Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2019 – Matthew 1:18-25 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today of all days may be one to be brief. We’ll be back Tuesday evening. However, even though we’ll get a double dose this week, it’s important to spend some time with today’s gospel. 

This morning we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth story, a unique privilege of Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. We always read from Luke on Christmas Eve and from John the following morning, but it’s only during Advent of Year A that Matthew’s account creeps in on the Sunday closest to Christmas.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

First, there is an explanation of marital status. Mary and Joseph are engaged but not yet living together as husband and wife. In order to better understand their situation we must escape our present-day understanding of marriage.

Being engaged meant something very different in first-century Palestine than it does in 21st century Tennessee. There was no proposal on bended knee, no diamond ring. There was, however, a formal process of betrothal.

For all intents and purposes, after their betrothal, Mary and Joseph were what we might consider today to be husband and wife. They were bound by a very serious contractual obligation that was difficult to get out of, but they didn’t live together yet, so it wasn’t Facebook-official.

Next, Matthew gives us the scoop on Joseph. He’s a righteous man through and through. Moral. Ethical. A devout Jewish man with great respect for God’s teachings. When he learns that his wife/fiancé/betrothed is pregnant, what is he to do?

He could initiate a very public separation, humiliating Mary in the process, but he refuses. Instead, he devises a plan to take care of the situation quietly. There is a certain amount of compassion in Joseph’s response. Being a righteous man, he will obey God’s law, but he will not risk harming Mary’s reputation in the process.

Then enters an angel of the Lord. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” By naming the boy Jesus, Joseph will adopt him as his own, thereby grafting him onto David’s royal line. 

Joseph’s naming of Jesus is an important detail. Not only does it link Jesus to David’s lineage, but it is further evidence of Joseph’s compassion, identifying him as a man willing to take a leap of faith, trusting in God’s new plan for salvation.

Joseph’s faith is an example for us. He trusts that the solution he envisions is not necessarily the one God has in mind. Joseph may be a righteous man, but only God can tell us what true righteous is. True righteousness isn’t just about following God’s teachings. It’s also about joining in God’s plan for salvation, a plan that is established and renewed in Jesus Christ, God made flesh. [1]

In Joseph’s example we see how God can transform our understanding of salvation. The promise of the incarnation changes our hearts and minds, freeing us to respond gratefully to the work that God is doing in the world. [2]

God’s plan for salvation may have been set in motion when God became flesh, but it didn’t end there. The saving work of Jesus continues today in the ministry of all the baptized.

When the bishop visits on the Feast of the Epiphany, he will baptize a few of our own into the household of God. Through baptism we each take our place in the Church, the body of Christ on earth. 

As members of this body, our ministry is to reconcile all people to God. When we go about the world, fueled by prayer, scripture, bread, and wine, we engage in incarnational ministry, embodying acts of loving kindness made possible by God’s redemption of our flesh through Jesus Christ. 

Another way to say the same thing is this: God is with us. That sounds a lot like the prophecy that Isaiah delivered; it sounds a lot like the good news that Joseph believed; and it sounds a lot like the hope we cling to today, the same hope that carries us into Tuesday night and sustains us forever. 

[1] Thomas G. Long, Mathew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 14.

[2] Ibid., 12.

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