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Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent: ‘How God Came To Be With Us’


How God Came To Be With Us

Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV

My name is Itzak. You would call me Isaac. Oh, no, not that Isaac, blessed be his name and his father Abraham. No, I’m just Isaac — a friend of Joseph, the carpenter. You know Joseph, don’t you? Joseph is often forgotten at this time of year. Not that he would mind, for he was a very humble man himself. But with all the talk now about Jesus, his son, and Mary, his wife, well, Joseph gets overlooked. But I was his friend, and I want to tell you a little about him and the wonderful thing that happened to him, and to Mary, and really to us all.

Joseph had a pretty distinguished family tree. He was, after all, a descendant of the great King David. And of course, he was named for the man who rescued the Hebrews from the famine by giving them food and a home in Egypt. That didn’t turn out too well later, but nevertheless, Joseph had a good name and came from a good family.

Which is good because for some reason, he was living in Nazareth when I met him. Nazareth was not the garden spot of our homeland, let me tell you. Rather scruffy it was, with inhabitants to match. And, not very significant a place either, I’m afraid. Why, Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible at all. But, despite his hometown, Joseph was a wonderful man.

Oh, he was a carpenter. Did I say that already? Well, he was. Mostly made doorframes and windows and yokes and plows. An occasional divan frame or too, but most of the people of Nazareth couldn’t afford a divan, so mostly the necessities. Joseph crafted his pieces with care, taking accurate measurements to fit windows and doors into the new homes being built.

Which, by the way, is how he met Mary. Well, actually he met Mary’s father first. That’s our way here. Mary was about 14 or 15 when they met, their eyes glancing at one another. Joseph was older than Mary. Not unusual in our culture because a man had to apprentice to a trade, learn that trade, and be able to support a wife in order to be able to marry. And, of course, he and his family had to provide a dowry to the bride’s family. So, men were usually several years older than the brides they married.

But, age was not a problem because Joseph was a good man. Kind, thoughtful, generous, and righteous. That’s what we call a person who observes all the laws of God. Righteous. Not righteous like the Pharisees who did all that, but wanted you to know it. Just righteous like someone who is a very good person, who loves God, who does good work, who keeps Sabbath. That kind of righteous. Joseph made many trips to Jerusalem to the Temple to make all the proper sacrifices, and to celebrate the great festivals and holy days. He was as close to God as any man I ever knew.

But, back to my story.  Joseph and Mary met, and that’s really where the story you know begins. For Joseph was so taken with Mary that he began immediately to make arrangements to marry her. Now in this day, a man and a woman can just get married anytime they want to. But in our day that was not the case. Families were involved. Dowries had to be given. Plans had to be made. The couple had to have a home before they were married. The husband had to prove he was hardworking and trustworthy. The bride had to cooperate. And so, there was an engagement period, often lasting a year or more.

And then, without notice, even though everyone knew it was going to happen, the bridegroom would gather his friends and off they would go to the bride’s house. Torches in hand and voices singing out songs of love, the bridegroom and wedding party would arrive unannounced, and that would be the beginning of the marriage. The bridegroom would then take the bride to his home — actually their home — to begin their married life together. It was all very romantic and exciting and the entire community was part of the celebration.

But, before all that excitement, the bridegroom and bride got to know each other. Oh, of course, they were chaperoned by her family, never really alone, but still they got to know each other. Quiet talks in the cool of the evening, at meal times in her home, or walking down the dusty roads with an entourage of nosy relatives, they still got acquainted.

It was very important that the bride be devoted only to this one man, her future husband. Any hint of scandal or of what you call a “boyfriend” would ruin not only the wedding, but the bride’s reputation as well. Everything was very proper. Well, among respectable people anyway. There were always those who defied social convention, but their families were not desirable. And certainly a person who was a descendant of King David would not be found taking a bride from among that kind.

So, I was very surprised one day when Joseph came into my bakery. “Itzak,” he said sadly, “come walk with me.” Joseph always said that when he wanted to talk about things. He and I had walked together when he told me of meeting Mary many months before. We had discussed how he might go about asking her father for her hand in marriage. Mary’s father was a good man, but very protective of his daughter. So we had a long walk and talk about that.

But this day was different. Joseph and I walked away from the village until no one else was around to hear us. Then finally Joseph spoke. “Itzak,” he said, “the wedding is off.” I was stunned. Speechless. I couldn’t believe my ears. Only the day before Joseph had come bouncing into the bakery for some sweet bread to take to Mary’s family — a gesture of his growing affection and warmth toward them.

“Joseph, why?” I asked. But Joseph just shook his head sadly. “I can’t tell you, Itzak,” he said. “But please pray for me that God will give me wisdom and guidance to know what to do.” Well, that’s all Joseph said. I knew it was serious, but just how serious I would not know for years.

I wondered to myself, “What could the problem be?” I knew Joseph had the dowry set aside, so that was not the problem. I knew that Mary’s family had come to love Joseph like their own son. I had seen them in the market together, had heard Mary’s father bragging to the village elders of what a wonderful son-in-law he was about to have. I couldn’t figure it out. Of course, a common problem among the kind of people I mentioned before was a lack of faithfulness on the part of the bride-to-be. It seems like a year is a long time for some young women to wait for one man, maybe a man they weren’t all that fond of anyway. So, from time to time you would hear of engagements, we called them betrothals, being broken off because of some indiscretion on the part of the bride-to-be.

And, on very rare occasions when some older man particularly had been embarassed to find that his bride-to-be preferred the company of younger men, he would shame her loudly and publicly for all the village to hear. It was not a pretty sight when that happened. Because the whole family would be shamed. Jobs lost, lives ruined, it was awful. All because of the mistake of a young woman. Let me say here that men faced no such judgement. I know that’s not fair, but it was the way our society worked. Women were held in a very high position, unless they behaved badly.

