Opening thought: Dec. 22, 2007, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Christie Storm was doing an article on angels. My point was that angels are a symbol of the season sort of like snowflakes, bells, bows, and stars. But do we really understand what they mean?
The angels show up in full glory in Luke. The Chief of Staff, Gabriel, shows up to talk to Mary. The Armies of Heaven appear to the working class shepherds. Thats Luke. But in Matthew, theres only one angel. An angel who doesnt have a name or title. An angel who doesnt frighten shepherds. This angel whispers to Joseph in dreams ...
Read Matthew 1
The Feeling of Shame and Scandal
Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. It is supposed to be a blessed time as the two prepare for life together. There is already a sacred covenant between them and before the community they have promised themselves only to one another. They are not yet married and the rules about their interaction are guided by the community. Joseph is soon to begin his career with his fathers approval and begin a family with his wife. Joseph and Mary are bound to one another, but Joseph will not take her home to live with him until after the wedding.
However, this time of ordinary happiness is spoiled by scandal. Mary is pregnant. It would be bad enough if Joseph were the father and they had shamed the expectations of marriage, but all Joseph knows at this point is that he is not the father. He is in turmoil. If he ignores what has happened, he will be ignoring Gods law, and the law is very clear
If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbors wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Joseph is a righteous man, but he is also a compassionate man. He loves God and Gods law, but he also loves Mary. He does not want to humiliate and expose her as a sinful woman, she would be rejected by the village and it would shame her and her father and she is so young. But worst of all it could lead to the death penalty. If the people were outraged, they could be brutal.
But he cannot marry her either. Joseph cannot simply forgive her and marry her anyway thats very storybook and soap opera romantic, but it is not reality in first-century Palestine certainly not for Joseph. The law demands that he annul the marriage. This is how he shows his love of God and the people of Israel.
Joseph is seeking a way through his dilemma. Since he learned of the pregnancy he has been trying to figure a way out. He is righteous, but he is merciful. His best option to fulfill his obligations to God and to Mary is to give her a quiet divorce. He can send her away to her relatives down in the hill country of Judea. She can go down there until the child is born and Joseph will prepare the divorce with a few trusted officials. Its not a perfect solution, but it is the best that he can do nothing else is possible.
The Dream of a New Possibility
While Joseph is trying to figure it all out, he has a dream. This dream is gospel that is, good news.
For Joseph, the dream is truly a gospel good news. It means that more is possible than he would have ever imagined. It means the burden of the law has been lifted.
Later, as the child grows, Joseph finds himself caught up in what God is doing in the world. The presence of Immanuel stirs up the fear and power Herod. The armies of the evil one will not go down without a fight.
This humble carpenter, this simple God-fearing fellow didnt bargain for all this. He didnt expect to be caught up in the politics of his age. He certainly didnt imagine that anyone would put him and his family in their sights.
But that angel comes to him again. This time Joseph is told to cross the border into Egypt. Joseph didnt expect to be a fugitive either, but he has learned to listen to Gods angel.
As the years in Egypt went by, Joseph probably wondered if he would ever see him hometown again. He must have wondered if someone would track them to Egypt. Did he rest comfortably in those days?
Yet again, Joseph has a dream. This time the angel tells him that it is safe to go home.
For Joseph, the dream is truly a gospel good news. It means that more is possible than he would have ever imagined. It means that God doesnt forget.
A New Possibility God is With Us
O, how we need Immanuel - God is with us. How we need Jesus! He will save! Joseph receives the word of God in this dream as good news. He welcomes the possibility that this child is the Messiah the Son of God. Yes, there will be scandal not because of Joseph and Marys sinfulness but because of the sinfulness of humankind but the possibility of the gospel that Joseph receives means that he and Mary and all their people will be saved.
God With Us means that God protects and watches over us. Even though it may be hard to believe at the time. God With Us means that God doesnt forget us. What others intend for harm, God can use for good.
At this time of year I tend to reflect on the birth of Christ. But I am always fascinated by the struggle and dreams of a humble carpenter. Hes just a man trying to do what God calls him to do. Hes just a man who cares for a family. A family he loves and a child that will bring about the salvation of the world. He becomes Gods agent. He becomes Gods man.
Joseph listened to God. He relied on God and trusted in God even when it seemed difficult, risky, impossible or questionable.
So when you see Joseph in a nativity scene, regard him as a man who trusts in God, see him as a man who paid attention to the whisper of the angel. See a man whose dreams came true.
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