4th Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2016
“A Father’s Love”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today on the 4th Sunday in Advent is today’s Gospel lesson read earlier from Matthew chapter 1.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
I got a Christmas card this week; I bet you did too. It’s a very nice one; very “artsy.” According to the back of the card, the painting depicted on the front of the card is called “Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist” by Sandro Botticelli. There is one aspect about this card that I noted right away. Joseph is not included in the picture. In fact, Joseph is kind of the forgotten person in the accounts of the nativity of Jesus. In Luke 2 we hear about Mary, Jesus, the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, even the innkeeper! What about Joseph?
Christmas is a Jesus/Mary thing, not a Jesus/Joseph thing. Our hymns are more about Mary and Jesus; few of them speak of Joseph. Look at the postage stamps you put on your own Christmas cards. Each year the stamp has a masterwork painting of the Madonna and Child, but no Joseph. Joseph’s role is secondary; in every Sunday School Christmas program, he sits silently among the figures of angels, the shepherds, and the Wise Men. Even the innkeeper has a line, but Joseph sits mutely. Matthew, though, puts Joseph in the center of the stage! For Matthew, Christmas begins with Joseph’s dilemma about what to do as a husband with a wife whom he thinks is carrying another man’s child, and the loving actions that he takes in order to be a father to that child.
All of us have only one biological father, but as we grew up watching television, we saw lots and lots of father figures. The fathers on TV in the 1950s and early 1960s were the providers who never had their authority questioned by anyone at home. The post 1960s TV dads were deflated in status and often came across as wimps and buffoons. In the 1980s there arose a new kind of father – a father who downplayed his fatherly role land blended in with the kids becoming their wise pal and sympathetic ear. TV dads today? We won’t go there. That’s a different sermon for a different day. You probably know more about Ward Cleaver, Mike Brady, and Al Bundy than you do about Joseph! As far as Joseph goes, we know very little of what Joseph was like as a father; after the nativity narratives, Joseph literally disappears from Holy Scripture. So the best indication that we really get of what Joseph was like as a husband and as a father is found in today’s Gospel lesson, and actually it reveals a lot for us if we just look.
Consider how Joseph handled the whole pregnancy situation. Joseph’s situation of what to do with a woman to whom he was legally engaged, but still not physically joined with, would not be a major problem today. Today couples live together without being married, and they even have children. The scenario of a man marrying a woman who is carrying another man’s child is also not so uncommon. Joseph’s world was much different than today’s world.
Joseph believed Mary’s word that she was pregnant, but not that she was pregnant with the Immanuel Child, the one promised by the prophet Isaiah. Legal separation and divorce are bitter experiences, but in Joseph’s mind, he had a choice to make from several less-than-appealing options. Consider his choices:
- He could just go ahead and marry her anyway. This sends the message to the community that Joseph probably is the father of this child conceived out of wedlock. He also comes across as weak willed and spiritually corrupt. He could;
- Publically announce that Mary is pregnant and he is not the father. This would label Mary as an adulteress, the penalty for which was death by stoning (nothing happens to the guy, by the way. Nice double standard.). Joseph could also;
- Quietly divorce Mary and hope the whole situation will diffuse over time. The problem is that it appears that he’s not willing tobe accountable for his actions, plus the consequences from choices #1 and #2 are still a possibility. All that would accomplish is remove Joseph from the whole situation.
And that’s what happens when God’s Law is broken…the options are not good. The wages, or what we deserve for our sin, is death…plain and simple. Joseph knew the pain and heartache that comes with the Law, so what was a loving husband to do? And when it comes to our sin, what can WE do?
Thankfully, God intervenes. Caught in a sleepless sleep, Joseph is told by the Lord’s angel to take Mary as his wife; one of 5 such dreams in Matthew 1 & 2. Hers is not an ordinary child, but this Child is the God who redeems His people. Mary’s husband would not be the biological father of the Messiah, but he would be his legal father. In addition to being born in the city of David (Bethlehem), Joseph would pass on his claim as the Son of David to Jesus; conception by the Holy Spirit also made Him the Son of God. As soon as Joseph wakes from his dream – and probably much to Mary’s surprise! – he immediately takes her into his home as his wife. Without that dream, delivered by God’s angel, Joseph may have made the wrong choice. But this was God’s loving plan at work, and God’s loving actions are reflected in what Joseph was led to do!
When God lovingly resolved Joseph’s dilemma of what to do with an “unfaithful” wife, he was resolving the predicament of all humankind. Mary’s Child – Jesus – would save God’s people from their sin by releasing them from death and Satan’s power. All this Mary’s Child could do because Jesus was also the Immanuel Child spoken of in Isaiah 7:14. That name means “God is with us.” God could save us because he became one with us in Mary’s Child. He became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. God’s great love sent His Son to be “Immanuel” – God with us. Not only that, but the name that Joseph gave Him was the name the angel indicated: Jesus, which means “The Lord Saves.” Saves who? Saves US, of course! Salvation unto us has come because of the sent Christ child and the fact that God’s fatherly love for His people was reflected in Joseph’s actions when faced with difficult decisions.
Paul Harvey once said, “I don’t know where fathers go when they die. But I’ve an idea that after a good rest, wherever it is, he won’t be happy unless there’s work to do. He won’t just sit on a cloud and wait for the girl he’s loved and the children she bore. He’ll be busy there, too, repairing the stairs, oiling the gates, improving the streets, smoothing the way.” That’s what a father’s love does. It protects from the past and it improves the present to make an easier tomorrow. I imagine that’s what Joseph did for Jesus. I know God the Father does that for us.