In the loving example of Joseph (Matt 1; Advent 4A)

A Sermon –preached by James Ellis for Advent 4A – Sunday 18 December 2022 – at Tuggeranong Uniting Church, on the occasion of his commissioning into the specified ministry of Lay Preacher within the Uniting Church in Australia

Readings: Matthew 1: 18-25 (with reference to Isaiah 7: 10-16).

Christmas is coming – or so we have been saying over the past four Sundays! Our lighting of the fourth candle on our advent wreath this morning – the candle of ‘love’ – marks the final days of advent. Christmas is ever closer, but it is not quite here yet.

Some liturgical fusspots can get in a flap about crossing the Christmas threshold “too early” – that is before Christmas Eve, and I admit – not to great surprise I am sure – that I am usually one of these fusspots – especially when it comes to Lent and Advent. 

Well, it seems that the lectionary is not so fussy and frequently prepares us for what lies ahead with a spoiler. That is the case today where our Gospel reading: Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. This account, a week before Christmas for us this year, invites us to start pondering the great marvel that is Jesus coming among us in anticipation of Christmas. 

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is very much from the point of view of Joseph. This is quite unique. We usually focus on Mary – and rightly so! We don’t know much about Joseph. We can guess, make assumptions, follow the ‘tradition’ attributed to him – but we simply don’t know. He seems to disappear from the story following the birth. Even when later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is lost in Jerusalem as a boy, it is his mother Mary who finds (and scolds) him, not Joseph. At the Cross, Mary is there, but Joseph is not. Perhaps, as tradition assumes, Mary is a widow and Joseph has died. 

So, where Luke is very much focussed on Mary’s story and journey, Matthew gives us some insight into Joseph and the situation he found himself in. In this we see the human side of this story…

Joseph is betrothed (NRSV – engaged) to Mary. At the time, this was not like how we view engagement today where it can be called off rather informally. But contracted to marry and considered bound by the laws of marriage, just not living together yet. Scholar Brendan Byrne makes this point in his commentary on this passage when he details the practice of the time to be betrothed young and not live together until much later. The “before they lived together” in verse 18 is to emphasise they had not had any kind of relations together.

It is during this waiting that Joseph becomes aware that Mary is pregnant. We can imagine the dilemma Joseph found himself in – the ambiguity; the lack of certainty; the confusion. He needs reassurance, but also society requires from him a posture of honour and respect. The initial assumption here – for Joseph and anyone who knew – is that Mary has committed adultery. An act which could get her stoned to death under the Deuteronomic laws.

Joseph, as the man ‘wronged’, would be expected at a minimum to divorce (dismiss) her in public and have her attract the shame and humiliation of many other women who have been in a similar situation. We read however that Joseph was a righteous man – and unwilling to expose Mary to such public disgrace (v19). So, he plans to dismiss her ‘quietly’. Still somewhat harsh in our context, but compassionate in his. This reveals to us something of Joseph’s character that he doesn’t want to bring Mary public shame but instead wants to protect her. He cares about her. He loves her.

This is attitude and plan before the truth is revealed to him in a dream – where an angel tells him that Mary is in fact pregnant by the Holy Spirit and not because she has been up to no good. Compared to other Angel appearances, Joseph listens and acts. He doesn’t argue or dismiss or come up with excuses. It is almost as though this was what he wanted to hear or needed to hear. 

While we could argue around the who, where, how of a virgin birth, that isn’t the point here today. The Focus here is instead to consider the mysterious and the miraculous as the way that God deals with humanity. Whether it is Abraham and Sarah, Moses (particularly his survival as an infant), Samson, Samuel, Elizabeth and Zechariah … this is the way God deals with the humanly impossible and brings in the new – with impossible births. This is powerful, very powerful, and is the story that speaks through this story. 

Matthew understands this of this story also and we see this by the way he links this event with those contained in Isaiah, also read this morning. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”, which means God with us (v23). Isaiah 7 speaks of the birth of a child, who will be named “Emmanuel”. His birth is a “sign” of God’s promise to deliver and bless King Ahaz and the Judean people with abundance, but also of devastating judgment if the sign is refused. When the son born of the “virgin,” or young woman, is rejected, he becomes a sign of judgment rather than deliverance. Matthew uses the citation of Isaiah 7:14 to indicate that Jesus’ person and mission compel people to make choices, resulting in both redemption and judgment.

