by Rev. Edward F. Markquart
Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25
There was this group of pastors, gathered together, around a table, preparing our sermon for Sunday. We were discussing the passage about Mary and Joseph, their engagement, Mary becoming pregnant, Joseph not being the father, and Mary having to have this delicate conversation with Joseph, trying to explain what happened.
We, as pastors, were imaging the human situation of Mary trying to tell Joseph
that she was pregnant, not by him or another man, but by the Spirit of God. We
were in this intense discussion, when a new counselor in the city walked into
the room and introduced himself. We introduced ourselves, each pastor taking a
turn and telling briefly whom he or she was. The introductions got around to me
in this circle, and I asked him, “Are you a trained pastoral counselor?” “Yes, I
am” was the reply.
“I need some professional advice from you today.” The group of pastors all groaned. I ignored the groaning of my colleagues and continued, “I need some advice and I can get it in front of my fellow pastors. I have this man who is coming to see me and he is engaged to this young woman, who is pregnant. This man is very upset because he knows that he is not the father, and he is asking me what to do. What is your advice, professional counselor?”
By now the pastors were snickering, knowing that I was playing on the Mary and Joseph story. The counselor was silent and didn’t say anything.
Finally, one of the pastors chimed in, “The correct answer is, ‘They named him Jesus.’” The pastors all laughed.
We then explained to the counselor about our conversation before he entered the room.
Today, I would like to talk with you about Joseph, Jesus and the virgin birth. The story of the virgin birth is at the heart of our Christmas celebrations, and so the sermon today will focus on the story of the virgin birth. Today, our gospel lesson is from Matthew and focuses on the person and role of Joseph, and so our focus in the sermon will also be on Joseph and the virgin birth.
Virginity is not a hot topic in today’s world of conversation. We rarely if ever discuss if someone is a virgin or not, whether they have had sex before marriage or not. For most of us today, the word, “virgin,” means a person who has not had sexual intercourse. In our vocabulary today, the word, “virgin,” refers to someone who has not been sexually active.
In the Old and New Testament, there are two meanings to the word, “virgin.” There is an Old Testament meaning, and a New Testament meaning. A Hebrew meaning and a Greek meaning. The first meaning is this: the word, “virgin,” simply means “young woman.” Such as in the passage from Isaiah 7:14 that was read for today. Would you closely look at that passage? In Isaiah 7:14, it says that, “a young woman shall conceive and give birth to a child.” The word simply says “young woman.” Circle those words, young woman, in your mind. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word for young woman is “alma.” We have a person in our parish by the name of Alma, Alma Edvartsen. In Hebrew, her name simply means “young woman Edvartsen.”
But there is a second meaning of the word as well. Look carefully at the Gospel reading for today in Matthew 1:23. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Highlight in your mind the word, “virgin.” The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word means someone who has not been sexually active with anther person, who has never had sexual relationships with another, who has not had sexual intercourse. Eventually, the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek language, and the meaning of the word changed from young woman to sexual virginity. … So in the Bible, there are two meanings to the word: In the Old Testament, virgin means young woman and in the New Testament, virgin means someone who has not had sexual intercourse.
Today, we celebrate not simply the birth of Christmas, not simply the birth of the festival of lights, not simply midwinter festival. Today, we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. And the story of the virgin birth accentuates that Jesus was and is the Son of God.
Different cultures throughout history have valued virginity differently. That is, in the ancient Greek culture, virginity was not prized. In the ancient Roman culture, virginity was not regarded as precious. But in the Old and New Testament, we find virginity being appreciated and valued.
In the Old Testament, virginity (meaning someone who has not had sexual intercourse) was a highly prized value. A virgin was someone who was precious. Rebecca was not merely a young woman; she was a virgin. The Bible is very emphatic about that. There were several laws to protect the virginity of women. That is, parents made arrangements for their daughters to be married and they expected their daughters to be virgins. If their daughters were not virgins, their value went down by fifty shekels and that was a lot of money in those days. So fathers made sure that their daughters were virgins. … If a man raped a virgin, he would be punished by death. … If a woman was engaged and she had sexual relationships with another man, she and her lover were to be killed, both man and woman. Virginity was a very serious part of Old Testament culture and law, and there was great pressure to retain one’s virginity.
When we move to the New Testament, we find a similar emphasis and high value placed on virginity. The word is no longer the Hebrew word, “alma,” but “apathone” in Greek. It is translated purity. The King James Version of the Bible translates it “chastity.” Men and women were to be chaste; that is, they were to be sexually pure. A mark of a true Christian was that he or she was pure in their sexual relationships. Sexual purity became a defining characteristic in contrast to a culture of sexual promiscuity. The New Testament word for purity refers to sexual purity, not a more generalized moral purity.
So, in both the Old and New Testament, virginity is a highly prized value. It is the expected behavior of Jewish men and women, of Christian men and women.
