Matthew 1: 18 – 25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
From one of my colleagues in this week’s staff meeting, I quote: “This is such bad writing. There are too many details left out.” You know, in the Disciples church we have always emphasized the importance of opening the word and letting scripture speak. Thing is? Some of us have a bit of a tendency to talk back.
So let’s walk through this together.A marriage is arranged between two people – the bride-to-be, probably a girl in her teens, the groom-to-be, a man probably somewhat older (some would say much older). Once that marriage is arranged, during the betrothal (the period of engagement), the couple remained in their families’ own homes.
Should the woman, oh I don’t know, suddenly be discovered to be pregnant, it would be quite the scandal. I don’t mean she suddenly goes out of town to care for an aunt like in the Victorian novels. I mean that sign of unfaithfulness is considered adultery and she would be executed following a public trial. (Which, since we already know she’d be executed, makes you wonder just how much of a ‘trial’ there really was. But I digress.)
So this is where we are. Joseph gets news that makes absolutely no sense. We don’t know HOW he gets the news. That’s one of the (many) details left out of this telling. But Mary – engaged Mary, the Mary who’s meant to wed Joseph – is “found to be with child”. “By the Holy Spirit.”
Which sounds lovely and poetic when we read this verse once a year.
In real life? I’m betting it was anything but lovely and poetic, all-is-calm all-is-bright and ready for the gold-leaf image on your Christmas card.
How do you explain, convincingly, what God has done?
How do you hear it, and accept it, and go on your way?
How do either of you look at each other again with anything resembling normalcy?
Joseph gets news that makes absolutely no sense. There’s a baby on the way. And it’s not just changing his world – this baby will change everyone else’s too.
We’ve talked before about the fact that both Matthew and Luke – and only Matthew and Luke – tell the nativity story. We’ve also said that they each tell different parts of the story. In our heads, in our own retellings, on our Christmas cards and in our nativity sets, it’s all become one thing – everyone is there at once.
But here in Matthew, we’re at the very beginning, with the earliest and smallest circle of characters. We’ve gone through the 17 verses of genealogy, fourteen and fourteen and fourteen more generations from Abraham to Jesus … which Kevin masterfully read for us last week, and helped us look at with new understanding. It matters that we consider where we’ve started, so that we might see more clearly where we’re going. Looking at our family tree – looking at the tree of Jesse that details the ancestry Jesus brings to an earthly realm – it matters.
Just as it matters to sit here today and say: a woman and a man were engaged to be married and she was found to be with child … and the child was not that man’s. That detail is a big deal and not something we can skim over and say ‘But look how well it all turned out.’ Just as every child in born into their own family and in their own time, this child came to these parents as an emphasis of God’s work in the world.
In these opening verses of the gospel of Matthew, the focus is on Jesus’s origin, and his purpose. As Dr Warren Carter says, “A new creation is underway.”Just as we see in our earliest scriptures that the Holy Spirit created order out of chaos in the beginning of the world, so too in these first words of the New Testament, the Spirit moves and creates the One who will bring a new world order.
In a dream, the angel confirms God’s will for the world with this pregnancy and defines Jesus’s meaning and his life – as messiah, to save the people. God’s purpose is emphasized by quoting the prophets, calling scripture ‘fulfilled’.
This child is from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who taught prophets to speak, the Spirit who over the ages brought truth to the world, the Spirit who and opened the eyes and hearts of humanity in order to see and hear that truth most clearly. This Holy Spirit now declares that Jesus is the one who will bring God’s truth into the world; as traditional scholar William Barclay has said, “Jesus is the one person who can tell us what God is like, and what God means us to be.”
But wait. We were walking through this together and I jumped a few steps ahead. So Joseph gets news that makes absolutely no sense. So….In this moment, in this time, the expected response from an engaged man whose intended is found pregnant (therefore unfaithful) would be to dissolve the engagement, expose her to trial, and see her executed for her offense. For him to go on as if all was well and good would be to expose himself to the same public ridicule as hers.
So we don’t know exactly how he got there, but that isn’t the choice he makes. We don’t know what the conversation in and around Joseph was at this point. Is it a pretty small town? Did everyone know each other? Had news already gotten out? Did Mary tell her parents? Did Joseph’s parents know? Matthew doesn’t give us much here.
Except to say that Joseph had already settled it in his mind – he had planned to dismiss her quietly. He knew that it would go against not just the custom but the law, and yet he had resolved that this is what he would do. He had kept this to himself, and decided he would simply and quietly divorce her – they weren’t married yet, but in the sense that an engagement was as good as a sealed agreement, even though there was the official waiting period of the betrothal, divorce was the means to undo that. So he could quietly and privately declare them divorced, and go on his way, reasonably unconcerned about what happened to her. She was no longer his to worry about or deal with.
But that isn’t who Joseph is. We don’t learn much about Joseph from the scriptures – there is a good deal of historical speculation about him, and some writings from in and around the time that suggest some background. But from the scripture here, we don’t get much. The first and only description of Joseph is that he is righteous. My New Testament professor Dr Eugene Boring (do not let that name fool you) writes of Joseph and reminds us, that “naming in a Jewish context has to do with essential being and not merely labeling.” Righteous isn’t just a word to describe him in this moment or circumstance. This is the very essence and character he brings into the very inbreaking of God. Joseph – he who is identified and named as righteous – has a choice. And has already resolved to do a kind and merciful thing. 
