This sermon was delivered at Pinecrest Retirement Community on Wednesday December 18, 2013.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.[a]
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
There are many things that I have learned from my dad over the years, but none have ever been as persistent in my life as this: You can do it the easy way—cut corners, make a mess, get sloppy, but get it done—or you can do it the right way. Over and over again, I had to re-learn this lesson, because it’s one lesson that never stuck. I’ve always been one to do things the easy way. I do this for a couple of reasons; one, I like to think I can outsmart the obstacles in my life, and two, I tend to get impatient don’t like to “waste my time.” Well, the truth is, if I ever listened to him, I probably wouldn’t waste my time at all if I did it things the right way instead of trying to find an easy way out of things.
More often than not, these situations would be fairly mundane. It usually would happen when I rushed through my chores, not paying attention to the little details, or was in such a hurry to get home that I completely forgot one of my school textbooks in my locker so I couldn’t do my homework (which happened with alarming frequency, I’m sad to say.) I always blamed this on me not being a detail-oriented person, that I’m far more interested in the big picture, some such nonsense. No, I’m plenty detail-oriented when it comes to the things I like. The things I don’t like to do just got less attention, because I wanted to do things the easy way, not necessarily the right way.
If only life was made up of these ann0ying but not necessarily life-threating things. If only doing things the easy way instead of the right way had such minor consequences as having a spot left on your car after hastily washing it, or some other relative inconvenience. The sad thing is, life doesn’t always have such minor decisions to make. Sometimes the easy thing and the right thing are not always so clear cut. What’s the easy thing and what’s the right thing when you have to choose between paying for your prescriptions this month, or paying for food this month? In such cases, there usually isn’t a clear difference between an easy way and a right way.
The story of the birth of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew capitalizes on the hard choices that Joseph had to make when it came to Mary and her miraculous conception. For the most part, Luke’s version of the story—the one with Mary seeing the angel, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the shepherds—that version gets the most press and popularity, and it’s no mystery why. It’s the iconic birth narrative. It features Jesus a whole more than Matthew’s does, for sure. It puts the focus squarely on Mary and her Son, and draws us in to the story. Matthew, however, told parts of the story that are a lot more around the periphery, the outside scene of the story than of the main cast—particularly Josephs role. It asks us the question: if you were in his shoes, what would you do?
It starts off very bluntly. Mary, Jesus mother was engaged to Joseph—not a bad way to start. Immediately though, it throws a curveball at us. Mary is pregnant, and like an ancient episode of Maury Povich, Joseph is NOT THE FATHER. The fact that Mary is pregnant out of wedlock isn’t necessarily first-page news. These kinds of things happened all the time, and still do happen. It’s with this in the background that Matthew’s narrative zooms in on Joseph, so much so that all we get is a one sentence description, a single adjective to pin on Mary’s fiancé. “Joseph was a righteous man.” That’s all we get, but in a way, that’s all we really need.
What does it mean to be a righteous person? For the Jews, it means to be upright, to act ethically and morally, to be concerned with justice and striving for it. In essence, when Matthew tells us that Joseph is righteous, he’s telling us that Joseph is a man known for doing things the right way. When the rubber hits the road, you can count on Joseph to do the right thing. In this case, with his fiancée made pregnant out of wedlock, the right thing for him to do according to the law and to the customs of the time were to break off the engagement. This seems harsh in retrospect, but if we were confronted with the same thing, we might to the same. It’s a hard problem for anyone to face. I know if I were Joseph, and I learned the news that my fiancée was pregnant, and I was sure it wasn’t mine, I’d be hurt. I’d be angry. I’d be scared, and frustrated, probably do something dumb. But in this case, Joseph was a righteous man. He tried to do the right thing with the circumstances he was given.
And then an angel comes along, and messes up the plan, so to speak. This messenger from God appears to Joseph in a dream, revealing the true nature of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Mary remains a virgin. The Holy Spirit caused her to conceive the child. Not only that, the child she carries will be named Jesus, a name that means deliverer, savior, and that is who he will be. This child is going to be the messiah, the chosen one that will fulfill the prophecies of old.
Suddenly, Joseph is given a choice. What he was going to do, break off the engagement, suddenly becomes the easy thing to do, comparatively. He could do that, and he would still be a righteous man, in the eyes of his neighbors and of the law. But because he was righteous, and because he believed in what the messenger from God said, and because he trusted in it, he decided to do something different. He remained engaged. He got married to Mary. He was her husband, and when the time came, he became Jesus’s father. I’m sure it was hard. I’m sure he suffered some scorn, some nasty rumors, and public embarrassment, for him, for his wife, and for his son. But what he decided was the righteous thing, because he was a righteous man. Instead of the easy way, he did things the right way.