The use of “God with us” in Matthew 1:23 and 28:20 thus frames the whole Gospel, which serves as a comprehensive narrative that defines what it means for Jesus to be God with us. The culmination of Jesus’ mission in his death and resurrection means that God’s work of redemption has reached its climactic moment, when Israel is gathered and restored, the mission to the nations has begun, and the whole creation—heaven and earth—will be restored and renewed as God’s dwelling place. 

What role might disciples—all of us—play in the continuing realization of this story?

How is this story still our story in a world ever more filled with greed, exploitation, violence, and death?

The birth narrative ends with an act of love and commitment from Joseph – where it is he that names Jesus. They become a family, a family of choice. Because of this choice of Joseph’s, Jesus becomes part of the line of David. This family is far from the typical family at the time, but perhaps speaks well into our context.

Rev Dr Jo Inkpin, in her lectionary reflections for the latest issue of Insights, says this about the example of Joseph and the Holy family: “It is an extraordinary family, and as such should give courage to all other families that do not fit neatly into what society says they should. For those who do live within typical expectations this family may also give strength to acknowledge hidden differences and to support those who face other hurts and condemnations. Without the courage of both Joseph and Mary in choosing to step outside conventional boundaries, exercising compassion and common sense, the Christian story could not have begun”.  

I have often heard it said: you don’t know true love until you become a parent. And while the love I experienced when my daughter was born truly made me experience love I never had before – to say I didn’t really know love until then feels … shallow? diminutive?

It seems to me, then, that there are all kinds of love we don’t know until we know it. The love of true, deep friendship. The love of finding a vocation that fills you with purpose. The love of a place that becomes home, perhaps unexpectedly. The love of children birthed or adopted, fostered or through partnership. The love of a community that is a family – like here at Tuggeranong. 

Advent is a journey of God’s unfolding love for us, with us, and before us; it is a time of living in the “here” of a world where Christ came as an infant 2,000 years ago and a time of “not yet” as we live in the midst of sin and sorrow and despair. Advent challenges us to live in this paradox without resolving it. 

And Advent is a time where we are pushed to trust that the love God has for us is going to carry us through – perhaps through unknown paths, or along a winding highway, and almost definitely not where we thought we would go. But the love of God will never, never fade or tire. For God’s love for us is greater than the love parents have for their children, and greater than the love friends have for each other, and greater than the love Joseph showed to Mary and Jesus. 

May we journey together in love this last week of Advent.

The Lord be with you.


Source material: By the Well podcast and Working Preacher podcast, Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (Liturgical Press, 2004)

Joseph of Arimathea: rich and righteous, devout and a disciple of Jesus.

In the Uniting Church’s resource provided for worship leaders, Uniting in Worship, there is a Calendar of Commemorations, based on the cycle of annual feast days for saints in the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches—but broadened out to be much wider than this. Many days of the year are designated to remember specific people. Today (19 March) is the day to remember Joseph of Arimathea—a figure best known for the scene, reported by all four Gospels, when he takes the body of Jesus from the cross and places it in a tomb.

Joseph was a common biblical name—son of Isaac, father of Jesus, amongst others. This Joseph is distinguished by his home town, Arimathea. All we know is that it was a town in Judea (Luke 23:51). It is thought it may be Ramathaim Sophim, the birthplace of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1, 19), which appears in the LXX as Greek Armathaim Sipha.

In the earliest Gospel, this Joseph is described as being both “a respected member of the council” and as one who was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). The kingdom of God is what Jesus was preaching, according to Mark (1:15; 4:11) and that is what the crowd lining the streets into Jerusalem understood him to be bringing (11:10). Mark’s report indicates that Joseph, who shares this expectation with Jesus, “bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock; he then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).

Matthew reworks this description; he is “a rich man” (rather than a member of the council) who was “a disciple of Jesus” (Matt 27:57). By contrast, Luke introduces Joseph as “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50), echoing the much earlier descriptions of Elizabeth and Zechariah (1:6) and Simeon (2:25).

Luke explains that Joseph, “though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action” (Luke 23:50–51). Differentiating Joseph from the others in the council seems important for Luke; after all, in Luke’s account, the council had brought Jesus to Pilate, saying that “we found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (23:2).

