Last week I mentioned that Wyatt Earp’s brother Virgil was a part of my family history. This week I have a few more details in this rather sordid tale. In February 1860, while living in Pella, Iowa, 16-year-old Virgil eloped with 17-year-old Dutch immigrant Ellen Rysdam, part of my mother’s family. One report states that they saw each other only occasionally and kept their marriage secret until Ellen was about to deliver their first child. When her parents, Gerrit and Magdalena, learned of the marriage they were furious, as they preferred that she marry a man who was also Dutch. Virgil went off to serve in the Civil War and while he was gone, Ellen’s parents told her that Virgil had been killed in battle. She remarried and soon the whole family picked up and moved to Oregon. When very much alive Virgil returned to Pella, he found his wife and child gone. A great scandal in Pella, Iowa! However, given all the things that have happened in the world, this scandal – while big to the family – was in fact relatively minor.
I. The Scandal for Joseph.
In verse 18, we read that Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. In Hebrew culture, marriage occurred in two steps. The first step was the betrothal itself in which the agreement was made, promises were spoken and gifts exchanged to seal the bond. Far different from our modern day engagement, a betrothal was legally binding. In fact, if the man died, the woman was considered to be legally a widow. After a while the marriage would be finalized and they would then live together. Joseph and Mary were legally bound together in betrothal. They were not yet living together nor having sexual relations.
And that is when the scandal broke: Mary was pregnant. Now Mary knew that child within her was there because of the Holy Spirit. But Joseph was not aware of the role of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s pregnancy. So you can imagine how Joseph must have felt when he found out this news. He must have been terribly disappointed, hurt and betrayed. As a result, he started considering his options.
Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man, being committed to obeying God’s Law. And the law required him to publicly accuse Mary of unfaithfulness. And technically the law required that Mary be stoned to death, although by this time in Jewish history this was rarely done anymore. Still such an accusation would put Mary through a public scene that would certainly humiliate and disgrace her; Joseph didn’t want to do that to Mary. The other option he had was to “divorce her quietly.” He could call in two witnesses and have them sign a divorce certificate and as quietly as possible let the whole matter drop. There would still be public scorn for Mary of course, but it was the best Joseph could do and still follow the law. So this was the course of action Joseph was prepared to follow. He wanted to spare Mary from disgrace but he had to obey God’s law. But God honored Joseph’s obedience as we will see in a way that Joseph couldn’t have anticipated.
Sometimes we simply have to obey God and trust him with the consequences. I remember talking with a couple in Iowa who were living together. I talked with my elders and while we wanted them to get married, we also wanted them to know that the Bible disapproved of them living together. One of the elders and I went to their home and talked with them and explained that we wanted to help them, but we had a requirement first: they had to live apart from each other until the wedding. I expected them to get angry and tell us to forget it, but instead they agreed, lived apart from each other and eventually they were married. It was a scenario I could not have envisioned at all. God can take our obedience and bless it in ways that we can’t begin to imagine.
II. Verse 20 reveals how the scandal was resolved for Joseph.
Joseph then also had a dream in which an angel appeared with a message from God. First, the angel told Joseph to take Mary home as his wife. Matthew introduces this with the Greek word “suddenly,” which is not translated in English, to highlight that this is something that was totally unexpected. The angel told Joseph to take the final step in the marriage process, become fully married and not to be afraid. Joseph did not have to be afraid because the child in Mary was from the Holy Spirit. The angel was telling Joseph that Mary had not been unfaithful at all, but had in fact been extraordinarily faithful to God. God chose her to bear his special child and she humbly submitted to God himself.
Now let’s make sure we understand Joseph’s role in all of these events. Last week when we looked at the genealogy of Jesus, we saw that it was given to prove that Jesus was from the line of Abraham and David. Joseph was an heir to King David. The angel emphasized this when he called Joseph a “Son of David.” Being addressed in that way must have seemed very strange to this humble carpenter who likely felt anything but an heir to the throne of David! Moreover, Joseph is to make his relationship with the child legal as well. If he takes Mary home, he will become the child’s legal father. In this way, Jesus becomes a legal heir to the throne of David. Matthew here again is emphasizing the fact that Jesus is the King, the fulfillment of God’s promise to David to have someone on his throne who will reign forever.
