by Rev. Adrian Dieleman
Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25
What did December 25 originally celebrate?
For some time before the coming of Christianity, December 25 was a time of pagan celebration. The pagans knew that at this point in their calendar the shortest day and longest night had passed, that little by little the sun would rise higher and remain longer in the sky, bringing with it the promise of spring.
Prior to this day occurred the week-long Roman feast called Saturnalia (December 17-24), held in honor of the deity Saturn. This festival brought hopes for peace, happiness, and goodness that supposedly occurred during Saturn's reign.
How did December 25 gain its Christian emphasis? For more than 300 years after Jesus' time, Christians celebrated His resurrection but not His birth. Evidently, sometime during the early fourth century, Christians began searching for the proper day to celebrate Christ's birth.
Some churches had been celebrating Jesus' birth on January 6, others April 20, May 20, March 29, and September 29. Finally so much confusion reigned that Saint Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, about the middle of the fourth century, inquired of the Roman bishop, Julius, regarding the correct date.
Julius wrote Cyril and reported that he personally favored December 25. Obviously refusing to accept this date as valid, Cyril and the Jerusalem church continued celebrating the event for many years on January 6.
In A.D. 354, two years following the end of Saint Julius' reign, the new Roman bishop, Liberius, ordered all his people to celebrate December 25 as the correct day of Christ's birth.
With the passage of time this date became the more popular and was soon adopted by most of Christendom.
Much about Christmas remains veiled and puzzling. It harbors a mystery of faith and has a rather checkered history. For instance, we know neither the day, the month, nor the year Christ was born.
We know Christ's birth was not in the year 1 A.D., as our calendar would suggest with its division of time into B.C. and A.D. Scholars have calculated that Jesus' birth was about 6 or 7 B.C. The revised time was determined partly by the fact that Herod the Great ruled Judea when Jesus was born and history records that Herod died in 4 B.C.
We also know that Christ's birth almost certainly was not during the month of December. At least two observations lead us to this conclusion.
First, in the Middle East, December is not a month when the shepherds or sheep of the Christmas story would be in the open fields at night. Winters in the mountain regions of Judea are not a time for flocks to be long exposed to the elements of nature. Because of the cold weather and the chilling rains, it is most unlikely that they would have been outdoors. Possibly, then, Jesus may have been born sometime after the rains of April and before those of November – the season sheep would be found in the open fields at night. Although of this we cannot be certain.
Second, December is not a likely month for a governor to call for the census mentioned in Luke's Gospel. Since it was necessary for everyone to make his way to his own town, it is unlikely that a governor would choose winter when travel would be difficult.
In spite of all this mystery, the biggest mystery of all that we need to keep in mind this Advent/Christmas season is that God, out of love, entered the human race as the Immanuel – as God with us and for us.
This year for Advent, I want to look at the people who were used by God as part of the first Christmas story: Joseph, Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, the Shepherds, Simeon & Anna.
This morning we will look at Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
I Joseph – a Righteous Man
A Our text tells us that Joseph was "a righteous man." This means he was God-fearing and law-abiding. He was a simple and honest man. In the Greek language the exact same word is applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth, whom Scripture describes as being "upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (Lk 1:6).
Our Scripture reading gives us a number of glimpses into Joseph's righteousness.
B Joseph was a righteous man. To fully appreciate Joseph's righteousness, we need to understand Jewish marriage procedures. It consisted of two steps. First, a formal exchange of vows before witnesses. Second, the taking of the bride to the groom's family home.
A marriage was considered legal after the first step already; the woman was the man's wife even though she continued to live at her own family home, usually for about a year. That is why a formal certificate of divorce was required to break the vows. That is also why a woman was considered a widow if the man died before she was taken into his home. Furthermore, this is also why any sexual behavior by the woman after the exchange of vows was considered adultery. In fact, Jewish law demanded the harshest possible punishment for a woman who slept around before being taken to her husband's home. Speaking about this, the Law of God says, "You must purge the evil from among you" (Deut 22:20-21). This was done by stoning; however, by the time of Jesus the purging was sometimes done in a less severe way by means of divorce. You see, the Law required that when a woman was taken to her husband's home, she was to be taken as a virgin.
We are told that "Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph." This means Joseph and Mary had already gone through the first step of marriage and were considered husband and wife; that is why Joseph is identified as "her husband" (vs 19). We are also told that the events in front of us happened "before they came together." This means Joseph had yet to take Mary into his home.
In this light consider the fact that Mary "was found to be with child" (vs 18). At this point Joseph knew only one thing about the child inside Mary. The only thing Joseph knew about the child was that he was NOT the father. Joseph was not going to broadcast this, but this could only mean that Mary had been sleeping around. Another man had slept with his wife. And, as far as Joseph was concerned, this meant he could not and would not take Mary into his home.
