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Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Revelation to Joseph

Sermon / Homily on St. Matthew 1: 18-25

The Birthing the Christ

by Dr. William R. Long

Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25

Matthew 1:18-25:

"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."

I. Introduction

This is an easy passage from which to derive sermon titles, but it is much more difficult to figure out an actual message that would meet hearers with a sense of freshness and power for today. For example, you could get some attention if you entitled your thoughts, "Obstetrical Irregularities in Matt. 1." Or, then again, you might focus on Joseph's dilemma and entitle it, "A Nice Guy in the Dark." I think I will actually focus on Joseph (next essay) but on a different dynamic that the text suggests--the fact that Joseph receives contrary divine guidance after he has decided what he was going to do. The issue, then, is about his (and our) ability to think different thoughts even after we have decided on the correct course of action. In fact, as I will argue immediately below, focusing on Joseph, rather than Jesus, really is Matthew's concern here. The dynamics of the family of Jesus, rather than on Jesus and his appearance into the world, is Matthew's interest.

II. The "Birth" (or is it "Birthing"?) of Jesus

R.T.France, in his new commentary on Matthew in the revived New International Commentary on the New Testament, makes the point that the word which begins our section is the same as that which begins the Gospel of Matthew: "genesis." The Greek word is actually genesis. He notes that there is a difference between genesis and gennesis in Greek, which actually is crucial to understanding this story. The latter, gennesis, is best translated "birth," and that is the way that Matt. 1:18 is usually rendered. But the word genesis (one "n") and not gennesis, appears here. In Matt. 1:1, we translate genesis "family" or "generations." Thus, what is happening in Matthew 1:1 is what you might call the "deep story" of Jesus' family and what happens in our passage for today is the "wide" story of Jesus' family. The first "covers" 42 generations before you can imagine six impossible things; the latter "covers" one generation by focusing on a crucial event in that generation's history--the birthing of Jesus. Matthew 1, rather than being a story about the birth of Jesus, is really a story about birthing Jesus.

Rather than being concerned with shepherds and wise men and inns and doves in the rafters high, who all make Jesus their focus, this story is concerned with the familial dynamics occasioned by the promise of the Christ child. These familial dynamics are what I mean by the word "birthing." While the Gospel of Luke focuses on Mary and her dilemma, Matthew lazers in on Joseph and his problems. And "problems" is not too strong a word. The birthing of the Christ is, for his parents, a big problem. There are things that have to be explained, potential obloquy which needs to be averted, decisions that need to be made. Jesus, in short, caused problems for his parents long before he was born. Most of us, in contrast, only do that once we appear on the scene.

III. On Mary

Now that we know the text will describe the people around Jesus but not Jesus himself, our eyes turn to the parents. Or is it the parent (singular)? We begin with Mary. She was engaged to Joseph but they hadn't yet consummated the relationship. But, she was, literally, "found having in her stomach" (en gastri echousa) from (or "by") the Holy Spirit." The unusual phrase "having in her stomach" is put there as a little signal from Matthew to the alert reader. What does it signal? Well, those same three words, with the verb in a different form, appear in that identical order in the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew will quote that verse in 1:23:

"Behold, the virgin 'shall have in her stomach' (en gastri hexei) and shall give birth to a son...."

So, even before Matthew is kind enough to "explain" his unusual phrase in 1:18 by the quotation in 1:23, those readers of his text who loved the Bible would know what he was doing. Mary is the one spoken of in Is. 7. After that, however, Mary plays a rather passive role in the rest of the narrative, except for the quick reference to her giving birth (v. 24). Her role here is the counterpart to Joseph's seemingly rather passive role in Jesus' birthing in Luke 1-2. But if we think of this for a moment, it really is quite amazing. It is as if Mary is an almost invisible character in the birthing of Jesus.

The situation is reminiscent of the time when I used to take my son to the store with me when he was a little child. He looked exactly like me. People used to comment on it all the time. My response was, "Yes, we know who his father is, but we are still trying to figure out who the mother is..." You have almost that kind of emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew. So, what about Joseph?

IV. Meeting Joseph

We know that Joseph is a good guy. Well, the word is dikaios, which is best translated "righteous" or "law abiding." This latter translation is probably better, because it emphasizes the legal dilemma faced by Joseph. What should he do in this situation, where his betrothed has something in her stomach? Deut. 22:13-21 gives guidance. The specific passage that is "on point," as lawyers like to say, is vv. 20-21.

"If, however, this charge [i.e., that the betrothed is no longer a virgin] is true, that evidence of the young woman's virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father's house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father's house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst."

