Advent Week 4

We usually read the Christmas story from Luke which includes a whole cast of characters – shepherds, and angels. Matthew just includes three – Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.

This is Love –  Matthew 1:18-25

Last week I asked you all to share your favorite decorations and this is what I received.  I didn’t ask specifically for nativities, but that is what they sent.  Beautiful nativity sets. 

Several of Nikki’s have only three parts.  I have some like that, too.  Mary, Joseph, Jesus.  In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth that we read today, there are just those three.  Mary, Joseph, Jesus.  There’s an angel, but the angel is in a dream, so really it’s just the three.  Mary, Joseph, Jesus.  Mom, Dad, Baby.

The perfect family, right?  But our reading today in Matthew isn’t quite like that.  Matthew says it went down like this:

“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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matt. 1:18b-19).

Things weren’t quite so perfect.  Joseph was about to cut the engagement off because Mary was pregnant and he knew that this child was not his child.  Joseph wasn’t going to make a big deal about it.  He was going to do it quietly.  Hopefully Mary’s father would allow her to remain at home and have the baby there.  If not, if her father tossed her out for being pregnant, who knows what might have happened.

I think we’d like it to be more of a classic love story: Joseph meets Mary, Joseph and Mary fall in love, and they live happily ever after. But we don’t have any idea what the relationship between Joseph and Mary was like.

  • Were they in love?
  • Was Joseph angry when he found out she was pregnant?

We just don’t know.  And the reason we don’t know is that Matthew doesn’t tell us, because for Matthew that’s not the point.  Matthew is writing to show that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of David, Son of Abraham.  That’s why Matthew’s gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus.  This genealogy is important to prove that Jesus was the Messiah that the prophets had said was coming. 

But Matthew does something different; he includes four women in his list.  These women are not required to prove Jesus’ lineage, but they are important to the story.  They are all women who were extraordinary.  Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who risked her life to help the Israelite spies so they would spare her family.  Ruth was a Moabite, a foreigner, who pledged to help her mother-in-law and to follow her mother-in-law’s God.  And Tamar and Bathsheba were both found to be pregnant under difficult circumstances . . . just like Mary.

Marriage in Jesus’ time was a contract between the man and the girl’s parents.  The parents could initiate the arrangement, or the man could.  There was room for romance, but romance wasn’t required or expected.  Marriage was more about being obedient to God’s commandments to be fruitful and multiply, to honor your father and mother, to provide for the family, maintain the family name and lineage, and to do what’s right in the eyes of God.

So when Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary were betrothed, that means that Joseph had entered into a contract with Mary’s father.  Technically from that moment on, they were already married. The betrothal period was one year, during which time they would live apart, and then when the year was up they would have the big ceremony, consummate the marriage, and begin living together, usually with the groom’s family.

That was the plan, until Joseph’s plan developed a problem.  Mary is pregnant.

  • Problem number two—God’s commandments forbid adultery.
  • Problem number three—The Law of Moses says the punishment for adultery is death by stoning. (Deut 22)

Joseph is a righteous man.  He knows the law and all its subtleties.  So Joseph also knows that although he cannot marry a woman who is no longer a virgin and needs to divorce her, he can handle things quietly so that Mary is not disgraced or put to death. 

This is love.  If this were purely a business arrangement and Joseph was only thinking of himself and his money, he’d report Mary to the authorities, take the case to trial, and get the bride price back from Mary’s parents. 

But Joseph wasn’t planning to do that.  Joseph was planning to dismiss her quietly.  He’s still following the Law, but he’s giving preference to the law that says “love your neighbor as yourself.”   Maybe he’s remembering Tamar and Bathsheba and giving Mary the benefit of the doubt.

But just when he had resolved to do this, the angel appeared to him in a dream. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.  She’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 1:20). Phew.

  • Would we, like Joseph, listen to an angel in a dream?
  • Would we be doing what the angel said and going ahead with the contract? 
  • Or would we be too concerned about what people might think?

A seemingly insignificant detail helps talk care of that.  The angel says, “you will name this child—Jesus.”  The angel knew, God knew, and Joseph knew that once Joseph declared the baby’s name, his legal right to do as the father, that there would no longer be any question.  Case closed.[1]

So Joseph did as the angel commanded.

And this is love—that we walk according to God’s commandments. (2 John 1:6).

You see, this really is a love story.  It’s a story about a man who loved God and obeyed God.  And who made a self-sacrificing choice to do so.

It’s also about God who loved us so much that he sent this baby whose name, Jesus, means salvation.

And it’s told carefully, not with the details we might want if we’re looking for a modern love story, but instead with the details that connect this to the bigger story—the story of God’s plan of salvation.

God works through unusual people and difficult circumstances, and God’s purposes prevail

Joseph was a man who loved and obeyed God.  God took care of the details, and through Joseph’s obedience, the baby who was the messiah was born, and grew up to be the one who saves us from our sins.

This really is a love story.  It’s a story about a God who loves us, despite the fact that none of us is perfect, despite the reality that our lives are sometimes quite a mess.  It’s a story about a God who calls us to love one another with that same merciful, gracious, self-sacrificing love that we’ve received.

One of my favorite movies to watch this time of year is the movie called Love Actually (2003).  I can’t recommend it for everyone.  It’s rated R for good reason.  But it’s about love.  All kinds of love.  Love that grieves.  Love that makes tough choices.  Love that ends up in awkward situations.  There’s some romance.  But there’s also some real-life self-sacrificing love. In this movie, the stories are told within a frame—London’s Heathrow airport.  Airports are great places for people watching, and the frame is some good old fashioned people watching.  Specifically watching people greet their friends and family coming off of arriving planes.  Lots of smiles and hugs.  Some grand receptions.  Some quiet, guarded greetings.  The point they’re making . . . and I guess this would have to be labeled a spoiler alert, although it’s not really much of one . . . is that love actually IS.  The narrator tells us how he knows this. 

He says:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.[2]

Love Actually (2003)

I think that’s true.  And the evidence that love IS is that love DOES.  It’s not just some theoretical thing.  We see it in action.  Love is patient and we know people who have been patient—sometimes incredibly patient—with us.   Love is kind, and we know this because people do kind things.

. . .love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

If we think about it, we know people who have demonstrated all these kinds of love, don’t we?

That’s why Paul in his letter to the Galatians tells them that despite all the things they’re arguing about, despite all the issues that are threatening to divide them as a church, despite all the requirements that people are trying to put in the way of people becoming followers of Jesus, what matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6).

We know that love is because we have seen what love does.  We know the power of love.  Matthew shows us that love at work in chapter 25 where the king says “to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

This year I think we’re seeing this kind of love even more because of all that’s happened in 2020.  It’s been crazy and hard, but people have been helping each other out in all kinds of amazing ways.

Love came to earth at Christmas.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.  Adopted by Joseph who would have had every right to press charges of adultery and let Mary deal with the consequences, but he didn’t.

Joseph loved God and obeyed.  Instead of looking out for himself, he gave himself up in order to protect his bride, Mary, and to protect the baby that was growing inside her, Jesus.

Just like Jesus loved the church, his bride, and gave himself up for her.  (Eph. 5:25) As Paul explains in Philippians 2:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,  he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[]; he took the humble position of a slave[c]
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
    he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

We know what love is because we see what love does.

Love died on a cross for us.

Love lives in us and helps us to love one another.

This is love.


[1]Raymond Edward Brown, “The annunciation of Joseph (Matt 1:18-25).” Worship 61, no. 6 (November 1, 1987): 482-492. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 19, 2013).

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0314331/quotes

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