Here we see Joseph's righteousness. As a righteous man, Joseph could not take a woman into his home who was not a virgin. As a righteous man, Joseph could not take a wife who was an adulteress. As a righteous man, Joseph had no choice but to divorce Mary. To put it positively, Joseph was not willing to take a wife who was not as upright as he was. Now, I must admit this is not how we view righteousness today. Any man or woman who repents of their sin is no longer judged to be inadequate marriage material; their public sin is no longer held against them. But that was not the case in the time and place and culture that Joseph lived.
C Joseph was a righteous man. But Joseph was also a merciful, caring, and compassionate man. He did not want to humiliate Mary. He did not want to shame her in front of all the world. He did not want to publicly accuse her of a serious sin. He did not want to subject her to a community trial. He did not want her to be stoned for her sin. So he decided to divorce Mary quietly.
In more than one place the Bible joins righteousness to graciousness and compassion (Ps 112:4; 37:21). The Book of Wisdom declares that "Those who are upright must be kind" (Wisdom 12:19). So, we see that Joseph's kindness or mercy was actually part of his righteousness. As a righteous man, Joseph showed love. As a righteous man, Joseph showed love not only for God but also for man.
D Joseph was a righteous man. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
(Mt 1:20) "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."
Do you know what the angel was saying to Joseph? He was saying:
-Mary did NOT break the Law.
-Mary was NOT an adulteress.
-Mary did NOT have sexual relations.
-There was no reason for righteous Joseph to keep Mary out of his home.
Did you catch what Joseph did after this? When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife (vs 24); in doing this, Joseph publicly assumed responsibility for Mary and her unborn child. Not only that, but when the child was born – in obedience to the angel – Joseph gave him the name "Jesus. As the naming of a child was a father's right, Joseph was publicly declaring that he was Jesus' legal father. As a righteous man, then, Joseph responded in the direct and simple way of all truly righteous people: he simply obeyed.
On two other occasions, God also spoke to Joseph in a dream (Mt 2:19-20, 22). Both times Joseph immediately did as he was told. It was characteristic of Joseph, as a righteous man, to simply and immediately do what God said without any "buts" or "ifs" or "maybes."
E Joseph was a righteous man. I want you to notice one last thing in our Scripture reading. Joseph took Mary home as his wife. "But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son" (Mt 1:25). Joseph was a man of self-control. And, in his self-control he helped fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that it was as a virgin that Mary gave birth to her son (Is 7:14).
F Joseph was a righteous man. He was not willing to take a wife who was not as upright as he was. He was not willing to publicly humiliate or shame Mary. He was obedient to God. He exercised self-control and self-restraint.
Righteous Joseph was and is an example for Christians everywhere to follow and imitate. He was a faithful servant of God for whom we should thank our God.
II Joseph - Not Righteous Enough
A Joseph was a righteous man. It is probably fair to say that Joseph was one of the most righteous people who ever lived. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth and the Pharisees, he observed all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly (Lk 1:6).
In this light, consider what that angel said to Joseph about naming the child:
(Mt 1:21) "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."
The baby was to be called "Jesus" because He would "save his people from their sins."
You all know – or should know – that the name "Jesus" means "Savior." Jesus is the Savior from sin.
B Now, one of those who needed saving was Joseph. Yes, righteous Joseph needed saving.
You know what the Apostle Paul wrote:
(Rom 3:10-12) As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; (11) there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. (12) All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."
This included Joseph. This included Mary. This included Zechariah and Elizabeth. This included the Pharisees. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
Do you know what this tells me? This tells me that Joseph's righteousness – good though it was – was not good enough. The righteous acts of righteous Joseph left something to be desired. They did not measure up to the holy requirements of a holy and perfect God. They did not fully conform to God's requirement that we love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. Joseph's righteousness was not good enough. And, his righteousness did not earn him salvation or eternal life. Joseph needed Jesus, the Savior from sin.
C If a righteous man like Joseph needed saving, then we surely do as well.
Joseph, I would have to say, was far more righteous than you or I. How many of us, for instance, would refuse to marry someone not as righteous as we are? How many of us, out of love, try our best to avoid shaming or humiliating someone? How many of us are eager to be obedient to God? How many of us exercise self-control and self-restraint? Compared to Joseph, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. So, if he needed saving, then so do we! None of us can deny this. None of us can pretend this is not the case. None of us can pat ourselves on the back and be satisfied with who we are and what we do apart from Christ. None of us can earn salvation and eternal life. All of us – you, me, Joseph, Mary – need Jesus, the only Savior from sin.
As I said at the beginning of this message, there are so many things about Christmas that we don't know. But, in the passage in front of us this morning is the real mystery of Advent/Christmas – that God sent His son, Jesus, to be our Savior from sin – regardless of how righteous we are or think we are.
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