But then, it the 1960s, and during the past decades, there has been a sexual revolution, especially in the Western hemisphere and the United States and Europe. The sexual values have changed. In our culture, virginity is no longer held in such high value as the Old and New Testaments. That is, with the advent of “the pill” and a more permissive society, virginity became not so valuable anymore. Then came abortion in the mid 1960s, and abortion became a way to eliminate unwanted pregnancies. The media and mass culture began to promote the idea that premarital sexual activity was normal and acceptable. Virginity became old fashioned. If a person is a virgin, one may suggest that such a person is frigid. Men and women began living together before marriage to see if they were sexually and personally compatible. On TV and in mass culture, living together seemed totally acceptable. If you add all these up, there became enormous pressure against virginity in our culture, with the church often fighting a losing battle. Virgins may not admit that they are virgins because it may then be suggested that they are prudes or inexperienced, and no one wants to be a prude or inexperienced.
But…the sexual revolution ran into trouble, with the advent of Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. Churches began to advertise how condoms were not as safe as pretended. Even so, premarital and extra marital sexual relationships seem the norm and almost nobody says anything too strongly any more about virginity.
But in the Old and New Testament, virginity was highly valued. It was the expected behavior of men and women, so at the time of Mary and Joseph, it was expected that Mary and Joseph would be virgins.
According to my research, at that time in Jewish history, their families had arranged the engagement and marriage of Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph were probably second or third cousins. Mary was very young, perhaps a thirteen or fourteen year old girl. The engagement was very serious and called a “betrothal.” They were engaged before two witnesses. The man would give the woman a present; her father would pay a dowry. If the man died, she would be called a widow. If the woman died, he would be called a widower. If the engagement broke up, it would be called a divorce. During the time they were engaged, they were called husband and wife. While they were engaged, they were to be virgins and they were to have no sexual intercourse prior to marriage. The engagement was to last one year and then they were to be married. If a woman became pregnant by another man, she could be stoned to death.
During that year they were engaged, an angel or divine messenger visited Mary. Mary was told that she was to become pregnant. She asked the divine messenger, “How can I become pregnant? I have no husband. I am not married yet. I am engaged to Joseph, and we cannot do that kind of stuff. How can I become pregnant?” The angelic messenger said, “The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the Holy Spirit shall cause you to conceive and give birth to a child.” Mary waited. And waited. And waited. She missed her first period. Her second period. She started to have morning sickness, and it was now time to have that important and delicate conversation with Joseph.
We have no Biblical record of that conversation, but we do have our imaginations, and we can imagine a delicate scene. This conversation was not at all pleasant. Mary said, “Joseph, I have something to tell you. I don’t understand it, and it is hard for me to tell you because there is no way I can comprehend what is going on.” … “Go ahead, Mary. Tell me. I can handle it.” … “Joseph, I don’t know how to tell you.” … “Tell me; we can handle anything.” … “I am pregnant.” …There was a long silence. Truly, a pregnant pause. This was an awkward moment between them. Joseph automatically assumed she was pregnant by another man. He had been humiliated. Their relationship had been humiliated. This woman had betrayed him. She had been fundamentally dishonest with him and he was upset. He knew the legal consequences. He knew the Old Testament law. She could die for this. So could the other man. … So he asked the question, “Who? Who got you pregnant? Whom have you been with?” … A divine messenger visited me and told me that this was going to happen. The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.” … “Sure Mary. Sure.” … The Bible said that he resolved to divorce her quietly. Look carefully at the text; it clearly implies that Joseph did not believe her. … “What do you do? What do you do when the woman you trusted is pregnant by another man? She can die for this. So can he. What should I do in this nasty situation?”
In the passage in the Bible, it says, “Joseph was a just man.” That means that Joseph was a good man, a kind man, an honorable man. The Bible uses the word, “righteous.” Joseph was a righteous man.
Then we come to the next beautiful line, “Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame.” That line says mountains to us about Joseph. He didn’t want to hurt Mary. He didn’t want to destroy her. He was not punitive. He was not revengeful. He wasn’t out for a pound of her flesh. Instead, Joseph had these feelings of grace towards her, and so he resolved to divorce her quietly. Not tell her parents. Not tell his parents. Not tell the Jewish rabbi. Not to tell the Jewish court so he could get his money back. … So the first story about the birth of Jesus is a story of compassion, a story of grace, a story of a man who had been enormously violated by a pregnant woman and he vowed not to punish her. He had been deeply violated, yet he still cared for her and took care of her. This is the gospel.
But the story continues. An angel or divine messenger appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Mary is pregnant by the Spirit of God. The Spirit hovered over her and she is now pregnant. You are to marry her and name the child Jesus for he will save the people from their sins. Call him Immanuel because God is always with us.” And so Joseph remained with Mary because he believed the dream and the message of the angel.
