A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

December 22, 2013.

Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-16

Here we are on the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, just three days away from Christmas.  Throughout this Advent season, we’ve followed the lectionary texts from the Old Testament book of Isaiah as we journeyed with our spiritual ancestors in their longing and waiting for the coming of the Messiah.  But this morning, we will turn our attention to our Gospel lesson taken from Matthew.  This story is one of the few passages in the Gospels that is devoted to Joseph, who, as Matthew was careful to point out in his genealogy, was a direct descendent of David and Abraham.  

Matthew tells the story of how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.  Now, in those days, being pledged to be married, or being engaged, was a serious, legal matter.  Back then, parents arranged the marriages of their children, and they were often pledged to be married at a very young age.  Being pledged to be married wasn’t the same thing as our modern-day engagements.  For us, if something goes wrong during the engagement period, the couple can just call the whole thing off.  But back in Bible times, an engagement required signing legal papers which made the couple as good as married in the eyes of the law.  Breaking off an engagement required a certificate of divorce.  Therefore, even if the engaged man somehow died before the wedding ceremony, the woman was legally considered a “widow.”  And if, during this betrothal time, the woman had an affair with another man, that act would be considered adultery.  

Engagements were a serious, legally binding matter, and Matthew wastes no time in letting us know that this engagement of Mary and Joseph was in deep trouble.  For you see, before Joseph and Mary ever had a honeymoon, Mary got pregnant.  Sure, Matthew tells us that “Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit,” but Joseph didn’t know that.  No one would blame Joseph for concluding that Mary had been unfaithful to him.  And even if Mary had come out and said, “the Holy Spirit did it,” who would believe her?  It would only open Mary up to more ridicule and charges of blasphemy.  In the midst of this scandal, Joseph was faced with this dilemma: “What to do now?”

According to Fred Craddock, Joseph had two options.  First he could get the opinion of people in town.  Get on the phone, attend the sewing circles, take your problem to work, talk about it over coffee, talk about it everywhere, tell everybody, “Did you hear about Mary?  What do you think I ought to do?”  Spread it everywhere, spread it everywhere.  But Joseph will not go that way.  He will not disgrace Mary, will not expose her, will not humiliate her.  Then what is he going to do?

Second, Joseph probably had some friends just fresh from the synagogue who say, “Just do what the Bible says.  You can’t go wrong if you do what the Bible says.”  Well, what does the Bible say?  In the Torah, the Book of Law, in Deuteronomy 22, verses 23-24, the Bible says, “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”  That is what the Bible says. 

Joseph was certainly within his rights to follow the letter of the law, to see that its righteousness was fulfilled.  Joseph could have said, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  In the name of Biblical morality, it would have been easy for Joseph to call Mary all sorts of bad names.  But he doesn’t.  Craddock then makes this point: Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time.  He loves his Bible and he knows his Bible and bless his heart for it.  But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind.  There, he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth.”[1] 

In society’s eyes, Joseph would then have been condemned for condoning adultery.  But Matthew the Gospel writer saw things differently: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”  Matthew claimed that because Joseph was righteous, he did not follow the letter of the law, because he was concerned about how the law would be applied to real life in this case.  Some commentators speculate that Joseph decided on divorcing Mary quietly so that she might marry the father of her child and regain her honor and moral status within society. 

Joseph was a person of love, and frankly, I don’t know if I’m Christian enough to be that kind of a person.  How many of us, when we’ve been seemingly cheated, callously betrayed, emotionally violated, and legally wronged by someone very close to us, would follow Joseph’s example to forego our rights in order to offer what’s best for that person?  We’ve seen too many ugly court trials, inheritance battles, and family squabbles to know just how rare that is.  When we’ve been hurt by someone we thought we loved, so many times we want to seek revenge by harming her, exposing him, shaming her, ridiculing him, or demeaning his value, her dignity, or her worth.  Yet, Joseph did not go down that well-traveled road. 

Joseph planned to divorce Mary quietly, but God intervened through a dream: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  While Joseph was sleeping, God shared a dream.  God has always dreamed of saving God’s people.  And this wasn’t the first time that God shared that dream.

In fact, about seven hundred years before Joseph, there was another direct descendent of David, a man named Ahaz, the king of Judah, who was also facing quite a dilemma.  His own kinsmen from the northern tribe of Israel had betrayed him by allying themselves with a neighboring country, and those two countries were mounting an attack on Jerusalem and Ahaz.  God sent the prophet Isaiah to tell King Ahaz that he did not have to worry, that those enemies would not prevail.  And to further show God’s faithfulness, Isaiah prophesied: A child will be born of a virgin—literally, a young maiden—and before that child gets very old, those rival kings will no longer be a threat.  Now, we don’t know who the young maiden was – it could have been the wife of the king or a lady of the court.  And we don’t know who that young child was, but King Ahaz knew.  That young child was God’s living proof of a divine love for a chosen people, and God’s desire to save them from their enemies.  King Ahaz needed to trust God.

