Fourth Sunday of Advent
18th December 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18 -end
May I speak this morning, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Joseph was a respectable man with a respectable dream.
We know that he was a respectable man, or at least that he came from a respectable line, because the first half of Matthew 1 gives us his lineage.
Genealogy is all the rage at the moment, with programs like “Who do you think you are?” revealing unexpected surprises in the ancestors of celebrities – some find that they are related to criminals and some to royalty and with some it’s hard to know the difference.
But we know where Joseph came from – here his family is traced back to King David and thence to Abraham the father of the nation.
It is difficult to make an exact analogy but think of an Englishman who can trace his history back to Alfred the Great – that is how much Joseph was rooted in the history of his land.
But, of course, Joseph was no king. He was a craftsman, living in Nazareth, a long way from the City of David.
And Joseph’s respectable dream was this: to marry a local girl, to have a family and to carry on his trade. Judaism is a very family centred faith and Joseph doubtless expected to gather his family around the table every Sabbath and Hanukkah much as we may hope to do on Sundays and at Christmas.
In pursuit of his respectable dream Joseph was engaged to Mary and, quite rightly, they didn’t live together or sleep together before the marriage. Mary herself came from a good family, related to Elizabeth who was married to Zechariah the priest.
So far, so good. But this is where the respectable dream starts to come apart.
At the start of our reading we were told that before Joseph and Mary were married Mary was found to be pregnant. Now the gospel writer immediately inserts the words “through the Holy Spirit” but that is very much a narrative comment and is not something which Joseph yet knows at this point in the story.
From Joseph’s perspective his dream of a happy, respectable, family life is crumbling before his eyes. The supposedly innocent girl to whom he is betrothed has obviously “known” another man and is carrying the evidence for all to see. Joseph has been made to look a fool, a cuckold even, and Mary looks like an adulterer.
The law of Moses is clear what a penalty for adultery can be: In Deuteronomy 22 it says that adulterers may be stoned to death and we know from later in Jesus’ ministry when he saved a women from being stoned for adultery that this was still practiced at this time. So Joseph could, quite legitimately have had Mary killed for what must have seemed like a terrible betrayal. However stoning wasn’t the only option open to Joseph. In Jeremiah and Hosea it is clear that divorce had developed as an alternative and this is the course that Joseph decided to take: “he decided to divorce her quietly.”
Just as a little aside, whenever I read the story about Jesus and the women who was nearly stoned for adultery in John 8 I do wonder whether he had in mind his own precarious beginning and the compassion of Joseph. One to ponder.
So Joseph’s mind was settled. For the sake of Mary and for his own sake he would quietly divorce this girl who was no better than she ought to be and then, perhaps when the local dust had settled, he would be able to find another girl and continue to pursue his respectable dream.
But then God steps in to change not only Joseph’s dream but the future of the world and he does it, yes, through a dream.
“An Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
We could think of this event as Joseph’s annunciation and it is interesting that in both this annunciation and in the more famous one to Mary, which is in the gospel of Luke, we hear the same words from the Angel – ‘do not be afraid’. And those are important words to hear because when we are giving up our dreams in exchange for God’s dreams it is easy to be afraid – but God seeks to take away the fear of those who listen to him – ‘do not be afraid’. Perhaps those are words you need to hear now.
I wonder how we feel about the possibility of God speaking to us in dreams? To some it may seem weird, even a bit new-agey, but in many ways it seems an obvious route in for God. When best to get past all the noise our conscious minds make then when we are unconscious? Even when we may be in prayer or reading the bible I expect that for many of us, much of the time, it is hard to avoid the background chatter of our thoughts. But in sleep the mind is quieter and more open and an angel of the Lord can slip in more easily.
In my 48 years of life I can only remember two dreams which seemed to come from God: In the first, which was when I was still a teenager, I was hovering or flying over a cold, grey, city made of stone. But then I came to a church in the middle of that city and from inside the church there shone the most intense white light, as if a piece of the sun were caught there, which made the stained glass windows shine outwards incredibly brightly. Since that time I have always carried the image of the church being like a beacon of light in the middle of darkness. And in the other I fell asleep praying the Jesus prayer and I dreamt that I kept praying all night and when I woke the next morning I really felt that I had been in the presence of God all night.
So we should be open to listen to God in every way, including in our dreams.
It is clear that Joseph did not simply wake up and shake off his dream as a mere dream, as many, perhaps most, would have done. This makes it clear to me that God chose Joseph with just as much care as he chose Mary. Not only is it through Joseph’s line that Jesus can be called a Son of David but it is because of Joseph’s compassion and willingness to be open to God that he changed his mind.
So Joseph took Mary as his wife, ignoring the local controversy this must have caused, and, as the Angel commanded him, he named the baby Jesus. The very act of a man naming a baby confers legitimacy on him and makes Jesus a Son of David through Joseph.
In the same way that Mary and Joseph were obviously chosen with care by God to be the parents of Jesus so too was his name chosen. Names have meaning and names have prophetic power.
In Hebrew Jesus is called Yeshua or Yehoshua – which means God saves, or God delivers. As the Angel said to Joseph – ‘you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’. In other words, you are to call him “God saves” because he will save the people. This is no mere human baby, right from Joseph’s annunciation the link between Jesus’ purpose and God’s purpose are made clear.
And just to drive the point home further we are told we are told that all this is to fulfil the prophecy from Isaiah, which we also heard this morning, in which a virgin will give birth to a son who will be called Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’
The prophetic power and importance of names – this baby yet to be born to Mary and Joseph is both God with us and is God’s deliverance from our sins. Immanuel and Yeshua. The whole theology of the incarnation and saving work of Christ packed into two words.
What do we need saving from? What do we need saving to? Who do we need saving by?
During this final week of Advent, as we journey with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, these are important questions to ponder because the answer to them affects the way we draw close to the manger in which their new-born child will lay.
Do we draw close to little baby Jesus because it is a cute scene that reminds us of nativity plays or do we worship the Christ-child because he is God with us, sent to save us?
So Joseph put aside his respectable dreams. Instead he listened to God’s dreams to make a better world through his Son, and he became the adoptive father of Yeshua.
This Christmas why don’t we try seeking less to be respectable and seeking more to dream the dreams that God would give us?