“It Happened This Way”
Matthew 1:18 – 25, December 18th, 2016
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
Let us now open our hearts and our minds, as-well-as our ears and hear this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 1, verses 18 thru 25.
18 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 fulfil 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.
May the grace and mercy of our loving and compassionate God, help us to understand more fully the full meaning of this narration of the birth of the Christ Child.
The Birth of Jesus, the Messiah, is only recorded twice in scripture. First, in the gospel of Matthew, and then in the gospel of Luke. The other two gospels did not document the birth narrative. The gospel of Mark simply wanted to tell us about the ministry of Jesus and move us forward from there. Whereas, the gospel of John wanted to tell us how the Messiah was with God from the beginning of time. Each of the gospels has a point they are trying to make with us the listeners. We could spend the next six or seven months just trying to document all the reasons, therefore(s) and whys our gospel writer’s, way back then, made these choices. Clearly, it had a lot to do with events happening at the time and the situations they were dealing with and so forth. But for now, we had best grapple with only what is in front of us. Now it is our task to look at the narrative from the gospel of Matthew and see if we can see how this all happened, the birth of Jesus that is, and what we are to glean from this accounting. And how this might be applied to our current understandings of Christmas and the Advent season leading up to it.
The first thing we need to take note of is that this reading is not about Mary, Jesus’ mother, it is about Joseph the man whom takes Mary as his wife, adopting Jesus as his own; thereby giving baby Jesus his lineage, so that we can trace Jesus’ ancestry to King David, as is recorded in the first 17 verses of this chapter of the gospel according to Matthew. “1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.” You remember the next thirteen verses all the way to verse sixteen where we hear: “16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
Now from Joseph’s point of view the story begins with his learning that Mary is with child – and they have not been together as husband and wife. Kind of a problem back in those days. Apparently, Joseph decided to think this over and during the night, while he was sleeping, Joseph had a dream, a vision. His dream was to change the course of history! Rather than reject his betrothed he embraced her and the expectant baby, with compassion, kindness and love! Wow! That was some dream; it was a vision actually. Throughout scripture we hear the reference to dreams interchanged with the concept of visions a number of times. Joseph’s dream changed everything. Without it, there would not have been a narrative to write about, other than a footnote in some ledger that a woman named Mary was stoned to death in Nazareth. But Joseph did far more than simply save Mary’s life, he adopted her son and cared for him and nurtured him as any good father would do.
Joseph’s actions were of a man looking forward and not backward. Tradition tells us that Mary was a young woman; she and Joseph were to begin a journey together which would create a new thing! From Joseph’s perspective, this took a lot of courage and tenacity as the road forward was not going to be an easy one. We know as the narrative is further laid out for us that together they go to Bethlehem to register for the Roman taxes. That in itself was a difficult journey. It did not take a couple days… it was way longer than that! Actually, after Jesus was born they ended up going to… well you know the story, right? It was years before they traveled back to Nazareth. And then we hear a story about them going to Jerusalem, as a family, when Jesus was twelve, but that is the last reference to Joseph in the gospels. We can only surmise that Joseph died early, long before we hear of Jesus again at age thirty. Wait, we are getting way ahead of ourselves here. Let’s go back to the dream which Joseph had. This is the heart of the birth story.
“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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ /Matthew 1:20a-21/
Everyone here knows what a dream, a vision, or an encounter with God is like… you do don’t you? Well, I do know that numerous such events have been recorded, and far more are never written down. The vast majority of such occurring’s are never acknowledged because a majority of people discount such insights as foolishness. Sad, really. God, works so hard to lead us to the light, the promises of God, yet, we discard these moments as outrageous, or simply as irrationalities, or even as day-dreams not meant to be acted upon. Dreams, at the very least, are meant to help us clarify events in our lives. They are often meant to give us deeper insights into things that are going on in our lifetimes today. Sometimes, a dream is the spark of creativity, that is to say: the one having this vision possibly could be on the brink of a major discovery or notion which could change the course of history! Or, at the very least, give insight or direction to a current life situation or reality.
