This Sunday offers you one more opportunity in Advent for preparing your hearers to celebrate Christmas rightly. To that end, the Gospel reading gives us Matthew’s account of the incarnation. “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way…” But what follows is not the traditional nativity story. Unlike Luke, who provides most of the parts for the children’s program (the shepherds, the angel hosts, the innkeeper, and the animals), Matthew’s version is rated “M” for mature. He brings up such things as extramarital conception, honor and shame, and secret plans for divorce. Unlike Luke, who gives us Mary’s pondering perspective, Matthew opens our eyes to a conflicted Joseph.

Matthew’s focus on Joseph has homiletical potential. Preachers intuitively understand the value of helping present-day hearers identify with Biblical characters.[1] While there is significant discontinuity between someone like Joseph and Christians today, there is also some important continuity. Without ignoring the former, the latter can help hearers reflect on a familiar story from a unique perspective. The preacher can invite the congregation to empathize with the temptations Joseph faced, as well as proclaim the promises of God which sustained Joseph to contemporary hearers.

I will consider several details from this text one might use to help hearers identify with Joseph. My hope is they will stimulate your thinking about Joseph, and how they could help you bring the adoptive father of Jesus to life.

  • Joseph’s character. Matthew tells us Joseph was a “righteous” (δίκαιος) man. He seems to be talking about what Lutherans call “civil righteousness.”[2] Rather than saying something about Joseph’s ability to save himself, Matthew is simply telling us Joseph was a good man (cf. Matthew 5:45). His goodness showed itself in his unwillingness to let Mary suffer shame (19) and his obedience to the Angel of the Lord (24). Oh, that we would have more men of such character!
  • Joseph’s dilemma. It would be hard to overstate the difficulty Joseph must have experienced as a result of what God was doing with Mary. It is always dangerous to read our cultural conventions into the context of a vastly different time and place, but it is safe to say he faced an impossible situation. Not only would he (together with Mary) have been subject to intense social shame, but also must have been plagued by nagging doubts about her trustworthiness and his own judgment. While they are not explicitly named in the text, your sermon could explore the various temptations Joseph must have faced—such as the temptation to hurt (or not help) Mary, to attempt to justify himself before others (and maybe even God), and to fear the Angel’s command.
  • Joseph’s divine visitor. An angel of the Lord (ὁ ἄγγελος κυρίου) appeared to Joseph in the midst of his conflict. The angel came to him in a dream, “as he considered these things.” By the time he woke from sleep he had been convinced to obey. I would not make too much of the means by which God spoke to him (I have had too many strange dreams). But the means is not the point. It was the message of the Angel which mattered. The message was twofold. First, he told Joseph not to fear. This is a common message from God to His people, for the causes of fear are many. Second, he told Joseph the baby was from the Spirit. If the call not to fear required faith, even more would have the possibility of a divine conception. Luther made a big deal of Mary’s faith. As Matthew tells it, Joseph’s faith stands-out as particularly remarkable. It took faith to believe what he heard, and it took faith to act obediently in response.
  • Joseph’s naming. Matthew highlights Joseph’s responsibility of naming Jesus by describing both the Angel’s command (21) and Joseph’s obedience to the command (25). “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” There are several significant details here. First, the Angel told Joseph the child would save His people from their sins. Not from Roman tyranny, not from foreign occupation, but from their sins. This was their most pressing problem. It remains a persistent dilemma for us today. But there is another detail here. Jesus will save His people from their sins. That is, the people of Israel. While the Gentiles would eventually be included in the plan, at this point in the story Jesus was coming to His own people. This detail stands out especially because it was His own people who rejected him.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 1:18-25.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 1:18-25.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 1:18-25.