On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we finally seem to find what we thought the season was for: We are anticipating the birth of Jesus. This is the week of his first “advent,” or “arrival,” among us.
The lectionary Gospel readings brought us here through a hurky-jerky journey. It is “Year A,” when the texts come from Matthew.
- On Advent 1 we looked to the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age.
- On Advent 2 we awaited Jesus’ public ministry with John the Baptist, who is preaching repentance and waiting to baptize his cousin.
- On Advent 3 we were with Jesus, hearing John’s doubting questions from prison, waiting for clarity about whether Jesus is the promised messiah.
This week, with Matthew 1:18-25 it looks like we are ready to hear the cozy story of the birth of Jesus:
Now the birth of Jesus
took place in this way.” (Matthew 1:18 NRSV)
Cue the journey to Bethlehem, the inn, the barn or cave, with manger ready to welcome the Christ child. Cue the angels announcement to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night.
But no. That’s all in Luke.
On Advent 4 in Year A we get Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus.
And for Matthew, Mary is basically off camera. This is Joseph’s story.
Part of me winces at this — Mary did all the hard work bringing Jesus into the world. What’s with yet another case of patriarchal neglect?
But there’s another side. Joseph is a key player in the story too. He deserves his day, even if Mary has the bigger role in salvation history, bearing God incarnate as her son.
Protestants hardly give Joseph a thought.
Joseph? He was a carpenter. Right?
That’s what gets mentioned in Scripture (Matthew 13:55) so we lock that in. If not much else gets mentioned, we just leave Joseph at that.
Not so the rest of Christianity. The Catholic and Orthodox Christians remember more details about Joseph that have passed down from generation to generation apart from biblical texts. They don’t think documentary proof of the historical assertions is so important.
So in the Church’s lore, Joseph was an older man, a widower and the father of at least another son, James.
Just that little bit of detail gives a new viewpoint into our text.
Here’s Joseph, a lonely widower, trying to keep up the family business while raising a son — or maybe a whole bunch of children, since Mark says Jesus’ hometown neighbors asked of him
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3 NRSV)
He’s working hard to keep it together. Maybe he’s lifelong friends with Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna — also well-known to the non-Protestant Christian world from longstanding tradition.
Well, dear old Joachim and Anna have a young daughter. The whole neighborhood could see it coming:
Wouldn’t they make a great couple? Mary’s so kind and hard working. And Joseph! He needs her help. Isn’t it wonderful how God provides?
Cue the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof.
The match was made.
What was Joseph waiting for in Advent? A wife. A mother for his children. A new life.
The Bad News
Then Mary said those horrible words:
Joseph — we need to talk.
(That isn’t in the Bible or in Church lore. I just imagine it had to happen.)
He was reeling when he stormed out of Mary’s house.
Pregnant? How could she do this to me?
She’d tried to tell him some story about an angel, that she hadn’t been with a man. But Joseph had cut her off.
That’s in LUKE! I known NOTHING about that!
A man with children knows how these things work.
Well, that was it. He hardly had to think about it. The marriage was off. The only thing to decide was how to make the break.
He was brokenhearted. To tell the truth, he was angry. But he was still the same man, with the kind heart and love for God that had prompted Mary to agree to marry him despite his age.
He wouldn’t put her to public shame. He would just — end it. Quietly.
What was Joseph waiting for in Advent? Healing from a broken heart. Someday, if he was really blessed, hope.
Joseph had a hard time getting to sleep that night. Tossing and turning, he went back and forth from his grief over losing Mary and the grim thought of more years as a single parent.
Finally he slept.
Then came the dream: An angel, so alive and bursting with light that Joseph thought he was awake. God’s messenger said to go ahead and marry Mary. The child was from God — a miracle. Name him “Jesus.”
The angel was gone, and Josep was sitting up in his dark room, eyes wide with holy fear.
There was no decision to make.
So Joseph thought he was waiting for a wife, new hope for his family — and he got it. But that wasn’t what was really coming, that first Advent.
That first Advent, Joseph actually had no idea what was coming. The promised Messiah was coming at last — right into Joseph’s new family.
And really what Joseph was waiting for, though he had no idea it was coming, was his own new vocation. Joseph had a new calling.
He would be raising Mary’s son, God’s own Son. He would have to protect this Jesus and his mother Mary. He would have to provide for them. He would have to raise God’s Son, discipline him, guide him so he would grow up capable and competent, good and kind.
What a responsibility.
As we come to the last Sunday of Advent, we think we know what we’re waiting for.
- Spiritually? Jesus of course, the Son of God.
- Practically? Family and friends and feasting.
But maybe we’re actually in a position like Joseph. Maybe the coming of Jesus is going to upset our personal plans and preferences. Maybe the coming of Jesus is bringing with it a new calling we never sought or wanted.
If you’ve ever welcomed a new child into the world you’ve found yourself with an unimaginable new responsibility.
Jesus is coming, God’s own child, and he lands in swaddling clothes in our arms. What will we do with him? In our lives, our hearts, he is tinier than a baby. How will we let him grow to full maturity, to be for us and in us the King of kings and Lord of lords?
My new book, the Illuminate-Your-Own Gospel of Matthew is out, just in time for Year A! And as I write this, Amazon still says it will arrive by Christmas. If you want a way to engage with this year’s Gospel texts drawing, doodling, making notes, asking questions, or writing out your thoughts and prayers, check it out on Amazon through this affiliate link: