Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is the fourth Sunday of Advent. This morning, we hear Matthew’s Christmas story. On Christmas Eve, we will hear the more familiar story from Luke. The Gospels of Mark and John do not write about Jesus’s birth at all. Matthew’s story focuses on Joseph’s role. The genealogy that begins this Gospel traces the link between Abraham and David through to Joseph.
So, what is going on in this reading? Somehow, Joseph has learned that Mary has become pregnant. This is a huge scandal, because Joseph and Mary are not yet married. What is called an engagement in our translation was actually a legal agreement between the two families. Several things were decided at this meeting, such as the bride’s price, the amount that the bride’s family would give to the groom, and when the wedding feast would take place.
It was only after the wedding feast that the couple would live together. When Joseph found that Mary was pregnant, he had several options. He would have to return the dowry, of course. Then he could have called the religious authorities and condemned Mary publicly, or he could have divorced her quietly – which would have left her alive. Hopefully, the real father would show up and claim her. If not, she was pretty much on her own, in a society which would shun her and her baby.
Just when he has decided on the second option, Joseph is visited by an angel, in a dream, who tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary - because the child she carries is from the Holy Spirit. The thing we have to remember is that proving paternity was not possible at that time, so the only way to establish the paternity of the child was for the man to claim the child, by naming him or her.
When Joseph wakes up, he does just that. He affirms the marriage, and when the child is born, he gives him the name the angel told him, “Jesus,” because he will save his people from their sins. So now Mary is safe, because Joseph did the right thing. There may have been talk in the village, because it was obvious Mary was pregnant before the ceremony. But Joseph claimed Jesus as his son, and that was that.
This story is very different from the Christmas story we will hear in the Gospel of Luke. Luke focuses on Mary, and we get to learn about her family. When she visits Elizabeth, who in her old age is also unexpectedly pregnant. When I was in Confirmation class, I questioned why we needed to have four Gospels. “Isn’t one enough?” But here, from Matthew, we learn so much about how society worked back then. And on Christmas Eve, we will learn about Mary and the birth of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. Rather than conflicting, these two stories complement each other, and give us a much richer idea of how God is working, through both Mary and Joseph, to bring Jesus to us.
I think sometimes we forget how different society was 2,000 years ago. Through these two stories, we see that God’s love is not limited by societal rules. God is not limited by rules we humans make. God is truly the source of
limitless love that conquers all. Knowing we are loved by such a great God is what we hold onto in the uncertain times, which we are living through now.
There is only one steadfast rule with God – love.
We are loved, as Mary and Joseph were loved. As the angel said to Joseph, do not be afraid to love. God is with us, urging us to love each other. More than our disagreements over politics race and gender, all of which are human conflicts, God’s love supersedes the limits of our love. And we need to learn to love unconditionally, as God love us. Amen.