Today is the third Sunday of Advent. We will continue our Advent series by reflecting on Matthew 1: 18-25 Joseph: Obedience and Righteousness. Joseph is chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. Joseph is described as a righteous man and a compassionate man at the same time. For Joseph, faith and obedience go hand in hand, all while being open to having God completely change his life and plans. Joseph gives Jesus the name the angel told him to, making Jesus his son and from his family tree, adopting him into the family line of David, a family line of kings, the family line of the Messiah. Joseph becomes just the right earthly father that Jesus needs to learn to love and trust his heavenly father!
Joseph: Obedience and Righteousness
Matthew gives us a glimpse into how the birth of Jesus created struggles for Joseph, turning his world upside down when he discovers Mary is pregnant with a child that isn't his. We're drawn into Joseph's struggle on how to handle his apparently unfaithful wife, a woman he doesn't want to hurt, but someone he can no longer see himself staying married to.
Matthew shows us Joseph's character, he’s a man who follows God. Joseph is described as a "righteous" man, a man who faithfully follows God's law, choosing God’s way every time. But Joseph’s also a compassionate man, who doesn't want to embarrass or disgrace Mary, even though this is what he thinks she's done to him. Joseph wrestles in his mind and heart over the news of Mary’s pregnancy and decides to act with grace and mercy. Joseph could have taken vengeance and he would have had the law on his side. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 22, "If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife."
Instead, Joseph decides to follow Moses' guidelines on how to quietly get a divorce. Moses writes in Deuteronomy 24:1 "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house." This allows Joseph to keep this quiet and private, protecting the dignity of everyone involved; following God's law, but with a spirit of grace and mercy. We get a sense from Matthew, and from the difficulty of the situation, that Joseph puts a lot of thought and prayer into his decision. It's only after Joseph walks this difficult path that God enters the picture with a different way.
God sends an angel. During the whole time Joseph is agonizing through the problem of his marriage to Mary, God lets Joseph work through his options; vengeance or a form of grace, both allowed in his law. God isn't necessarily there to hold our hands when we need to make decisions, even if they are hard and difficult decisions to make. God has given us his Word and Spirit to guide us. God allows us to make harsher decisions in the spirit of justice, and yet often giving us the option of grace, mercy and love as well.
All our decisions need to honour God. Sometimes we need to make decisions on which direction we should go, knowing that the decision we make will cause major changes in who we are and what kind of person we will become. God normally doesn’t appear and tell us directly, "Do this or that." Do you have hard choices to make? Turn to the Bible for wisdom, take a look at what God says and then do it. If it’s still not clear, there are those wise people God has placed in your life who know you and can offer wisdom. There’s also the wisdom and brains God has given you as Holy Spirit works in you, guiding you through your conscience. Spend time in prayer. It’s amazing how often prayer makes things clearer. As Matthew Henry writes, "It is the thoughtful, not the unthinking, whom God will guide."
Joseph wants to be obedient to God, but he also wants to be grace-filled. It's only after Joseph makes his decision that God shows up with another option; keep Mary as his wife and raise her child as his own. Teach the boy Mary’s going to have, and help him to love the law and keep it. The angel tells Joseph, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph is told to give Mary's son the name Jesus. In naming the boy, Joseph takes on the role of father to Jesus, adopting Jesus as his son, thus inserting Jesus into the lineage of King David.
Joseph has a choice to make; obey the commands of the angel or stick with his decision based on the law of Moses. Matthew writes, "When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." Joseph obeys even though it means taking on Mary's shame, and when the child is born, Joseph assumes the responsibility of being Jesus' father, naming the boy Jesus as the angel had commanded.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that faith and obedience are closely tied together. He writes that faith demands obedience and without obedience there’s no faith. Bonhoeffer doesn’t believe in a cheap or easy faith. When Jesus tells his followers, "If you love me, you will keep my commands," Bonhoeffer says, “Of Course!” The other side is this, if you don’t follow Jesus' commands, you don’t love Jesus and have no faith. Following Jesus is high commitment, all life demanding. Joseph gets this. He obeys even when it's hard and will cost him respect and status within his community. He obeys because God told him to do it. Joseph quietly and obediently does as God says.
Eugene Peterson writes, “God's Word makes things happen--he makes something happen in us. The imperative is a primary verb form in Holy Scripture: "Let there be light… Go… Come… Repent… Believe… Be still… Be healed… Get up…Ask… Love… Pray… and the intended consequence of the imperative is obedience." Pay attention to Jesus and listen, that’s how you discover who you are and where the Spirit is leading you, you discover who Jesus is and how he and the Holy Spirit are right here with you, working in you and through you. This is faith that’s Jesus centered and has its roots in God's action in you.
Through Joseph's righteous obedience, God moves forward his plan of saving his people from their sin and bringing new life to those who believe in Jesus; fulfilling the promises he made to his people generations before. Mathew reminds us, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”)."
God gives Jesus an earthly father to teach him the things fathers teach their children. Joseph teaches Jesus about God as the Scriptures as Deuteronomy 4 told him to, "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them." And in Deuteronomy 7, "You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up."
Joseph taught Jesus the stories of who God is, how God has saved his people time after time in the past, always keeping his covenant with them. Joseph taught Jesus the importance of obeying God who has claimed them as his people and walked with them, shaping them into a unique and peculiar people dedicated to God. Joseph’s an example for Jesus on what obedience looks like, to obey even though it may make life difficult for a time, or even when we don't understand what’s going on or why. Jesus later lives out obedience tempered with grace, mercy and love as his father Joseph did.
We obey because our faith calls us to obedience to God, because our trust is in Jesus who is Immanuel, God with us, who is working out all things for our good. It's what Jesus learns from Joseph and sees modelled in Joseph's life that helps Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Jesus wants nothing more than to change the road ahead, and he still says to God, "Not my will, but yours be done," obediently walking the road to the cross so we can experience forgiveness for our sin. The children and youth of our congregation need to see your obedience in order to trust Jesus and get to know him. Your neighbours and co-workers and anyone you’re trying to invite to follow Jesus with you need to see your how obedience to Jesus changes your life and who you are for the better, how they experience Jesus’ love for them through you. Obedience and trust, a sign of your faith in Jesus, how big is your sign?