Matthew remembered that story, and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he saw Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the words Isaiah uttered long ago.  Matthew wrote: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”  God has always dreamed of being with us.  God’s dream has always been to have a loving relationship with His creation and His creatures. 

But in order to make this dream come true, God asked Joseph to change his plan.  God told Joseph not to break off the engagement, but to take Mary home as his wife, and to legally adopt the child she was having, and love and raise the baby as Joseph’s own.  For this child was God’s own son named “Jesus,” which in the Hebrew word “Yeshua” literally means “he will save.”  Now, God’s plan actually made Joseph’s life much harder than the plan that Joseph had for himself.  As hard as it would have been for Joseph to divorce Mary quietly, at least afterwards, Joseph could close that chapter and start again with a clean slate.  But now, for the rest of his life, Joseph would be linked to this scandalous pregnancy.  He would have to bear the brunt of rumors and innuendos.  He would be reminded every day that this child was not his.  Never in his wildest dreams, could Joseph have envisioned this future for himself.  But Joseph allowed his own dreams to die so that God’s dream for the world might live.  As miraculous as Mary’s virgin conception was, just as miraculous was Joseph’s decision to obey the angel of the Lord and take Mary home as his wife.  Joseph loved God enough to trust God with his life’s dream. 

Joseph was a person of love, and frankly, I don’t know if I’m Christian enough to be that kind of a person.  I like the plans I have for my life.  I like to hold on to my own dreams.  And while Joseph had a choice in the matter, sometimes in this fallen world, things happen totally out of our control to change plans and shatter dreams.  We have experienced our share of tragic accidents, senseless deaths, inexplicable diseases and the agony of seeing the lives of loved ones hanging on by a thread.  And for some, it may seem such a scandal to continue to believe in a loving God in the face of these terrible things.  If the character and nature of God is love, these events in our lives may force some of us to rethink what love is.   

Throughout her Supreme Court career, Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor was known for tempering her rulings with “a concern for how laws applied to real life.”  Her compassion was more than just a judicial philosophy.  In 2006, O’Connor retired from the court to help care for her husband, John, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before his death in 2009.  In 2007, there were scandalous reports that John had fallen in love with a fellow patient at his nursing home.  After years of anguish and depression, John O’Connor was behaving like “a teenager in love,” and had a new reason for living. It would be easy to think that Sandra Day O’Connor would be jealous or uncomfortable or angry to see the husband she was caring for, now in love with another woman.  After all, her son Scott recalled his parents’ close marriage: “They were husband and wife, lovers, best friends, you know, and that’s gone.”  But Scott also revealed something remarkable: “For Mom to visit when he’s happy with his girlfriend, sitting on the porch-swing holding hands – Mom was thrilled [to see him so happy].”[2]

One political columnist wrote about the O’Connors, ending with this thought: “We’ve all been conditioned to think of love as the heart-pounding, breathless passion of the young—not the complex feelings shared by two time-ravaged people who spend afternoons holding hands, as a defense against loneliness, disease, and death.  Nor do we usually think of love as the kind of selflessness O’Connor is now demonstrating, swallowing any jealousy so that her husband of fifty-five years—who no longer even recognizes her—can find some solace in his final days.  So this, in the end, is what love is.”[3]  In some ways this is a beautiful love; in some ways, it’s an uncomfortable love.  In some ways, I wonder if it’s like Joseph’s love for Mary.

I share this with you not to guilt you into having the kind of love Sandra O’Connor had for her husband, or, for that matter, the kind of love Joseph had for Mary.  For the depth of sacrificial love these people displayed is almost scandalous.  Like I said before, frankly, I’m not sure I’m Christian enough to have that kind of love.  But the good news this morning is that I don’t need to generate that kind of love because that kind of sacrificial, scandalous love has already been offered to me and to you.  Both Joseph and Sandra Day O’Connor gave us a glimpse of the kind of scandalous love offered to us by our heavenly Father.  God loved us so much that God would not only dream of being with us, but He would actually share fully in our human condition in order to save us.  Among all the world religions, only the Christian God is a God who loved humanity enough to be one of us, to suffer alongside us, to weep with us, to hurt and hunger with us, and finally, to die for us.  Now that is a scandal, for no self-respecting deity would ever dare or dream such a thing.   But there you have it in our Gospel Lesson, a God who does all these things coming to us as a child called “Emmanuel,” “God with us” so that He might be “Yeshuah” or “salvation” to us all.

And on this fourth Sunday of Advent, on the cusp of the Emmanuel’s coming, let us freely choose to receive this scandalous love.  Let us receive the salvation of the world into our lives even though He may change our life’s dreams.  Let us accept the Son of God in our lives so that we may be a part of God’s dream for the world.  Let us welcome Christ’s coming, for Christ is the Person of Love whom we’ve been waiting for.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

[1] Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, “God Is With Us,” p. 5.

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1576716/Judge-lost-husband-to-Alzheimers-and-love.html

[3] The Week, Vol. 7, Issue 339 (December 7, 2007), p. 20.f

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