But of course, I ruled out that possibility because Mary was such a sweet girl, and never was out of the company of one family member or another. And they were such good people. So, not a thought crossed my mind that Mary’s unfaithfulness might be the problem. Okay, maybe one thought, but I dismissed it quickly.

I did notice that Mary was not at the market with her mother and sisters very often. But, of course, she was home sewing her bridal ensemble, I’m sure. But something was strange, and the way my good friend Joseph was behaving was stranger still. He wasn’t eating, I thought. Didn’t join the other men of the village for conversation in the evenings as he once had. Seemed distracted all the time, and for the first time since he opened the carpentry shop, was behind on his work.

I was really worried about him. But then one day, he popped into my shop, grabbed a piece of bread fresh out of the oven and plopped down with a wonderful smile on his face. “Itzak,” he said, “tonight join me. I’m going to Mary’s house to finalize our marriage and bring her to my home.” Of course, I was ecstatic. “Wonderful,” I said. Of course, I didn’t ask what had happened, or why things had changed or anything. I was just glad everything was okay again.

So, that evening, amid a lot of good-natured backslapping and singing, a dozen or so of us, led by Joseph, made our way to Mary’s house, torches ablaze, calling for the bride to come out. Lights flickered on in Mary’s home. Curtains were pulled back as faces peered at us from inside. Then, the front door burst open and the entire family rushed out to greet us.

Singing, and hugging, we greeted one another. And then there was Mary, standing shyly in the doorway. We all stopped and not a sound was made as Joseph walked toward her, held out his hand, and gently guided her into the crook of his arm. And we were off, again. Not quite as quickly this time, as Joseph seemed very careful not to rush Mary. But, still all full of joy and laughter, and more singing.

We sang and shouted the happy couple into their new home, stood around singing some traditional love songs to them, and then said very loudly, “Well, we better leave Joseph and Mary alone.” With that we drifted away, each back to our homes, with warm thoughts of our good friend Joseph, and his lovely new bride Mary.

I would only learn years later, when Joseph and I were both old men, what had really happened during those days. Joseph would tell me of the reason for his sudden sadness that day as we walked. That Mary had confided to him that she was expecting a child, and this before they were married. And of course, Joseph knew he was not the father. He said he struggled with knowing what to do. Oh, of course, legally he could have made a big show of the whole thing, shamed Mary and her family in public, demanded his dowry back. But that is not the kind of person Joseph was. So, he told me that he had planned to help Mary go away to a distant relatives to avoid the shame.

But then, Joseph said, the most remarkable thing happened. One night, sound asleep, he had a dream. A dream like his namesake Joseph of Egypt was used to. A dream where an angel of God appeared to him. This angel told him that what had happened to Mary was God’s doing, it was God’s plan. Joseph was not to be afraid or angry or mad at Mary. But, the angel said, Joseph was to take Mary as his wife, just like they had planned all along. And that God was doing something wonderful.

Mary was to have a son, and the angel said Joseph was to name him, Jesus. Oh, we would have pronounced it Yeshua — your Joshua — which means “God saves.” And just like Joshua of old, this Yeshua, this Jesus would save his people from their sins. But then the angel added something else. His name would also be Immanuel — God with us. God with us! Not Abraham, or Moses, or Elijah, but God with us. And, boy, did we need God with us!

And so, several months later, Joseph and Mary, under orders from Cesear himself, had to make a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David his ancestor, to register in the census. Word came back to Nazareth that while they were there, Mary had a baby. And, they named him Jesus.

Word also came back that they had gone to the Temple and there Anna and Simeon, old holy people, recognized that God was at work. Simeon said, “Now I can die in peace for I have seen the messiah.” Anna remarked to all who passed by that this baby would be the redemption of Israel. Of course, no one paid any attention to two old prophets. Except Mary and Joseph, that is.

We also heard that shepherds came to the stable that night, and strange regal men with foreign accents and too many questions came, too. Bearing gifts for this baby, baby Jesus.

We also heard that Herod the Great — which stood for Great Ego — got word of this new king of the Jews being born in Bethlehem and did something so unspeakable that it is still whispered about today. Herod ordered all the boy babies in Bethlehem killed. Killed, murdered, slaughtered. Ripped from their mother’s arms and dashed to the ground.

And so it was that Mary and Joseph and Jesus escaped to Egypt. Isn’t that ironic? Hundreds of years before Joseph had been taken as a slave to Egypt and yet God used him to save his family and nation. And again, a Joseph ,this one a carpenter, goes to Egypt to save his son. And in doing so, His son, Jesus, will save his people from their sins.

It’s an amazing story. I know because Joseph told it to me himself. My name is Itzak, and I was Joseph’s friend.

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Categories: Lectionary Yr A, matthew, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons

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7 replies

  1. Nice, Chuck. Do you read Real Live Preacher? The story telling “style” is a wonderful approach to preaching. I find that at Christmas and Easter are great times to let the story be a story. What do you think?

  2. Tripp, I agree. I decided I just couldn’t improve on the story here. Maybe fill in the blanks some, but it’s a great story on its own. Thanks for stopping by. Oh, yeah I do read RLP. My other blog, Amicus Dei, is on the Christian Century blogs group. Have a wonderful Sunday! — Chuck

  3. David, thanks for your kind comment. Have a wonderful Christmas. — Chuck

  4. It nearly brought me to tears. You know, in our culture men are not supposed to cry…

  5. Simonas, thank you for your kind words. I am glad the story moved you for that is what this story should do. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Simonas!

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