Note: the first couple of minutes are hard to hear. Please refer to the written sermon below.
GOSPEL: 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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
TEXT OF SERMON:
Before I begin, I just want to say how grateful I am to have this opportunity to
repay a lifelong debt to St. Joseph. When I was 8 my priest uncle took me to attend
mass in the chapel of the convent where the Irish nuns who taught me in school lived.
As one of their students, I wasn’t supposed to be in this inner sanctum, but they
couldn’t refuse since my uncle brought me. During the Latin mass in the over-heated
chapel, I fainted and knocked over a pedestal with a 5-foot stature of St. Joseph.
When I awoke seconds later in a cloud of plaster dust, I was staring up at the scowling
face of the fearsome principal of my school, so I turned my head only to behold the
decapitated head of St. Joseph. So, I figure I owe him a good review by way of
A couple of weeks ago Vivi came to church with a pair of yellow binoculars.
After the service, she showed them to me and pointed out that you can use binoculars
two ways. You can use them as they are meant to be used to see things far away in
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greater detail. Or, you can turn them around and see things up close magnified. I tried
explaining to Vivi that binoculars are not meant to be turned around like that, but if you
have ever tried to convince Vivi, or any other five-year old, of something other than
what they think, you’re wasting your time.
I was thinking about this over the past couple of weeks as I spent time with our
gospel passage. During this season, and especially when we read or hear this gospel
passage from Matthew, I think most of us tend to focus on the immediate story of
Jesus’ birth, as if we were looking at the whole thing with the binoculars backwards so
that we can see the detail close up. And, why wouldn’t we? After all, the passage starts
out by saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
But read it again and you’ll see that Mathew doesn’t even mention Jesus’ birth
until the very end of the passage, and then only in passing to say that Mary’s and
Joseph’s time of sexual abstinence had come to an end and that the child’s name
would be Jesus.
So, if this isn’t actually a narrative about Jesus’ actual birth, what is it? And what
does it mean to us?
One of the things we need to remember about Matthew’s gospel that makes it
unique is who the audience was meant to be. Matthew was written for a Jewish
audience and so he takes care to show how Jesus fits in with the ancient Jewish
expectation of the Messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one of God, who would bring
God and humanity into a new wholeness and oneness. This is why Mathew makes a
big deal of referencing Joseph’s ancestor David, and why he alludes to the passage in
Isaiah that we heard this morning saying, “Look, the young woman is with child and
shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” which is a kind of prelude to the story
about Mary’s motherhood of the chosen one.
Now, don’t tell Vivi, but to understand this gospel passage, we need to turn the
binoculars around and use them as they are intended to be used so that we get the big
picture here. This brief story about Joseph is the setup for the entire gospel of Matthew
that we’ll be hearing in church for the coming year. And this long-distance view of this
bit of Matthew’s gospel has a lot to say about the life of the church right now.
We hear right at the beginning of the gospel that Joseph is a righteous man.
Now, we don’t use that word “righteous” much anymore, and when we do use it, we
probably mean morally right or justifiable, or just a good guy. But the specific meaning
it has in this gospel written for a Jewish audience is that Joseph was a law-abiding
man, a man faithful to the Torah – the Jewish law.
Joseph was engaged to Mary. This engagement, under the Torah, was a legal
connection, a kind of contract, that obligated both parties to proceed to marriage,
unless there was some grave impediment. And the gravest impediment of all was
infidelity. Learning that Mary was pregnant, and not by him, would certainly have
brought Joseph to the conclusion that the righteous thing to do, the law-abiding,
morally justifiable thing, the right thing to do would be to end the engagement. And this
is what he planned to do. In his love for Mary, and because he was a good guy, he
resolved to do it as quietly as possible so as not to embarrass Mary and himself and
their families. This is what he intended to do, that is, before his dream.
And it’s in the dream that we get a glimpse of the big picture in Mathews’
gospel. Matthew’s Jewish audience would have grasped the connection between this
dream and another Joseph having a life-changing dream. In this dream God tells the
new Joseph that he must go ahead with the marriage because the conception is from
the Holy Spirit – from God. So, now something new is going on. Now, righteousness
not only involves faithfulness to the Torah, but also faithfulness to a new law – a law of
love. This setting aside the narrow strictures of the Torah with regard to Joseph’s right
to dismiss Mary is replaced by a new imperative, and as such it prepares us for all
those places later in the gospels where we hear Jesus say, “You have heard it said,
but…” or “It is written…but I say to you.” Joseph is righteous because he acts out of
love and his desire to preserve the dignity of Mary, not because he obeys the letter of
the old law, but because he obeys the spirit of the new law.
You may have noticed that this tension is still with us. Some parts of the Bible
seem to be telling us one thing, but the law of love that Jesus’ life was – and is – all
about sometimes tells us something else. We are faced with these contradictions all
the time. The Bible forbids divorce, but the church accepts it. The Bible forbids the
eating of shellfish and pork, but you can find both on the buffet at most church
suppers. The Bible seems – and I emphasize the word “seems” – to tell us that samesex
relationships are unrighteous, but the law of love tells us the opposite. The list of
contradictions goes on and on.
So, looking through the binoculars the proper way, and getting the big picture,
allows us to see Joseph’s decision to obey the law of love rather than the law of the
Torah as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry to renew the world and the world’s idea of
what is right and good.
In this story Joseph faces the difficult tension that runs throughout the gospel of
Matthew – the “you-have-heard-it-said-but-I-say-to-you” tension – that we see in full
bloom in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ coming is about something new, something
that replaces the old ways. Joseph’s decision sets aside the letter of the law in favor of
the heart and soul of the law. As such, Joseph is a model of discipleship and a model
for the whole church as we embrace a new understanding of what it means to be fully
The law of love that guides Joseph can guide us as we do our best to
understand the struggles of those whose life realities and experiences are different
from our own or fall outside the norms not only of the Bible, but of dominant social
norms. What does the law of love tell us about how to think about sexual and gender
identity? What does the law of love tell us about how to think about immigrants without
legal documentation who are in our midst here in Great Barrington? What does the law
of love say about any issue where the Bible seems to have an easy answer?
We don’t have to be in a dream to arrive at the same answer Joseph arrived at
when he decided to set aside the Torah for the law of love. We know the rest of the
story in Matthew – the Beatitudes and the story about the last judgement where God
will say “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members
of my family, you did it to me.”
So, in these last days of Advent, let’s keep looking through the binoculars so we
can get the big picture. All the familiar Christmas stories and characters are part of a
bigger picture in which we learn how to listen with the ear of our heart for the voice of
God when we face moral dilemmas and challenges. In the big picture we see how the
expansive word of the living, loving, saving God replaces a narrow and shallow
understanding of the mind of God.
That’s what the Christmas story is really about. And that’s surely something to