Matthew 1: 18-25
A gathering of strangers, friends, extended family, and acquaintances; that’s what Christmas Eve is so often at Westminster By-The-Sea. Not that that’s all bad! But many who are with us week in and week out are gone for Christmas. In fact, you’ll get a prelude to Christmas today so those who are always gone get to hear the our wonderful Director of Music offer the beloved “O Holy Night.” Our choir gets smaller on Christmas Eve instead of larger. Our pews are filled with wonderful people; some regulars, some occasionals some annuals! So next weekend—Christmas weekend—we might be a gathering of strangers, friends, and extended family—not unlike Bethlehem in the time when Caesar Augustus called for a census. The first Christmas was a gathering of people away from home; some very far from home. So all is well! In a way we are all connected—people again gathering to remember who we are and to remember why Jesus Christ is still the center of the human race. In a way, those who came to Bethlehem were also connected: people of the house and lineage of David, called together to be taxed and to take roll.
It seems that issues regarding the family surround us annually, especially in political years. There are statistics for married people and one harder to tabulate of people married but separated. There are those who live together; and there are those who are single, divorced, or widowed. The Bible, in fact, describes some strange family situations in the Old Testament! But today in Matthew’s gospel, we learn there is a special role for the person who marries a woman who has a child or is about to have a child: that role is of step-father. When you think about it, a man loving and helping to guide the child from his beloved is not new. It even happened in the Christmas story. Jesus had a step-father. His name was Joseph.
The late Professor Emeritus of Pittsburgh Seminary, Douglas Hare writes :
In Matthew’s story of the miraculous conception [otherwise known as the virgin birth] Joseph becomes aware of the pregnancy before he learns the cause. His immediate response is that of a “just” man: he would “dismiss her” that is, let her out of her engagement promise. [This means he would stop his plans to marry her, for they were not yet officially married.] It is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. No matter how much he still loves Mary, it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract.
Some of Mary’s statements in Luke indicate that she regards herself as a willing recipient of the message the angel brought (“I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38), “Matthew, on the other hand, by selecting Joseph as his leading actor, stresses the active component in the human response. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something!” [Hare]
Now Joseph was about to become the stepfather of the Son of God! What big shoes he had to fill! Imagine all that poor man went through that year. He was betrothed to a woman who was already with child by God; it was the year of the census and he traveled with Mary, far along in her pregnancy, almost 90 miles to Bethlehem; and when they arrived, things were crowded. Guest houses generally had women and children stay in one big room, and men stay in another big room. Likely Mary did not want Joseph apart from her; after all he chose to stay with her through everything. So they asked around and found a stable, usually a cave under a house or an inn, where animals could stay. There Mary could have her child without being separated from the man who said “yes” to the angel. Joseph was obedient to God, supportive of Mary, and a good citizen of the Davidic line. Joseph was no deadbeat dad.
Mary Ann’s sister Beth loves genealogy and tracing back the branches of their family tree. In many of today’s blended families, sometimes a family tree starts to look like a family shrub: so many branches! What do you think Jesus’ family tree would look like? According to Luke 3: 23-38 Jesus’ lineage went all the way back to Adam by way of Boaz! (Verse 32) who lived in Bethlehem and whose wife—a gentle and devoted Moabite—was Ruth. Even Jesus’ family tree had the mixed marriage of a Jewish man and a Moabite woman! And that was God’s plan. Behold, it was very good.
When it came to Joseph— stepfather by our standards, but Jesus’ father by Jewish standards—he was “of the house and lineage of David.” By first century ruling, Joseph was legally Jesus’ father. It was his job to bring up that son. God left no doubt that that although the Holy Spirit conceived the child, Joseph was to raise him as his own. In essence, it was an adoption arranged in heaven. An angel gave Joseph specific instructions saying: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife …. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [1: 20-21] Joseph did what the angel commanded, and he got to announce the name of his son! Jesus was to be born in the city of David that is called Bethlehem, a village where a non-traditional marriage of the Jewish man Boaz and the Moabite Ruth produced the branch of Jesse, of David, and of Jesus. Our world is still broken, but as we have seen in Bethlehem over the years, te is still hope. I have visited Bethlehem each time I have led a pilgrimage to Israel. In spite of security checkpoints that must be crossed, the people of Bethlehem are kind and welcoming. Last time we stayed in an inn in Bethlehem, which seemed most appropriate. It was run by a woman, her father, and her children. They were efficient and hard working. We visited the shepherd’s fields and saw sheep on them. We imagined what it must have been like to have an angel visit them. We visited the cave that for 2000 years is believed to be the place where Jesus was born. And we sang “Silent Night “ at his birth place. Our guide put the video he took of us singing up on Facebook just two months ago to remind us of our visit. It was wonderful.
Let me close with the classic encapsulation of our Lord Jesus:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty. There for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected [us] on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.”
May that one solitary life, impact you today, and forever as your Savior.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 18, 2016