Download or listen to The Fourth Sunday in Advent, “Not In Vain” (Matthew 1:18-25)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After hearing today’s Gospel reading, I’m sure some of you, at least, are thinking, “Finally, we get to hear something that sounds like Christmas. Finally, something with Joseph, and Mary, and the Baby Jesus. Finally, we’re through with all that Advent-John-the-Baptizer-repentance talk, through with thinking about the second coming of Jesus, and now we can get to the essence of Christmas, the Baby, and all that is sweetness and light.” Well, sorry to disappoint, but if we actually hear the words of Matthew 1 today, we will see that there is very little sweetness and very little light. These words are full of fear, full of difficult and gut-wrenching decisions, full of what it means to live as the people of God in this world, to walk by faith and not by sight.
Unlike the Gospel of Luke, which focuses on Mary, and the angel coming to her saying, “You will conceive and give birth to a Son, who will be called the Son of the Most High,” here, the focus is on Joseph. Joseph finds out that his betrothed bride is pregnant. And since he knows the child isn’t his, that means that it has to be someone else’s And it is, just not how Joseph thinks it is. Joseph only knows that Mary must have committed adultery. The miraculous never even enters his mind. And why should it? It’s not like this sort of thing happens every day. But if she has committed adultery, the only thing Joseph, a righteous man according to the law, can do is to divorce her. Otherwise, he will be implicated in her sin. He is a righteous man, but he’s not a cruel man. He knows he has to divorce her, but he’s going to do it quietly so that she is not stoned to death for her sin.
While he is considering these things, possibly trying to find some other way out, maybe tossing and turning in his bed, an angel comes to him in a dream. “Joseph, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to take Mary, your wife. What is conceived in her is not from another man, but from the Holy Spirit of God. She is the fulfillment of the promise in Genesis 3 that the “seed of the woman” would crush the head of the serpent.” That’s the only place in the whole Scriptures that the phrase “seed of the woman” is used, and it’s used of Mary because she is the only one who conceives without the help of a man. Jesus is from her flesh and her flesh only. “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. She will give birth to a son, and you will call His name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.” His name will be Yah-shua. Yahweh saves. Like the earlier Joshua, who led the people of Israel into the Land of Promise, so will this new Joshua lead His people into the eternal Land of Promise.
We don’t know if Joseph stopped being afraid. We don’t know if a little suspicion lurked at the back of his mind. We don’t know what he said or thought. Joseph never says a single word in the Gospel. What we do know is that he did what the angel told him to do. Like Mary, who said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” so Joseph does the word of the messenger of God. And then, in the rest of the story, he seems like little more than a divine bodyguard; a bodyguard of the infant God. He takes pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Then he takes Jesus and His mother to Egypt. Then he takes them back to Nazareth. And that’s pretty much the last we hear of Joseph. How much of that did he expect would happen when he did the first thing the angel told him to? Was this how he planned out his life? Was this the sort of marriage he imagined himself having? I don’t know, but I doubt it. When you are chosen by God, you have no idea where it’s going to lead. Joseph as husband, as father, as a man righteous in the sight of God did not choose any of this. He didn’t choose what it would be like to bear the cross of being the husband of Mary and the father, as was thought, of Jesus. But that’s what his cross looked like: shame, perhaps, in the eyes of those who knew that he had not fathered this child. The burden of watching over a child whom the devil and the world seemed intent on destroying.
And what about you? What about me? Is this how you had it planned out? Did you see what the future would bring? How your family would be brought together? A husband, a wife, children? What does it mean that you have been chosen by God and put into this life to bear your baptismal identity? When Jesus says that His disciples will carry their crosses, He’s not telling you to go find some suffering so you can be like Him. You don’t go looking for the cross; it will find you. Joseph didn’t choose his cross, and neither did Mary. Could they have chosen otherwise? I don’t know. Could we have chosen differently? Could we now choose to throw off the cross and live our lives the way we see fit? Perhaps, but that wouldn’t help you avoid death. Because, finally, there’s not a choice between the cross and not the cross. There’s only Christ’s cross or yours. The problem with your cross, the one you bear naturally because you’re descended from Adam, is that it ends in death. That’s the final word. But if you have Christ’s cross, even though it ends in death, that’s not the final word. Christ’s cross is the key to the door of eternal life. You have been crucified with Christ in your baptism. Your death, the eternal one of your cross, is over and done with. You have been crucified with Christ, and now it is no longer you who live, nailed to your cross, but Christ who lives in you. Now this life is lived by faith in the Son of God who gave Himself for you. This life of the flesh, which so many are so intent on making a pursuit of our own happiness—which is impossible outside of Jesus—this life in the flesh is lived by faith and not by sight. Whatever the cross, whatever the vocation; whether husband, wife, pastor, worker; wherever this life leads you, you are steadfast and immovable. Do the work that the Lord has placed right in front of you. Joseph did nothing but what his vocation of husband and father required of him, in the light of the word from God through the angel. He did not do some heroic deeds of great renown. He did not leave behind some great legacy for which he is remembered. It’s not like we have a table or chair that he made. All he did was what was required of him by his situation, which he neither chose nor expected. But God had chosen him, and all he had was his adopted Son, the Son of His Heavenly Father. God has chosen you, and all you have, in the end, is Jesus. Whatever you do for the sake of your family, for the sake of the relationships into which God has put you—none of it is empty, none of it is worthless, none of it needs to be exchanged for something more glorious. Because all of it is done in the Lord, into whom you have been baptized. And since it is all in Him, none of it is vain. Not Joseph’s work, not Mary’s work, and not yours. The cross of Christ will always end in the resurrection. And that is, indeed, the essence of the Christmas story: Jesus, born into all that fear and doubt and difficult, bearing the cross for me, for you. Just as there, for Joseph and for Mary, so here also: the silent Word pleads to His Father. And He is always heard.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/21/13