Having received such nonsensical news – that his intended is with child, by the Holy Spirit – Joseph has choices. And has made one. And yet even then, our God who is able to do far more than all we can ask or imagine takes it one step further …
Has this ever happened to you? You’ve been in a big decision – maybe it was going to university, or approaching a new job, or deciding where and how to live, or taking the step to share your life with someone else – and you get there. You make the decision. You’re resolved. You’re settled. You’re ready.
And all you want to do is take a nap. Sleep is a great defense mechanism, right? And it’s healing. We talk all the time about kids needing more rest, that they grow while they sleep. We grow when we sleep too. Our minds and bodies can rest, and heal, and we can grow. I am a great proponent of the Ministry of Naps.
This is what I imagine here for Joseph. We only read that ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream’. I suppose that could be a waking dream, a daydream, a spirit of discernment that was embodied by his imagination. But to my mind? The man needed a nap: this period of wild information, and the unsettling of his obviously kind-hearted nature, and coming to a sense of release, of ‘okay this is what I will do’. And so I think maybe he needed a rest.
And just as he rests, God rustles next to him … an angel appears to say ‘I know you found a way to settle this mercifully, quietly, without fuss. Here’s another thought. YOU do it. Don’t be afraid. You can do it. This child is special. This baby is going to be something else entirely. This one? He will SAVE people from their sins. He will be the very embodiment of God in the world. God with us. Emmanuel. … And Joseph, we need you to show up for it.’
And when Joseph’s dream is over, he does exactly that. We don’t have record of him responding with words, arguing for maybe a third option they haven’t yet considered, looking for a side door farther to the side than the one he’d already planned to use as his exit. After his dream, he does as the angel instructed. He takes Mary as his wife, the child is born, and …
Matthew leaves us with quite a challenge in this little bit of text though, doesn’t he? In this moment with Joseph, the gospel writer seems to be saying that even when we have already determined what we think and how we will behave, and even when we have crafted a way that we think will navigate our obligations AND our heart … God can show us yet another way.
Even when we have spent our whole lives sure of what is right, even when we are solid in what is expected of us, when we are clear about the rules and the lines and the demands, even when we meet every standard for faith and righteousness … God can show us yet another way.
Even when we are weary, when we’ve done the hard work of choosing and doing what is right, kind, compassionate, merciful, just, and we don’t think or imagine or even want to realize that there is anything more that we can do … God can show us yet another way.
In this whole story “only the narrator and the angel speak. Joseph and Mary have no speaking parts, and Mary has no active part at all. The only action is that of the angel, representing the divine initiative, and Joseph’s obedient response.” Joseph represents us : sitting between wanting to do the right thing (following the law would mean her execution) and following a larger law of compassion and mercy that makes adhering to the letter of the law more difficult – “the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. … In a difficult moral situation, he attends to the voice of God, and he is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of this word from the living and saving God.”
Preacher Rev Alyce McKenzie says, “Between his decision to divorce her and his presence at her side on that night of birthing, something dramatic must have happened. What? Our text tells us what: a night of birthing just as real as Christmas Eve. The birth of a father for the Son of God.”
Is Joseph relieved, to not have to divorce her? This is his intended, after all. Even in an arranged marriage, the period of engagement and waiting is the time when the heart settles in and begins to recognize its new home.
Is there peace for him in the part of the story that Luke tells – where they have to go to Bethlehem, another town entirely, with different people and even if it’s cramped space, it’s different space and at least it’s theirs?
What must it be like to know that the child you’re raising is not just the one that maybe you and your spouse have hoped for, but is actually the fulfillment of prophecy?
It has been said that “The first story about the birth of Jesus is a story of compassion, of grace… And so Joseph remained with Mary because he believed the dream and the message of the angel.”
We don’t get a look at the stress of Joseph’s decision here … We learn what has happened: we learn of Mary’s pregnancy. We learn of Joseph’s decision, and then his dream, and then his new understanding. It sets us up as readers and hearers to perhaps already feel inadequate: We can’t get there that quickly. We fall short of that peaceful understanding of God’s will in our lives.
Perhaps the thing Matthew wants us to notice, though, is this: This is the beginning of the story, not its end. Joseph comes face to face with the Holy – in his dreams, and then in his arms. And it is hearing that word, and embracing that Divine moment, that is the first step forward in a movement of God that is still changing even us, even now.
Even we are not sure we can do it,
even when we want things to change faster than they are,
even when we are not sure if it’s the right time or if we are the right person,
even when we cannot see a way to make any difference in anything at all,
even when we are waiting and wondering and have no idea of what in the world is next.
even when the world would tell us that there is too much, and it’s too awful, and there is no way …
God can show us … God will show us …
yet another way.
 Warren Carter, New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p1749 (Abingdon 2003)
 Wm Barclay, Daily Study Bible series, The Gospel of Matthew p20-21 (St Andrew Press 1975)
 Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p134-138 (Abingdon 1995)
 Alyce McKenzie, ‘The Fear of Betrayal’, https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/12/fear-of-betrayal
 Edward Markquart, Sermons from Seattle, ‘Joseph and the Virgin Birth’, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_joseph_and_the_virgin_birth.htm