The purpose of the story for today is not to tell us that Joseph was religious or righteous. The primary purpose of the story today is to tell us that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. That is the point of the story. Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. Joseph was the legal father. Joseph was the adopted father. But he was not the biological father of Jesus and that is what the story is all about.
Many Christians stumble over different aspects of the Christian faith, and some Christians stumble over the virgin birth story. These Christians emphasize that the virgin birth was unimportant to the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John and the Apostle Paul. Mark, John and Paul do not use the concept of the virgin birth in their understanding of Jesus but they still believed that Jesus was the Son of God. So also with some of these Christians. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God but they trip up on the story of the virgin birth.
But there are other Biblical arguments that reveal that the same thought that God was the Father of Jesus. Let me explain.
For example, when Jesus was found in the temple at the age of twelve. The parents looked for Jesus for three days in Jerusalem, trying to locate their lost son. Finally, they found Jesus teaching in the temple and they said, “What are you doing here teaching in the temple?” Jesus replied, “Didn’t you know that I was in my Father’s house, doing my Father’s business?” Who is the father of Jesus? That story in the temple is clear. God is Jesus’ Father.
In his prayer life, Jesus always called God, “abba,” which is translated papa or father.
Do you realize that in the history of civilization, nobody had ever called God, “Father,” in prayer until Jesus of Nazareth did? In the history of the world, nobody had ever called God, “Father,” in prayer. Jesus did this all the time. “Abba” is the common address that Jesus used when calling on God in prayer. The story of the virgin birth reaches the same conclusion, as do the stories of his prayer life; that God is the Father of Jesus.
In his teachings, Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. He who believes in me believes in the Father who sent me. Whoever loves me, loves the Father. He who walks in my ways walks in the Father’s ways. He who has seen the Father has seen me. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. I and the Father or one.” When you add up all these teachings, you come to the same conclusion that God and Jesus are interconnected like Father and Son. This is also what the virgin birth story concludes: God is the Father of Jesus. The story of the virgin birth is consistent with the other similar teachings of Jesus in the Bible.
So the primary purpose of the story for today is not to tell us that Joseph was a righteous and religious man, but that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. Jesus was and is the Son of God. It is basic to the Christian faith. Today, we celebrate not the birth of Christmas, not the birth of a festival of lights, not the birth of a tradition of exchanging presents, but we celebrate the birth of the Son of God.
The life of Jesus of Nazareth is strange in many ways. The way that Jesus exited this world through the resurrection and ascension is strange; the way that Jesus entered this world is equally strange. I want to take a circuitous route and then bring you back to the primary theme of the sermon again.
People have always been trying to prove the resurrection of Jesus, and nobody has ever done this successfully. Similarly, people have always been trying to prove that there is life after death, and no one can prove that either. These fundamental beliefs rest on faith and not proof. But every generation tries to prove it. … Do you remember seeing the movie, THE SHROUD OF TURIN, at the adult educational class a few weeks ago? The movie is the story of the linen shroud that Jesus was wrapped in after he was crucified. Scholars have discovered that this shroud can be traced back to the time of Christ, although other scholars contest these conclusions. Scientists snipped a fragment of this linen shroud and did carbon dating on it. They concluded that the shroud came from the time of Christ. In 1900, a French photographer discovered that there was a photographic negative on the shroud. “How could you forge a photographic negative so many centuries ago?” is what many scholars asked. The scientists put that photographic negative on the wall, and there was an image of a person who had been crucified. There was an image of blood coming down his head where the head had been pierced by the thorns. There were holes in the wrists from the nails, and this was important because the holes weren’t in the palms of the hands as were all medieval paintings. The holes were in the wrists. How did they figure that out so many centuries ago? His back had been whipped by lashes. There all was in photographic form. How could you forge something like a photographic image so many centuries ago? Then some scientists got together, studied the shroud and concluded that a sudden burst of energy left a photographic imprint on the cloth. That is strange. It was strange, the way that Jesus Christ exited the world.
But it is equally strange the way that Jesus Christ entered the world. The Bible says that Mary became impregnated by the powers of God, the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. It was indeed a strange entry into the world, but no stranger than the way Jesus exited this world.
That’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas is not about the birth of Christmas. Not about the birth of a festival of lights. Not a birth of a tradition to exchange gifts. No. Christmas is about the birth of the Son of God. Amen.
Advent/Christmas Gift: If you as a pastor have found the sermons from this website helpful in your preaching, please consider giving a gift to Lutheran World Relief as an expression of your appreciation. Contact http://lwr.org/giving/index.asp and mention Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, the congregation which has given Pastor Markquart time to make these sermons available to you free of charge. Pastor Markquart served on the Board of Lutheran World Relief for twelve years. He believes LWR is both effective (great partnerships with 150 indigenous partner agencies located in 50 countries) and efficient (administrative overhead of about 10%) in its work to combat hunger and injustice around the globe.
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