Growing up in the Church, I read and heard our text many times. We learn that Mary was found to be with child. And then we hear: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Now I always took all of this to be a statement about how Joseph was seeking to treat Mary in a kind and considerate way. I always assumed that the fact that Joseph was just and the fact that he didn’t want to put her to shame in public were the same thing.
However, when I went to the seminary and had a chance to study Matthew I was in for a surprise. Because it is really quite clear that this is not the case. In fact, while our translation is accurate insofar as it goes, what the Greek participle used here really means is “because he was just.” The just character of Joseph explains what he is doing, and not simply the way he is doing it.
Based on what Scripture tells us, we are on firm ground when we say that Mary was a very fine girl – a great catch. She was going to be a wonderful wife, and eventually, a great mother. Joseph had to be feeling really good about how things were going in his life. He was blessed to be betrothed to Mary and was excited about the future.
And then, Joseph’s world was rocked. He found out that Mary was pregnant. And because he was just, there was only one thing to do. He had to break off the betrothal. After all, they weren’t married; they hadn’t had sex; and Mary was pregnant. This could mean only one thing – she was a fornicator. And no man who was living in accordance with God’s Torah given to Israel at Mt. Sinai was going to marry a woman was going to marry a woman who was sexually immoral.
Now to say that Joseph was just doesn’t mean that he wasn’t merciful. A betrothal in first century Judaism was more than a mere engagement in our day. It was a legally binding agreement and it required formal action to end a betrothal. There was no doubt that Joseph was going to do this. But he also decided that he wasn’t going to do it in a way that made a public example out of Mary. Instead he was going to end the betrothal quietly.
In our text we learn: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”
God sent an angel to tell Joseph that the right thing was in fact the wrong thing for him to do. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” There are two important pieces of information here. Rather obviously, we focus on the explanation that the child conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit. But just as important is the way the angel addresses Joseph.
The angel said, “Joseph, son of David.” Jews in the first century did not have last names. If you were going to identify a person, you did it either by describing them in relation to their father or in relation to the place where they lived. Yet in this scheme, Joseph would not have been called “Joseph, son of David.” He was instead, “Joseph son of Jacob” – for that was the name of his father.
However, the angel identifies Joseph as “son of David” for a very important reason. Joseph had descended from king David. If he took Mary as his wife, her divinely conceived child would become part of the line of king David.
During Advent we have been considering the genealogy that Matthew places at the beginning of his Gospel. We have seen that the surprise of the genealogy is the inclusion of a number of women. And the surprise grows when we examine the stories of these women.
These surprises reach their culmination in Mary. In the genealogy we read, “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. Now normally the genealogy says, “X the father of Y.” So for example, right before the mention of Mary we hear, “and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph.” Each man is described as the father of his son.
But when we arrive at Joseph we find, “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” Jesus is clearly set in Joseph’s line, and in the line of David. And yet Joseph is not described as the father. Instead he is “the husband of Mary,” and the one who gets credit humanly speaking for the physical part of Jesus’ conception and birth is Mary alone.
We have seen that the women in Jesus’ genealogy help us to understand and appreciate the unexpected ways in which God worked through his Son, Jesus Christ. In Mary, the surprises are everywhere. The virgin is pregnant. The right thing for Joseph to do, is in fact the wrong thing. The child who is not fathered by a descendant of David becomes the fulfillment of David’s line.
God does the unexpected … because we are so predictable. In our daily lives, we are people who really only pay attention to God when we really need him. We are people who are not content with what God has given to us, and instead we covet what others have. We are people who cannot resist the opportunity to pass on gossip – we hurt our neighbor’s reputation in order to amuse ourselves.
We are so predictable. We are sinners who sin. And this is why God sent his Son into our world in unexpected ways. In our text the angel says, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was given the name Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves,” because through him God was acting to save us from our sins. Jesus Christ was in the world in order to take our sins upon himself and die for them. And then on the third day he rose from the dead. By these unexpected actions God has given you forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.
God did not leave us alone in our sin. Instead he came to be with us in the events we are about to celebrate at Christmas. As Matthew tells us in our text, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’(which means, God with us).”
God came to be with us as he was born in Bethlehem and placed in a manger. He continues to come to be with us each week in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar has our Lord is present in his true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. And because this is true, we look eagerly for his last unexpected action – his return in glory on the Last Day.