Scripture for Sunday: 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 fulfill 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.
Notes on The Text:
This week we look at the story of the birth of Jesus from the vantage point of Joseph who was engaged to Mary. Joseph usually does not occupy a lot of space in the story. Yet, he is essential to the identity of Jesus, especially through his lineage, which goes back to David. Keep in mind that this Gospel was focused on presenting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Matthew was written around the year 90 CE (about 25 years after the Gospel of Mark and much of Matthew’s Gospel comes from Mark). The Jewish-Roman war had ended, and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (70 CE). The followers of Jesus were still considered a sect of Judaism. When the war with Rome ended and the Jews lost, the hostility between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders started to escalate. The Jewish leaders began considering Christians to be a separate religious group. At the same time, the Roman government still considered the followers of Jesus to be Jewish and continued their attacks on them as they were considered to be a threat to national security. Thus, the issue of Jesus being the Messiah is a central theme that runs through the whole Gospel. Therefore, the role of Joseph as the connection back to David was essential. Joseph’s faith was also very important because if he did not have a deep faith, Mary’s life would have been at stake!
Joseph had tremendous power over Mary because of being male in a very patriarchal society. He had the upper hand in their relationship. He had all the rights and privileges, while she had none. Mary and Joseph were betrothed (legally married) but their wedding day had not come yet. It was a major source of shame for both to have her become pregnant. But as a man, he had the right to publicly humiliate her and to let society defend his honor. This was a very tense situation for him. Her life was on the line because she was supposed to be stoned by the men in the community to make an object lesson of her (Deuteronomy 22:19-22). Just like escaped slaves in our country were publicly punished by beatings, branding, and other horrendous physical pain, women were supposed to be punished for sexual improprieties to make sure that other women didn’t dare step out of line. Through the threat of violence, women knew their “proper” place. All of this is to say that what Joseph ended up doing was incredibly hard and courageous. He had every right to avenge his honor, but because of his faith and his love for God, he was transformed into an essential part of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. A dream revealed to Joseph that his decision to divorce Mary was wrong and he believed it. A dream showed him that the baby was the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah about the presence of God with the people of ancient Israel. It is interesting to think that the whole story of Jesus hinged on a dream and someone believing it! But that is the pattern of God’s love when it takes hold of our hearts. Love always transforms one human being or one group of people to trust in God’s vision and to risk their own safety or certainties for the sake of God’s greater purposes.
Have you ever paid attention to the patterns of your thinking? If you have not, try it for just one day. It is powerful when we observe the patterns of our thoughts both individually or as a society. We tend to reinforce and repeat the same patterns and thoughts each day which makes it hard for us to pay attention to something new breaking into our lives and into our world. It is sometimes even hard to hear God speaking to us when our patterns are so fortified. Ask yourself about the frequency with which you open yourself to new ways to love and serve God and others. Paul Ferrini writes, “When you hold onto your experience or use it to interpret the present experience, you ‘take control’ of your life, and push God (grace) away. When you surrender your ideas about the way things should be, let go of the past, and open to the future, you invite God back into your life.”
Joseph could have played it safe and stayed with what he knew, and no one would have blamed him for it. But he was part of a religious community that paid attention regularly to dreams and to God speaking to them. I am sure that from an early age Joseph knew the biblical stories of others who dreamed like Jacob and Joseph from Genesis. The Jewish patterns of daily prayers and rituals in the home were embedded in the hearts and minds of his people that even in moments of great despair, his mind and his heart were open to a message beyond his control and his understanding.
It is interesting that while I was reading and praying about Joseph and his attention to dreams, I received an email from the Presbyterian Women (the national group) about a conference in May about dreams called “Summer Dream and Spirituality Conference.” Here is the link to it: https://www.hadeninstitute.com/summer-conference-registration?utm_campaign=e44bee6c-179b-4f43-bd2c-ddec114e2aef&utm_source=so.
It was a reminder for me about the need for us to have regular practices that help us leave some open spaces in our hearts and minds for God to speak to us about love beyond our ordered patterns of thinking.
This week as you read the story of Joseph and his part in the birth of Jesus, I invite you to follow in his footsteps of allowing God to break into your patterns and thoughts. Let prayer lead you to courageous acts of love.
Here is a part of a poem by Wendell Berry that speaks to this kind of openness and life:
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come…
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.
Prayer by Ted Loder:
O God, let something essential happen to me,
something more than interesting
O God, let something essential happen to me,
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will burn and tremble and heal
and explode me into tears
or love that throbs or screams
or keeps a terrible, cleansing silence
and dares the dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in me
which is my real self, God….
O God, let something essential and joyful happen in me now,
something like the blooming of hope and faith,
like a grateful heart,
like a surge of awareness
of how precious each moment is,
that now, not next time,
now is the occasion
to take off my shoes
to see every bush afire,
to leap and whirl with neighbor,
to gulp the air as sweet wine
until I’ve drunk enough
to dare to speak the tender word:
“I love you”
“Let’s live forever beginning now”
and “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake.” Amen.