Matthew is also underscoring that Jesus is the Son of God through the Holy Spirit. Not just the Son of David, this child is the Son of God himself in human flesh. As such, he will also be the Savior of the world. That is what we will look at more next week. Matthew’s point in these verses is that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man who will be the King and Savior of the world.
Of course, Joseph had a very limited grasp of what was all happening. He knew the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that made him very special. He may have suspected that the child was to be some type of royalty since Joseph was addressed as a Son of David. He knew that somehow through this child, God would save his people. But he couldn’t know the riches of all that Jesus’ birth would bring. Nor would he know in his life on earth. Joseph very likely died between Jesus’ 12th and 30th birthdays. Joseph only had these clues from what the angel said and what Mary told him. Joseph could not have imagined the fullness of the impact Jesus would have.
We today, however, know the full impact of Jesus’ birth. Let’s make sure that we don’t allow the big news of the kingdom to get lost in the cultural Christmas season stuff. It is so easy to let that happen for us today. We have work parties, family gatherings and other gatherings that we have to participate in. There is the whole gift-buying thing where we have to figure out what to get who and how much to spend on what people. By the time we come to the end of the season, is it any wonder we are so exhausted and let down at the first of the New Year?
III. How do we make Christmas significant?
We must always make the time for Jesus, but let’s do this especially in this Advent season. Make the time to read the Christmas story once again and be joyful with the angels and amazed with the shepherds. Read the gospels and be amazed at who Jesus is and what he did for us.
And be sure to be praying because we can get so busy celebrating Christmas that we forget to talk with the one whose birthday we are celebrating! Imagine that it’s your spouse’s birthday and so you want to have a celebration. You plan and plan an elaborate party with dozens of guests. You spend days planning the perfect birthday party for your spouse. The day of the party arrives and it all goes perfectly – except for one thing: your spouse appears to be very unhappy. And when you ask them why, they respond, “You’ve been so busy that you have not been talking with me for the past month!” And that is when you realize that what your spouse really wants is time talking with you, even more than the elaborate party and celebrations. Let’s make sure we take the time to talk with our Lord as we celebrate his birth.
And let’s be the arms of Jesus to those around us. Think of what Jesus taught and did and ask yourself how you can be the loving arms of Jesus to those who are hurting, who are afraid and who are struggling. Think of one thing you can do this week to be the arms of Jesus to that person.
Christmas is a time when we think about God’s amazing gift of grace. We need to live in that grace with each other. We need to accept each other and seek the welfare of others. There are things that can so easily divide us as a nation but let the grace of Christmas humble us and unite us. There are things that can so easily divide us as a church but let the grace of Christmas humble us and unite us. I’m not saying we just ignore differences for they need to be talked about, but I urge you to do this with the spirit of God’s grace and love.
And finally, let’s be obedient and trust in God even when things happen that make us afraid. Fear seems to be the overarching attitude in our nation currently. Fear was a powerful force in the outcome of the election because many were felt that they were living in a very dangerous and frightening world. Others now are afraid because of what may happen next because of the significant change in leadership. We have some fear in our own congregation as we think about the future as well. What are things going to be like in leadership as we think about my retirement? Possible changes cause all of us to be a bit afraid.
Think of Joseph in this part of the story. He wanted to do the right thing but was afraid of the consequences. The angel told him not to be afraid but to be obedient. We wish an angel would come to us and give us the answers to very complex problems but that has not happened. So we proceed seeking to be obedient to what the Bible says. But let’s not be motivated by fear for Jesus the Son of God has come. Let’s let the love and grace of Jesus’ coming drive out fear because we know that God has us and will work out all things according to his purpose.