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Sermon: Matthew 1:18-25
Advent 4 – December 22, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel

Back in the year 2000 George W. Bush was running for president of the United States. On the campaign trail a reporter asked him who he thought was the most important man in history. Candidate Bush answered, “Jesus Christ.” You can imagine that there were many of his supporters who commended him for a very wise answer. And you can imagine that there were many of his cynical opponents who criticized him for giving such an obvious answer. After all, you have to admit that Jesus is a bit outside the realm of regular men who walked this earth.

But not taking Jesus into consideration, who do you think is the greatest man who has ever lived? There could be all kinds of answers – some great world leader, Moses or one of the prophets, a scientist, a doctor. You could rightfully mention any number of men.

How many of you would say Joseph? I mean Joseph the fiancé of Mary the mother of Jesus. I mean Joseph the foster father of Jesus. I mean Joseph who one day found himself in a very disheartening and disappointing situation, in a very difficult situation, in a literally unbelievable situation. And yet against everything that his own human reason was telling him, he did exactly what God commanded him to do. And because Joseph did what God commanded him, Jesus was born, protected, nurtured, and raised to be your Savior, my Savior, and the Savior of the whole world.

On this 4th Sunday of Advent we especially remember that

JOSEPH DID WHAT THE ANGEL OF THE LORD HAD COMMANDED HIM

Some of you might be wondering why I didn’t ask you who the most important woman in history is. And now that I’ve mentioned Joseph as a candidate for the most important man in history, you might suggest that Mary was the most important woman in history. And you could be right. The gospel of Luke especially highlights Mary to whom the angel Gabriel appeared and revealed that she would be the virgin mother of the Son of God. Luke records the song of Mary that praises God for choosing her to be the mother of the Savior. He records the account of Jesus’ birth and that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

But our text today from the gospel of Matthew emphasizes Joseph, and when we consider Joseph’s role in Jesus’ birth, we might just consider him the most important man in history. And here’s why. For any Jewish man living in Galilee at the time of Jesus’ birth, life was not so easy. Joseph lived in Nazareth, a little, unimportant town in the middle of Galilee, kind of in the middle of nowhere. No one from Nazareth was considered to be a person of any importance or stature. Joseph was a carpenter, but work was probably hard to get and didn’t always pay so well. Putting food on the table wasn’t easy. And always looming over Jewish life in Galilee were the ruthless Romans who took too many taxes and humiliated the people subject to them.

One bright spot for a man like Joseph would be marriage and the prospect of starting a family. That’s exactly the situation that Joseph found himself in. Joseph was probably in his twenties or maybe even his early thirties. Mary was likely in her early twenties, maybe in her teenage years yet. Joseph and Mary were engaged. That meant that in the eyes of God they were husband and wife, though they had not yet begun to live with each other. We don’t know if they loved each other. Marriages at this time and in this culture were often arranged by parents and were occasionally a matter of convenience. But whatever the case I would imagine that Joseph was looking to his future with a great deal of optimism.

But then one day he got the news: “[Mary] was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” We aren’t told what that conversation was like. But we can guess that Mary approached Joseph, or more likely Mary’s father approached Joseph, to tell him that Mary was going to have a baby. Mary was telling the account that an angel had appeared to her and told her that she was going to be the mother of the Savior. Mary knowing the realities of biology had to ask the angel Gabriel how this could be since she was a virgin. Gabriel explained that the power of the Most High would overshadow her so that the one born from her would be the Son of God.

Joseph must have watched his future crashing down before him. Joseph was a righteous man. He was a good man. But he too knew biology and reality. He could only assume that Mary had been unfaithful to him. By the Law of Moses Joseph had every right to divorce Mary. He could have even demanded far worse. An angry mob in Nazareth could have stoned Mary to death.

But what do we read? “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph obviously was a good and gracious man. He couldn’t believe Mary’s story about the angel, but he also didn’t seek vengeance. He didn’t even want to publicly disgrace or humiliate her. He probably was heartbroken. Maybe there would be someone else to marry one day.

But Joseph wasn’t supposed to marry someone else. He was supposed to marry Mary. That was God’s plan. And God came to Joseph’s rescue. He also came to our rescue and the rescue of the whole world. “After he considered [divorcing Mary], an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

And this is where we find Joseph to certainly be a righteous man, a very honorable and admirable man. He believed what the angel told him in the dream. He now believed what the angel Gabriel had revealed to Mary – that Mary had not been unfaithful, that the child born to her would in fact be the Son of God.

How could Joseph, or anyone for that matter, believe any of this? For Joseph perhaps the dream was so vivid and the angel so convincing that he had to believe it. Perhaps what the angel told Joseph coincided so perfectly with what Mary had heard from Gabriel. But it was also the power of the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a righteous man – a man whom God had chosen for one of the most important purposes in the history of the world. The Holy Spirit convinced Joseph to believe the unbelievable.

There was another reason Joseph was inclined to believe what the angel said. Matthew tells us, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ which means ‘God with us.’” The prophet was Isaiah, and the Holy Spirit had inspired him to write those words about 700 years earlier. We read them in our Old Testament reading today.

Isaiah originally gave the promise of a virgin birth to King Ahaz of Judah to reassure him that the LORD was going to protect him and his nation from attacks from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the nation of Syria. Putting it very simply the LORD was telling King Ahaz, “If I can bring about a virgin birth, then I have the power to protect you and your people from their enemies.” And God did preserve King Ahaz and Judah from their enemies.

But for 700 years that prophesy endured on the pages of Holy Scripture as a promise of much greater salvation for God’s people. Joseph had probably heard those words of Isaiah read many times in synagogue services and wondered what they meant. How could a virgin give birth to a son? Sometimes we read the book of Revelation and wonder how some of those strange prophecies will be fulfilled. Joseph was no different. But now he knew. After 700 years this astounding and unbelievable prophecy was going to be fulfilled in his life and in the life Mary whom he now took home as his wife.

The angel gave Joseph one more very specific instruction. He was to name the baby Jesus. In Aramaic the name was Yeshua or Joshua. It means Savior. What a perfectly appropriate name. Jesus would save his people from their sins. He would save you and me from our sins.

Remember what the angels said to the shepherds. We’ll hear these amazing words this Tuesday night: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Christmas is all about Jesus born in Bethlehem to be our Savior. The miracle of Christmas is that the holy and innocent Son of God stepped down from heaven, took on a human nature through the virgin Mary, and was born as a human being to be our Savior and the Savior of the world. Isaiah foretold it. God fulfilled it. We celebrate it this Tuesday night and again on Christmas Day, Wednesday morning.

“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

I don’t know if Joseph was the greatest or most important man who ever lived. But I know that he was a good and righteous man. Our world could use more men like him. He took Mary home as his wife. When Caesar Augustus issued his decree he took Mary with him to Bethlehem. Jesus was born while they were there. Joseph named the baby Jesus just like the angel commanded. When Herod threatened Jesus’ life Joseph escaped with him and Mary to Egypt. After Herod died they returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up.

Joseph raised Jesus, nurtured him, and protected him. He was a great man. He did what God called him to do. He raised Jesus to be our Savior. Amen.