Let’s talk about expectations for a moment. Frequently, when we try or say something new, we may not realize how revolutionary or dramatic an insight we are involved in. Many of us here today, yet not all of us here… remember Martin Luther King. And if we remember Martin, or have studied about him in school, we remember his ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech. At the 50th anniversary, of Mr. King’s speech, on August 28th 2013, President Obama said these words while standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial: “We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.” Rev. King was a preacher and he surely had planned his speech praying that it would be a good one. But, I truly doubt, he had any idea we would be taking about it all these years later! His expectation was perhaps to set into motion a course of events.. which could give hope and prayerfully make a difference in the ‘civil rights’ movement of that time period, and in that place within history. Yet, as we look back, it is abundantly clear, how his dream surely was, and has been, a vision from God. His words changed the course of history. Yes, we know there is more work to be done within this arena. Race relations are far from perfect in our society! But, where would we be now, if Rev. King had not had such a powerful vision for millions to hang their hopes and dreams onto?
Joseph, the husband of Mary, did not seem to play a big role in the life of his adopted son Jesus. Yet, he set the tone, he set the course of history moving forward. His willingness to listen to the voice of God, as that holy inspiration came to him in a dream, set a course of events into play that brought forth the life of a character in history that has changed everything! Even the non-believer in Jesus being the Messiah, believe he was at least a great prophet and teacher! Indeed, Joseph set into motion a set of circumstances which were part of a larger vision… which also had been set into motion. Joseph’s piece in this larger drama was a crucial role! Joseph was a key player in this cycle of events that led to the birth of Jesus: specifically, in the manner, in the way in which God had first envisioned!
We all know what anticipation feels like. We are only a week away from Christmas day and we all have things that we are anticipating. Others are expecting certain things of us and we are expecting responses from them as well. Everyone wants something new. Some new thing perhaps wrapped in beautiful paper and tied in a bow, with a simple, yet eloquently written Christmas greeting. Yet, we find ourselves struggling with what the facts say. “The check book has run out of cash.” “Your cousin is hard to deal with and will be here on Thursday”, or, you are just plain exhausted from all the running to and from getting ready for the ‘big gathering’ or getting ready for the Christmas Eve service – and yes, the party after.
Then, in the middle of it all, you have a dream, you have a vision. You have this fresh new insight that strongly encourages you to get in touch with what is in your hearts. Now what do you do? This interrupts everything you have planned!
Joseph’s dream was not what he was expecting. Surely, he had not anticipated such an event to occur at such an untimely point in his journey. This is not what he had planned and prepared for! Rev. Kate Matthews offers us some truly inspiring thoughts for us to consider. For Joseph wasn’t and is not the only one who had other hopes and dreams. “Advent readings have a way of building up our hopes and expectations, with promises of war turning into peace; gentleness, not violence, becoming “the norm” even in nature itself; and all of us coming home at last to the God of healing, wholeness, and reconciliation. We’ve been looking forward, not backward, in this season of anticipation, and today’s reading brings us to the long-awaited moment of God’s dramatic “new thing,” God’s fresh, new act in the drama of salvation. Perhaps we hear the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke from Mary’s perspective, but here, in the Gospel of Matthew, we get Joseph’s point of view.” This is why this reading is so profound. It is Joseph the ‘easily’ set aside husband of Mary whom is pivotal in this accounting of the birth of the Christ child.
One theologian tells us “Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.” /Roy T. Bennett/ Christmas is upon us and we have dreams swirling in our hearts that are yet unfulfilled! Human rationality tells us… don’t do it! Push them aside! But, the Spirit of Christmas, the story of Joseph’s encounter with God in a dream tells us differently! This is a season of heart felt love. Allow your heart to lead you! Dream the impossible dream! Marcus Borg, a well-recognized, progressive Christian theologian says this about today’s scripture lesson. “With beauty and power, these symbolic narratives express central early Christian convictions about the significance of Jesus.” Joseph’s dream, symbolizes our dreams. We just need to trust in God to lead us to their fulfillment. Allow this ancient narrative of God’s love to fill your heart with new dreams… then look forward into your life, not backward, and live them! Amen.