Last Thursday’s general election saw two men go head-to-head for the top job in our land. We witnessed Boris v. Jeremy, Johnson versus Corbyn. Of course, we now know who came out on top!
But I think its fairly safe to say that both men have their failings. Like all of us, both party leaders had their flaws and imperfections. Our newly elected Prime Minister is not perfect, and neither are we.
In stark contrast, however, today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel provides us with a portrait of two remarkable men. Two men justly famous for their godly character and attractive attributes. I’m talking, of course, about Joseph the carpenter and Jesus the Christ.
So as we look at our Gospel passage this morning, I want us to admire Joseph’s righteous character and be in awe of Jesus Christ’s remarkable CV. I want us to see Joseph as a role model to imitate, and Jesus as a Saviour worthy of our worship.
Let’s look first at Joseph’s righteous character…
Joseph’s righteous character
Most of you will know that the Bible provides us with two accounts of the birth of Christ. The Christmas story is found in both in Luke’s Gospel and here in Matthew. The essential story remains the same, but they have differences of emphasis and clearly had their own unique sources.
One difference often noted is that Luke gives us Mary’s perspective on the nativity, while Matthew provides Joseph’s viewpoint. Today’s passage illustrates this beautifully, for it gives us an insight into Joseph’s experience and thinking at the birth of Jesus. We are meant to read this passage with both sympathy and respect for Joseph – for he seems to have conducted himself admirably throughout the events of the first Christmas!
The first thing we are told is that Joseph was “was pledged to be married” to Mary. This meant far more than a modern ‘engagement’. It meant that they were officially betrothed to one another. Under Jewish law this was a one-year period prior to a wedding in which the bride would remain at her parents’ home but was now in an exclusive, contractual relationship with her fiancée – they could even be referred to as ‘husband and wife’.
To break off a betrothal required formal divorce proceedings. Proceedings which Joseph feared were necessary after discovering – with great shock and sadness, no doubt – that his future spouse was pregnant. Mary must have been unfaithful to him – what other conclusion could Joseph be expected to draw?!
As a law-abiding Jew, Joseph was within his rights to divorce Mary before many witnesses – in other words to publicly humiliate her in front of her peers. Joseph must have known what this would do to her social status and reputation, so in an act kindness he had in mind to end their betrothal as quietly and discreetly as he could.
Joseph was clearly not a man determined to enact revenge, not a man determined to enforce his rights. He was a man of grace, charity and mercy – much like God himself in fact.
Of course, as we all know, this discreet divorce never took place. It turned out to be totally unnecessary!
One recurring feature of God’s work in the Bible is that whenever he performs a great miracle, a spectacular rescue or a symbolic act, he always provides a word of explanation – a word of interpretation.
In Old Testament times this was often the work of prophets. It was often their job to explain what God was up to, it was often their role to explain why God was doing whatever he was doing. So, for example, Moses was able to explain the events of the Exodus, Isaiah and Jeremiah were able to explain the reasons for the Exile, and Daniel’s visions enabled him to predict the coming of the Messiah.
In this instance, the Lord sent an angel to Joseph in a dream to explain Mary’s pregnancy. Her unborn child was not a consequence of adultery, but an act of God. Mary was not to be divorced, but taken into his home as his wife. Her baby boy was not to be rejected as illegitimate, but adopted and named by Joseph as if he were his very own.
To Joseph’s great credit, he took God at his word. He was obedient to the message of the angel. Despite being an unexpected and unusual message, Joseph submitted to it. As verse 24 tells us, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”
Here was a man who let the Lord’s message shape his life. Here was a man who accepted the authority of God’s Word. Here was a man who had confidence in God’s goodness in the midst of the most emotional circumstances.
He may have been a humble carpenter, but Joseph was a man of extraordinarily good character. A true ‘saint’ in every sense of the word. May we people who are as equally gracious, kind and merciful as Joseph was. May we be people who are equally attentive and obedient to God’s word – as it comes to us in the pages of the Bible. If we are to be anything like Joseph, then let us be known as people who are generous to those in need, eager to do good, and determined to submit to the teachings of Scripture.
Jesus’ remarkable CV
It would be a mistake however, to make Joseph the hero of the story. Because it is Mary’s son who really steals the show! The angel’s message to Joseph spells out the remarkable CV of this unborn child. A CV that ssays Jesus has a divine origin, a divine mission, and a divine identity.
For a start, the angel stresses that Mary’s child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit – in other words, by the will of God not by the will of man. This child’s origins are eternal and divine – they are spiritual not simply biological. Many prophets, priests and kings had been temporarily filled by the Holy Spirit during Old Testament times, but for a child to be conceived by God’s Spirit was something completely new. A huge clue that this child was going to be without precedent in human history.
As well as being of divine origin, the angel’s message to Joseph also makes clear that this child will have a divine mission. He is to be given “the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” To forgive sins is an exclusive divine right, something Scripture teaches is God’s prerogative alone.
Aspiring politicians make great promises to tackle climate change, end poverty, invest in the NHS and get Brexit done. But only God incarnate, born in Bethlehem, had the authority and power to forgive human sin. He is the only person in human history who can wipe our slates clean.
Thirdly and finally, Joseph’s adopted son has a divine identity. In verse 23 Matthew cites the the words of the prophet Isaiah to explain that Jesus is Immanuel – he is “God with us”.
In the past God dwelt with his people in the tabernacle tent and the Jerusalem temple. But with the birth of this boy in Bethlehem, God has now taken up residence in a human nature. Jesus transcends and supercedes every previous revelation of God’s presence on earth.
Throughout his adult life Jesus demonstrated his divinity by forgiving sins, walking on water and controlling the elements. He claimed an exclusive relationship with God the Father, referred to his body as a Temple, and adopted the divine name “I AM”. Matthew and the other Gospel authors want us to be in no doubt – when Jesus walked the earth, he truly was “God with us”.
We should not be surprised that when confronted with this weight of evidence, the early church had no hesitation is calling Christ “God”. In the ancient liturgies, creeds and confessions of the Christian Church, Jesus is accorded all the honours and status of God himself. He is the second person of the Trinity, he is (in the words of the Chalcedonian creed) “fully God and fully man”, he is the perfect revelation of his Father.
As I finish, the wonderful news is that Jesus remains ‘God with us’ to this present day. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel (in chapter 28), Jesus makes this parting promise to Church – “I am with you, always”. If we are Christ’s people here today, then Christ is accessible to every one us – just as he was to righteous Joseph and his virgin mother Mary.
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