One of the things you learn in life if you ever hang around Jewish people is that they belong to a tradition that honors the intellect, and they especially like people who are deft at Biblical/Talmudic interpretation. So, what would a "deft" young man do when faced with this passage? It looks like if he really is righteous that Joseph has to bring the woman to her father's house and have her stoned to death. The passage doesn't give, as we say in law, a "safe harbor" by appealing to a "Holy Spirit exception." That is, there is no "footnote" in the text which says, "This law applies unless conclusive or persuasive evidence can be brought that the pregnancy is the result of direct divine intervention."

Could you imagine if such an exception was placed in the law? The "Holy Spirit defense" would become the major vehicle used by young Jewish women who had been playing around and wanted to keep from being killed. A whole jurisprudence on the "Holy Spirit defense" would have grown up in Israel, with additional rules of construction (how can you tell a true appeal to the Holy Spirit from a false one?). But, unfortunately, the text doesn't give Joseph and Mary this "out." So, it looks as if Joseph then is an unrighteous man in deciding to get rid of his wife quietly. But how can he, who was just deemed righteous, apparently in the next breath decide not to follow the law?

A Way Out of the Dilemma

Actually, I think there is a way out of this dilemma, but you have to be a clever exegete. If you look at Deut 22:13-14, which begins the passage, you see it reads:

"Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying...." [and then follows the allegation that she is no longer a virgin...which leads, first, to the false charge in 22:15-20 and then the true charge in 22:21-22]

But Joseph can argue, "The premise of the entire passage doesn't apply to me. I don't 'dislike' her at all. In fact, I continue to love her. Because the premise doesn't apply, the remedies suggested as the passage develops also don't apply. Thus, I am free to devise my own response to this situation I have on my hands." By so arguing in his mind, Joseph had two other alternatives: (1) to live with her quietly, making nothing of the situation; (2) to get rid of her quietly, so that the story doesn't get "out." He decided on the latter course of activity. Actually, the Greek text of v. 19 is interesting. It says that he decided not to make a public example out of her. He decided not to "stigmatize" her. The Greek verb is deigmatizo. I will coin a new word. He decided not to "digmatize" her. Thus, Joseph continued to be law-abiding (dikaios) and he had "solved" his problem.

So he thought. But what happened to him next is something that pretty much defies all our expectations. The Greek text of v. 20 says "after he had decided these things," in a dream the angel of the Lord came to him. Our translations are pretty good on this, but they can easily be overlooked. The point is that when Joseph went to bed that night, he had already decided to call it quits in his engagement. The decision was made. He didn't decide to "sleep on it," as we say when we face big decisions. He wasn't expecting things to get sorted out in sleep; he already had sorted them out. His decision would be (2) above--let go of her quietly so as not to digmatize her.

When Joseph had made up his mind, the angel of God speaks. Sometimes when we have made up our minds, the angel of God may also try to break through to us. What does the angel suggest? Well, specifically, alternative (1) above. That is, Joseph had guessed wrong when he made up his mind to divorce her quietly. What God wanted him to do was to live with her. Now we really have a problem because what Joseph is doing is exposing himself to liability as well as Mary. If he tried to digmatize her privately and secretly, he would have saved himself, and possibly her. Now, if he is to follow the angel's advice, he will open both himself and her not simply to stigma but possibly to more severe punishment. He could be fined and she could be killed (Someday someone should write something on the inequity of punishment by gender in Deut.22). So, in this case, the intervention of God was an intervention that led them into more danger.

Conclusion

All of us know that parenting is an inherently dangerous task. Kids might get in trouble; a parent could die and leave the family in financial straits. Kids both provide a kind of glue to the family relationship, but sometimes it is as if the glue is applied in the wrong places--like the bottom of the shoes or on the face. But in this case the parents of Jesus were going to be saddled not just with what we might call the "typical perils" of raising a child, but with the potential stigma of staying together. Well, Matthew, not a sociologist and not particularly concerned with following Joseph or Mary once Jesus is on the scene, never resolves the problem he creates for us in ch. 1.

But I, for one, would like someone to write a piece of imaginative literature to show how Joseph and Mary were received after their decision to stay together. What would your story look like? Would people ignore them? Vilify them? Exclude them from all the right parties? Would the stigma stick or would it gradually recede? Would they be convinced always that they were doing the right thing? Did Mary have any "problems" accepting Joseph's explanation of things? Or, was she "100% with" the angel?

All of these questions are provoked by this wonderful story. But they only can be provoked in your mind if you agree that this story is about the birthing and not the birth of Jesus.

Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday of the Revelation to Joseph

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