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Opening thought: Dec. 22, 2007, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Christie Storm was doing an article on angels. My point was that angels are a symbol of the season sort of like snowflakes, bells, bows, and stars. But do we really understand what they mean?

The angels show up in full glory in Luke. The Chief of Staff, Gabriel, shows up to talk to Mary. The Armies of Heaven appear to the working class shepherds. That’s Luke. But in Matthew, there’s only one angel. An angel who doesn’t have a name or title. An angel who doesn’t frighten shepherds. This angel whispers to Joseph in dreams ...

Read Matthew 1

The Feeling of Shame and Scandal

Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. It is supposed to be a blessed time as the two prepare for life together. There is already a sacred covenant between them and before the community they have promised themselves only to one another. They are not yet married and the rules about their interaction are guided by the community. Joseph is soon to begin his career with his father’s approval and begin a family with his wife. Joseph and Mary are bound to one another, but Joseph will not take her home to live with him until after the wedding.

However, this time of ordinary happiness is spoiled by scandal. Mary is pregnant. It would be bad enough if Joseph were the father and they had shamed the expectations of marriage, but all Joseph knows at this point is that he is not the father. He is in turmoil. If he ignores what has happened, he will be ignoring God’s law, and the law is very clear –
If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Joseph is a righteous man, but he is also a compassionate man. He loves God and God’s law, but he also loves Mary. He does not want to humiliate and expose her as a sinful woman, she would be rejected by the village and it would shame her and her father and she is so young. But worst of all it could lead to the death penalty. If the people were outraged, they could be brutal.

But he cannot marry her either. Joseph cannot simply forgive her and marry her anyway – that’s very storybook and soap opera romantic, but it is not reality in first-century Palestine – certainly not for Joseph. The law demands that he annul the marriage. This is how he shows his love of God and the people of Israel.

Joseph is seeking a way through his dilemma. Since he learned of the pregnancy he has been trying to figure a way out. He is righteous, but he is merciful. His best option – to fulfill his obligations to God and to Mary – is to give her a “quiet divorce.” He can send her away to her relatives down in the hill country of Judea. She can go down there until the child is born and Joseph will prepare the divorce with a few trusted officials. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is the best that he can do – nothing else is possible.

The Dream of a New Possibility
While Joseph is trying to figure it all out, he has a dream. This dream is gospel – that is, good news.

Now Joseph has a possibility that wasn’t there when he was trying to figure it out on his own. Matthew says that this fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 7) that the virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and he will be named Immanuel – God is with us.

For Joseph, the dream is truly a gospel – good news. It means that more is possible than he would have ever imagined. It means the burden of the law has been lifted.

Later, as the child grows, Joseph finds himself caught up in what God is doing in the world. The presence of Immanuel stirs up the fear and power Herod. The armies of the evil one will not go down without a fight.

This humble carpenter, this simple God-fearing fellow didn’t bargain for all this. He didn’t expect to be caught up in the politics of his age. He certainly didn’t imagine that anyone would put him and his family in their sights.

But that angel comes to him again. This time Joseph is told to cross the border into Egypt. Joseph didn’t expect to be a fugitive either, but he has learned to listen to God’s angel.

As the years in Egypt went by, Joseph probably wondered if he would ever see him hometown again. He must have wondered if someone would track them to Egypt. Did he rest comfortably in those days?

Yet again, Joseph has a dream. This time the angel tells him that it is safe to go home.

For Joseph, the dream is truly a gospel – good news. It means that more is possible than he would have ever imagined. It means that God doesn’t forget.

A New Possibility – “God is With Us”

O, how we need Immanuel - God is with us. How we need Jesus! He will save! Joseph receives the word of God in this dream as good news. He welcomes the possibility that this child is the Messiah – the Son of God. Yes, there will be scandal – not because of Joseph and Mary’s sinfulness but because of the sinfulness of humankind – but the possibility of the gospel that Joseph receives means that he and Mary and all their people will be saved.

God With Us means that God protects and watches over us. Even though it may be hard to believe at the time. God With Us means that God doesn’t forget us. What others intend for harm, God can use for good.

At this time of year I tend to reflect on the birth of Christ. But I am always fascinated by the struggle and dreams of a humble carpenter. He’s just a man trying to do what God calls him to do. He’s just a man who cares for a family. A family he loves – and a child that will bring about the salvation of the world. He becomes God’s agent. He becomes God’s man.

Joseph listened to God. He relied on God and trusted in God even when it seemed difficult, risky, impossible or questionable.

So when you see Joseph in a nativity scene, regard him as a man who trusts in God, see him as a man who paid attention to the whisper of the angel. See a man whose dreams came true.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 23 December 2007

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