. Our culture teaches us that when we are wronged we do whatever it takes to rub the other person out. We are convinced that being right means that the other person needs to make reparations, serious reparations.
But what does our righteous man do? Before he is given an angelic visitation he has in mind to divorce her quietly because he was ‘unwilling to put her to shame.’
I find this fascinating that this is the first example that Matthew uses to show that Joseph is righteous. It is not the quality of moral purity per se, but of mercy.
Joseph was unwilling to humiliate Mary. He was unwilling to use his privilege as the one who was ‘right’ in the relationship and decided not to use that privilege to bring her shame. And right out of the box he is called ‘just and righteous’ for it.
Jesus did not grow up on an island. Most of what he learned he learned from Joseph and Mary. And it was Jesus who said, ‘blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’
There is one more obvious point to show the righteousness of Joseph. In a dream, the angel told him what had happened and to take Mary as his wife and to name the child Jesus. When Joseph woke from his dream, what does Matthew say? ‘He did what the angel of the Lord commanded him, he took Mary as his wife…and he named the child Jesus.’
Without hesitation, without question, without thinking about it, Joseph did as the Lord said. It was a ‘not my will, but thy will be done’ moment, an example of the lifestyle and commitment Joseph would later teach Jesus.
This is most of the airplay that Joseph gets. Later he takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod, there is the brief scene when Jesus is in the Temple at age 12, and then Joseph disappears from the gospel accounts.
I think that is the way Joseph would have it. His righteousness and faithfulness stand on their own merit. There was no one to bring him kudos, only a few lines in Scripture. But what lines they were! Joseph was merciful and obedient to God, and he was given the task of raising God’s Son.
The gospel accounts are slim on Joseph (and even Mary to an extent) not because they were not the most important parents in the history of earth, but because the gospels were written to point to someone else—Jesus.
Matthew 1 says 2 very profound things about Jesus. First, his name: “Jesus, because he will rescue people from their sins,” and second, his identity: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”
What he does, ‘saves his people from their sins,’ and who he is, ‘Immanuel, God with us.’
I realize that Advent as a season of penitence has never really gotten off the ground in this country, at least not recently. Somewhere in the mid twentieth century Advent was coopted by Montgomery Wards and it has never recovered. Businesses and malls depend on so called Christmas shopping to stay alive for another year.
But our concern shouldn’t be whether or not we can say ‘Merry Christmas’ at Wal Mart.
The outside world is going to do what it is going to do. It will make a thin and gaunt saint from Myra who helped poor children into a fat and jolly elf with reindeer who gives you everything you want, but that is what the world is supposed to do.
But it is difficult, is it not, to commercialize John the Baptist, Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth. It is hard to make the story get old because we’re not talking about winter solstice or fairies or magic.
There was a carpenter who did what was right, a young maiden mild who said ‘yes’ and a baby who would save us from our sins. God in flesh.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us.”
My suggestion is this. Go ahead and get through the next two days by the skin of your teeth. Go ahead and feast. But remember what it is all about. Continue the celebration through Epiphany and beyond. Don’t take those decorations down until January 7th. Let the neighbors think you’re weird. Say ‘merry Christmas’ until January 6th and invite everyone you know to church for that feast.
The incarnation never ceases to amaze. We serve a living Lord, a risen Jesus who is no longer in a manger but is at the right hand of the Father.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, born as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel. Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.