On the Road with Joseph
18 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.
Every preacher needs a sermon critic. When my wife Virginia read an early draft of today’s sermon, she said it was confusing and needed an introduction. First of all, this sermon tells the story of two men who happen to have the same first name, Joseph. One story is set in Africa in our own time. The other story is set 2000 years ago in the Middle East. The sermon will move back and forth, alternating between these two men and their stories. You must listen carefully, therefore, to determine when we are on a road in Africa and when we are on a road heading toward Bethlehem.
The Lord be with you.
When I visited my wife in Africa earlier this year, we spent two weeks on the road with Joseph and his young bride. We drove over every type of road imaginable, from asphalt-surfaced modern highways to dirt roads so bumpy we feared for the suspension of Joseph’s aging Audi.
This morning, on the eve of Christmas, all of us here at St. Matthew are on the road with Joseph and his young bride. We travel with them on an ancient road to Bethlehem. We will reach the end of our journey this evening, as we assemble again in this place to celebrate the birthday of a child.
Virginia and I had wonderful experiences in Africa on the road with Joseph and his young bride, whose name is Beatrice. He was a college professor on leave from California, a specialist in African-American history who was writing a book on the history of Africa. She was a native of Africa, having grown up in the nation of Ghana. One of the things that was special about the two weeks Virginia and I spent with Joseph and Beatrice was being able to see Africa through their eyes as well as our own. Beatrice was a storehouse of knowledge about local customs as well as an expert at bartering for the many works of art we found for sale on the side of the road. Joseph had an almost child-like delight in going to places he had taught his students about for years in classes, but was now seeing with his own eyes for the first time.
Within the church’s three-year cycle of Scripture readings, we have just entered the Year of Matthew. And one of the delights of being in this particular year at Christmas is that we hear the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s viewpoint. Matthew helps us step into Joseph’s shoes, as it were, and to view the events of Jesus’ birth from a perspective a little different from that of Mary, whose viewpoint we have in the Gospel of Luke.
On the road with Joseph in Africa, I enjoyed immensely my conversations with him. I have joked many times that traveling with Joseph was the equivalent of a three-credit course in African history. Through his eyes I came to see not only the Africa that was, but also a vision of what Africa might become.
As we travel with Joseph to Bethlehem this day, it is interesting to imagine what we might talk about on our journey. Perhaps Joseph would share with us, after we became acquainted, the emotional roller coaster he has been on the past few months. First he learned that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant. Knowing he was not the father, there seemed to be only one possible explanation for her pregnancy. Joseph had worshipped the ground Mary walked on, only to have his faith in her goodness, innocence, and virtue shattered. Perhaps Joseph would also share with us, on our journey to Bethlehem, the choice he had to make. He was convinced Mary was guilty of adultery and that he had to divorce her. But on what grounds? Justice would demand the truth, that she had committed adultery. But divorce on such grounds would, at the very least, bring life-long shame and disgrace to Mary and her family. And so Joseph decided to cast aside the demands of justice. He chose instead the path of mercy. He resolved to divorce Mary on lesser grounds, “to dismiss her quietly” in the words of the text, to perhaps divorce her on the basis of being a gossip or a poor cook, a practice unfortunately all too common in first-century Judaism.
In Africa, on the road with Joseph, one of the things that struck me about him was his faith. Joseph believed in the future of Africa. He took pride in the achievements of past African civilizations, as evidenced especially in the archeological site of Great Zimbabwe, a great ancient city we spent a day touring. But this great past, he believed, was only a prelude to an even greater future. In spite of all the tribal and ethnic conflicts, in spite of all the terrible poverty and disease, in spite of all the years of colonial rule, in spite of all the petty dictators and military strong men, Joseph believed something better was in store for Africa. If faith is the ability to believe in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary, then Joseph was a man of great faith.
On the road with Joseph to Bethlehem this morning, it is his great faith that we ponder. For after his decision to dismiss Mary quietly, he is called upon to make a second decision, a far more difficult one, a decision that calls him to believe in an unbelievable promise of God for which he has no empirical evidence. Joseph, you see, has a dream. And in this dream an angel tells him to cancel his divorce plans. Mary‘s pregnancy is not due to adultery, it is due to the Holy Spirit. Mary will give birth to a son, and Joseph is given a name by which to call this son, Yehoshuah, which means “Yahweh is salvation”. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Joseph when he woke from that dream? Can you imagine the faith it took to accept the dream as really being a message from God? I am not sure, personally, that if I had been in Joseph’s shoes I would have responded as he did. But Joseph believed, he responded in obedience, and it is that faith that we celebrate today. For that faith changes Joseph. His doubts turn to trust. His fear becomes serenity. He moves from calculating human possibilities to counting on the promises of God. His is no longer an old obedience to the law of adultery and divorce. His is now a new obedience to a new and final word from God: Yahweh is salvation. It is that new foundation stone of Joseph’s faith that we will ponder the rest of this day, as we travel on the Road to Bethlehem. What Joseph finally comes to believe, what we are asked to believe, what Christmas is all about, is this: the last, final ultimate word from God is not judgment. The last, final, ultimate word from God is salvation. A child will be born this night, and we will seize that birth with the conviction only faith can bring. We will seize that birth as the evidence that God is for us, not against us, that mercy and forgiveness, not justice and judgment, is the basis on which we relate to Him.
As sign and symbol of this new, final word from God, we have this meal. In the Eucharist mercy and forgiveness is personally offered to each of us. Come now to this altar. Receive his body and blood, broken and shed for you. The child to be born this night is present for you now as Lord and Savior. Receive him as you travel to Bethlehem on the road with Joseph.
St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church
Christmas Eve, 1995