This Sunday I will preach from Matthew 1:18-25, one of the most commonly preached advent passages. One of the challenges with commonly preached passages, especially those we re-visit at the same time every year, is that we stop thinking about the details of the story. And yet the story of Christ’s birth is too astounding to pass over with this kind of assumed familiarity.
One of the most radical elements of the story is captured in the wording of the Apostles’ Creed: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” God’s way of bringing the Messiah into this world subjected Joseph and Mary to the possibility of scandal. In the ancient world, betrothal was much weightier than engagement is in modern western society. It brought a man and woman into the binding commitment of marriage without sexual union or cohabitation. This is why Joseph is called Mary’s “husband” in this passage. And it’s also why, upon learning that Mary is pregnant, Joseph feels that his only option is to divorce her quietly.
Joseph, being a righteous man, does not want his reputation to be compromised. And yet, being a kind man, he does not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. The Lord allowed Joseph to wrestle with the problem for a season before intervening. When the angel finally comes to him to reveal the truth of the situation, Joseph responds in faith and takes Mary as his wife. In doing so, he is willingly exposing himself to potential accusation and ridicule from others. This is a good reminder for us, that sometimes obedience to God causes us to appear unrighteous in the eyes of others. We cannot consistently live in the fear of the Lord if we are controlled by the fear of man.
Isn’t it ironic that the most holy birth in history was shrouded with the appearance of scandal? And yet, it marks the nature of Christ’s ministry. Jesus always lived in perfect obedience to the Father, and yet constantly offended the “righteous” religious leaders of Israel. And yet, His life of perfect (yet offensive) obedience was necessary for us to be counted righteous and cleansed from all of our unrighteousness!