Matthew 1: 18-25
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
It is Advent.
Advent is a season of celebration and anticipation.
We anticipate and celebrate the nativity of Jesus.
Our Savior’ birth.
In our celebrations, we often gather for fellowship, food, gift exchanges and good tidings of great joy.
During Advent, company is always expected.
Either we are expecting company or are the expected company.
In the Biblical Advent stories, company comes, that’s for sure, but it is not expected.
This Advent we will look at four such stories.
The Angel comes to Joseph.
Gabriel comes to Mary.
Mary comes to Elizabeth.
Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem.
The shepherds come to the manger.
But all these unanticipated visits are secondary to the one whose coming has been long expected.
That is what I will be preaching about this Advent.
All the company that comes and goes as we await the coming of the one.
The light of the world.
Today we start with Joseph.
This is a great story.
Most often we tell the story at Christmas to describe the birth of Jesus.
To proclaim the nature of his identity.
But there is more going on here than a birth story.
It is a story about being obedient to God, even when it is hard.
And for Joseph, this was all very hard.
What do we know about Joseph?
Joseph is a righteous Jew who did his best to follow the dictates of the Jewish law.
One of those laws prohibited adultery.
It was a grave sin both against family and to God.
The punishment for adultery could be severe – even death.
Divorce was the least of its penalties.
Another of those laws Joseph would want to follow was this:
It is a religious duty (mitzvah) to extend the hospitality of one’s home for food and lodging as the need arises.
The requirement to provide hospitality was central to the nature of the nomadic life in the middle east.
As people traveled, they would stop at a community for food and shelter.
Receiving food and shelter was expected.
It was a matter of life or death.
To refuse to give hospitality was basically to renounce any sense of being part of the human community.
The Jewish people knew this and had utilized when they went into Egypt to escape the famine back when Joseph was Prime Minister of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:33-34 says this:
33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
The principal of hospitality is ultimately commanded 35 times in the Torah.
No other commandment even comes close.
So, if a traveler showed up at Joseph’s door, he had to provide hospitality for as long as it was needed.
And finally, like all righteous Jews, Joseph had a messianic expectation.
And expectation that God would send a Messiah who would bring about the redemption of his people, a restoration of the Davidic kingdom, and bring in an era of universal peace.
So, that is Joseph.
And ordinary Jewish man.
But when we meet him in our scripture reading, Joseph has a problem.
He is engaged to Mary.
She would be his helpmate for life and the mother of his children.
This would be the start of a family which was central to life in Israel.
Then the surprise.
Mary is pregnant.
Under Jewish law, she has committed adultery.
As a righteous man, Joseph had little choice but to end their engagement.
But wanted to be kind.
It would be a quiet divorce.
No reason was required.
Just a piece of pater signed by Joseph and two witnesses.
Mary would not be disgraced, and would likely have been given some money for support.
Which, to me, implies Joseph had some amount of affection for Mary.
But at the end of the day, Joseph’s plan for his life was not to be.
This was a hard thing.
I imagine he was crushed.
Then Joseph gets a visit from an angel of the Lord.
The angel tells Joseph that all this was from God.
That God was doing something wonderful.
And that Joseph had a role in this wonderful thing, and it was indeed a hard thing.
One writer put a modern spin on this:
The angel basically said, “I know this is not what you expected, Joseph, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful, despite the fact you are now in a rather socially unacceptable situation.”
Then it gets a bit harder still.
The angel tells Joseph to name him!
And in the naming, the boy will be adopted by Joseph as his own.
(Which by the way makes Jesus a member of the Davidic line.)
To provide hospitality for the unexpected visitor.
A lifelong responsibility of shelter and food.
Then it gets seriously hard.
Joseph is told to name him Jesus – God saves.
This is the messiah.
Joseph is to be the father of the savior of God’s people.
That’s a lot of responsibility.
And Joseph agrees to do the hard thing.
Because he is a righteous man.
Because he trusts God.
Because he want to be obedient to God.
Joseph gets a visit from an angel and his life is changed forever.
But, you know, it does turn out OK.
Joseph gets Mary as his wife.
He also gets a family.
Just what he wanted.
So, what do we make of this?
There is a lesson here.
The lesson is that God often calls us to do hard things.
Things outside and contrary to our plans.
Life is going on and suddenly we hear:
“I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK.”
This is the way God has worked throughout the Bible.
God continually calls folks to do hard things.
Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Judges, Samuel, David, the Prophets.
Hard unexpected and unwanted tasks.
That’s the Hebrew Bible.
In the New Testament, we see the calls to the disciples, particularly Peter and Paul who wanted nothing to do with Jesus.
And it continued on to the Great Commission.
All of them called out of their lives in unexpected ways to do hard things.
But they all trusted God.
And took on the unexpected responsibility.
What does that have to do with us?
At some time in our each of our lives, we are called by God to a particular task.
Unexpected and often hard.
Like them, we have a choice.
Do we accept the call?
Or do we do what is quiet and convenient?
I had to make that choice ten years ago.
My plan had been to practice law for as long as I could.
If I had done that, I might be in practice today with my wife and daughter, which I have to say would be pretty cool.
But I was called to become a pastor.
I had spent many years in seminary, but still, it was going to be hard.
It sounded something like this:
“I know this is not what you expected, Jeff, but don’t worry, it is going to be OK.”
So, I trusted God.
And you know what?
It has been a lot better than OK!
It has been a blessing.
It brought me here.
So, what about you?
What about JMPC?
I believe many of you all have had a similar experience.
I want you to think about the times in your own lives and the life of this congregation when God has called you to do something hard and unexpected and you just did it.
You trusted God.
It was not what you expected, but it turned out OK.
But we are not done.
Because, like Joseph, what we have been called to do is often a lifelong endeavor.
Not a one-time thing.
Joseph’s task was to feed, shelter and raise this child.
That’s a lot of hospitality.
What does God want from us?
Are we ready to continue with our unexpected responsibility?
Do we trust God?
I want you to think about that as we come to this table where we remember one particular event where God asked someone to do a hard thing.
God asked Jesus to go to the cross to accomplish his messianic task.
A hard thing indeed!
And Jesus had reservations.
Matthew quotes him:
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
Jesus trusted God … and did the hard thing.
As we hold the elements of our communion with Jesus, let’s think and pray about what we as individuals and as a church might be called to do in the coming year.
Are we ready?
The Christmas Affair?
To be a liturgist?
The lesson Joseph teaches is the same lesson this table teaches.
If we trust and obey God, doing the hard things will be OK.
When writing this, I was reminded of John Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon in ten years.
This is what he said:
We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone …
Doing the hard thing.
That is what Joseph did.
It is what each of us should do, too.
A challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.