Saturday, December 10, 2016

Joseph's Christmas Story

The gospel of Luke so dominates the Christmas season that only occasionally are we afforded an opportunity to experience the birth of Christ from a perspective other than Luke's. So we are quite happy that, in this year of Matthew, on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given a chance to hear from a diffrent perspective, that of Joseph, the husband of Mary.  As we might expect, Mary is not the only one rocked by the announcement that she is pregnant without the aid of human agency.  Now it is Joseph's turn to hear those ubiquitous first words of the angel, "Do not be afraid."  Many times will we hear those words in the stories to be told in the days ahead.  They come to us now.

(The following are a series of questions I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These questions attempt to ferret out some of the basic concerns for preachers of this genre.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here to bear witness to the miraculous nature of Jesus' origin.  There is no attempt to explain: Jesus is of the Holy Spirit;  Jesus is "God with us."  In addition, we are told that "Jesus will save his people from their sins."  All of this is pure Gospel.  As the First Lesson, Isaiah 7:10-16 points out, God has heard the cries of the people, and as a result a child will be born and his name will be Emmanuel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning to expose our need for Christ we call the Law.  Is it present here?  If so, there are only hints of it.  Sins are mentioned, and our need to be saved from them, but that's about all.  In order for a robust message of the Law, we will need to mine other passages.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is really only one answer to this:  Joseph.  Joseph is the one addressed by the Word:  "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife."  We also are those whom God calls to special work, albeit not to be the earthly father of the Christ, and we too are often afraid of that call.  This passage encourages us to trust the call of God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Much of this text is a call to obedience as Joseph is called to stop being afraid, and commanded to take Mary as his wife.  Because God is faithful, because God is powerful, because God is forgiving, we can heed this call to obedience and do the work we are called to do.  Obedience is always a response to the Gospel.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We might imagine the conflicting thoughts in the mind of Joseph and come up with several couplets;  afraid/bold; conflicted/at peace; confused/enlightened.

5.  Exegetical work:  As Matthew begins this birth narrative, he tells us that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit."  It is clear that the reader knows this before Joseph does, because in the very next verse we are told that he is planning to divorce Mary, assumedly because he has learned that she is pregnant and he knows the child is not his.  Why does Matthew make it a priority to tell us right away that the child is of the Holy Spirit?  It could be simply that he does not want even a moment of shame to be loaded onto Mary.  Possibly, however, it is because of what has already been hinted of in the geneology preceding this passage.  In the first fifteen verses of Matthew 1 we have the "begats"(i.e. "the father of ...).  When we get to verse 16, if the pattern were to remain in force we would expect the following:  "And Jacob the father of Joseph, and Joseph the father of Jesus."  Instead we read:  "And Jacob the father of Joseph, and Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah."  Through all of these generations, only here is the father of the one born left in question. And so, in the birth narrative written by Matthew, the first order of business is to clear up the mystery regarding who 'begat' Jesus.  It turns out the father is the Holy Spirit.  In three different ways we told this is so: 1) Through the words of the angel; 2) Through the words of the prophet; and 3) Through the narration which assures us that Joseph had "no marital relations with [Mary] until she had borne a son."  All of this functions to bear testimony to the divine nature of Jesus - no small thing.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice placed much emphasis on the need to help listeners recognize their shared story in a text. This is particularly challenging in a text like this, since Joseph's experience is singular.  We will need to work hard as preachers to help our listeners recognize their shared story in this story.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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