Two (or more) men and a baby

Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1
December 19, 2010
Steve Hammond

I had a really good friend in high school whose father died when we were in college. Through an innocent comment made by one of the people at the funeral she learned that the person she thought was her father actually wasn’t. Not her biological father, anyway.

It turned out that her mother got pregnant while her husband was away in Korea. But my friend had never known that because when her mom’s husband came home they worked things out and he raised my friend as his own daughter.

As we talked about all of this, she said it never occurred to her when she was growing up that the man she thought was her father really wasn’t. He had never done or said anything that she could remember that would have given her any clue that he wasn’t her real father.

He was what they used to call a stand up guy. Like Joseph, in today’s story, he could have put away his wife and her child, and never looked back. But he didn’t. Mary was not the only amazing role model Jesus had in his family.

I don’t want to overly romanticize the relationship between Mary and Joseph. Marriage was a much different thing in the Middle East when Jesus was born than it is now, or in our part of the world, anyway. People didn’t fall in love and get married. Marriage was simply a business arrangement between two families. Nevertheless, Joseph must have had some affection for Mary, or maybe actually have been in love with her for him to respond the way he did when he discovered Mary was pregnant, and he was not the father.

The story says his initial response was to try to find a way to deal with this quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. Actually, he had every right not to only publically denounce and shame her, but even demand that the law be followed and she be stoned to death.

As one commentator somewhat wryly said, “Those who struggle with the Virgin Birth need to remember that it was more a problem for Joseph than for them.” But, fortunately for Mary, Joseph was a dreamer. A literal dreamer. He had this dream where an angel came to him and said Mary’s not cooking the books and that its okay for him to take her as his wife.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said to Joseph, which is also what the angel said to Mary when we read her story in Luke’s gospel. What’s the opposite of fear? Trust? Hope? Confidence? What about love? What’s it say in 1 John 4? Perfect love casts our fear.

I don’t think Joseph was afraid of what people would say when they found out Mary was pregnant. I think the reason he wanted to put her away, even if it was as compassionately as he could do it, was not because of what the neighbors would say, but because he wanted to do the right thing.

Joseph seems to be a pious man and, most likely, his understanding of the law of God was that it would have been wrong for him to take Mary as his wife. She had defiled herself, she was an unclean woman and marrying her would have made him unclean. The righteous thing to do, the thing to keep himself clean in God’s eyes, would have been to walk away from her. That is what he probably believed would have most pleased God, been the right thing to do.

So Joseph had this dream and had to go out on a bit of a limb, start understanding God in a new way. What if God is not someone we fear but who wants us love us and be loved by us? We talk about God’s love all the time, but that was not the kind of talk that a person like Joseph would have ever thought of, much less heard. God was to be obeyed, not loved. Nor did God expect love from us, but obedience. Obedience was the way to righteousness.

Jesus, though, changed our whole way of thinking about God, beginning with Joseph. Joseph was willing to risk his own claim to personal righteousness by staying with Mary and her baby and believing that he had a part to play in this thing God was doing. And once Joseph made that commitment he stuck with it, even though it put his own life in danger when Herod sent out his special operation forces to kill the baby Jesus. Joseph had to leave his home and live as an illegal alien in Egypt for the sake of this baby who was not even his own child.

When your relationship with God is based on love, rather than fear, you are able to risk all kinds of things, change your life in really significant ways. That’s why the Apostle Paul talks about righteousness not being based on what we do out of fear of violating God’s laws, but on our faith that God really does love us.

In this story, Jesus gets two names. Joseph claims the baby as his own when he names him Jesus in the naming ceremony. But the writer of Matthew’s gospel says another really good name for Jesus is Emmanuel. He’s thinking about that story where one of Joseph’s ancestors, King Ahaz is really scared about the Syrians and willing to make all kinds of deals with them.

Isaiah the prophet begs Ahaz to not cave in to the Syrian demands because they aren’t going to be around very long. The Assyrians are about to come along and clean their plates. But Ahaz is afraid. When Isaiah says just ask God for a sign, Ahaz refuses because he believes it would be wrong or unrighteous to ask for a sign. So Isaiah says God will give you a sign anyway. You are not only going to survive, but a young woman who is now a virgin, will conceive and by time that child reaches puberty, Syria is going to be a long fallen empire. That young woman was most likely a young bride that either Isaiah or Ahaz was about to marry. But the point was that the child would be a sign of God’s faithfulness and presence. The only way to survive was not surrendering to Syria, surrendering to fear. They would all survive the Syrian onslaught if they just trusted God. The child would be called Emmanuel, God with us.

So the writer of Matthew’s Gospel says no wonder we think of Jesus as Emmanuel. What better sign that God is with us than him? We don’t have to be afraid, our fears don’t have to rule our lives because God is with us. God really does love us.

Love is not some wonderful feeling, but action. Love is not the fuzzy feelings about a baby in a manger, but a man who takes that child on as his own, and protects him, even when he doesn’t have to. All kinds of people have been fathers and mothers to vulnerable children and many, like Joseph and my friend’s father, have willingly paid the price for doing so. It happened to me. Nobody made my grandmother take me in when I was three years old. I could have ended up in one of those places for children who aren’t safe in their homes.

People who have raised stepchildren as their own. Those who have taken in foster kids, and those who have adopted kids. Those who have provided a place of safety for kids who are in trouble. They are the sons and daughters of Joseph. They show us something about how God loves us. Nobody made God take us in.

We don’t have to be afraid. This is how much God loves us. God comes to be with us. And it’s that love that casts out our fear and enables us to have the faith to risk all kinds of things that God may be calling us to.

Joseph was a stand up guy. And like his wife, is a model of faith for all of us. They were as much a part of the Christmas story as Jesus. When we get to be more like Joseph, letting love rather than fear control us, we become a part of the story too.