When Pilate demurs, council members press the point: “he stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (23:5). After sending Jesus to Herod (a curiously unhistorical action, given the actual governance arrangements at the time), Pilate states his belief, for a second time, that Jesus is innocent (23:4, 14), before the “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people” together agitate for the release of Barabbas (23:13, 18). Luke’s more detailed description of Joseph places him at odds with this whole sequence of events; “though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action” (23:50–51).

Luke further indicates that Joseph “was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (23:51), picking up on Mark’s description. In the context of Luke’s two volumes, however, this description aligns Joseph very closely with the enterprise that Jesus was engaged in; “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”, Jesus declares (4:43); “he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1).

Jesus sends out both the twelve, and then the seventy, to proclaim the kingdom of God (9:1–2; 10:1, 9–11); he instructs his followers to pray, “your kingdom come” (11:2) and to “strive for [God’s] kingdom” (12:31); he tells. parables of the kingdom (8:10; 13:18, 20); and teaches that “the kingdom of God is among you” (17:20–21).

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, those travelling with him “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (19:11); indeed, as he enters the city, people acclaim him as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (19:38). At the last meal he shares with his disciples, Jesus looks to the fulfilment of the kingdom (22:14–18, 28–30), and one crucified alongside Jesus shares this hope, saying to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42).

Jesus continues this after his death and resurrection, “appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3); subsequently, key followers of Jesus proclaim the kingdom in key locations— Phillip in Samaria (8:12), Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (14:22), and Paul in Ephesus, (19:8). This was Paul’s common activity everywhere (20:25); the final picture of Paul is that he lived under house arrest in a Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).

So Joseph, “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51), is firmly aligned with Jesus and with his followers in Luke’s Gospel. He is clearly, as Matthew reports, “a disciple of Jesus” (Matt 27:57).

In the fourth Gospel, Joseph performs the same task, requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate, and securing a safe place as the resting place for the body. He does this in conjunction with Nicodemus, “who had at first come to Jesus by night” (John 19:39). We first meet Nicodemus earlier in John’s narrative (3:1–21); at this time, he engages in what might be characterised as an appreciative enquiry with Jesus, under the cover of night (3:2), presumably so that he didn’t “out” his interest in what Jesus was teaching. It’s perhaps worth noting that Jesus spoke about “the kingdom of God” in his conversation with Nicodemus (3:3, 5)—the very same phrase that is key to the preaching of Jesus in Mark and Luke.

Some chapters later in John’s narrative, as Jesus experiences intensified opposition whilst in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (7:1–13), and the Pharisees and temple authorities join forces to send the temple police to arrest him (7:32), Nicodemus appears once more. The temple police return the temple, saying that they will not arrest him (7:45–46).

Nicodemus steps in; he is introduced as the one who “had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them”—that is to say, one of the disciples (7:50). He speaks boldly: “our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). The dismissive reply of the Pharisees further aligns him with Jesus; “surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” is their rejoinder (7:52). His allegiance is clear, at least in the minds of the Pharisees, if not also the narrator of the Gospel.

Nicodemus returns a third time, after the death of Jesus, when the body of Jesus is requested by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is here,clearly identified as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38).

Joseph of Arimathea is here described as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Judean authorities” (19:38). The fear of the Judean authorities has been a recurrent motif in John’s narrative (5:1; 7:13; 9:22; here, and 20:19). (The term I translate as “Judean authorities” is most commonly rendered as “Jews”, but this translation is too wide and does not accurately reflect the way the term is used in John’s Gospel.)

Once again, Joseph is identified as a disciple of Jesus (John 19:38; so also Matt 27:57, and, as we have argued above, that is the implication in both Mark 15 and Luke 23). Both Joseph and Nicodemus, we might presume, were numbered among the “many, even of the authorities, [who] believed in him”, but who, “because of the Pharisees, did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue” (12:42).

The manner in which the body of Jesus is removed from the cross into the grave, anointed with an extravagantly large amount of spices, myrrh and aloes and wrapped in linen cloths “according to the burial custom of the Jews”, and placed in a previously unused tomb (19:38–40), reflects the tender, respectful approach of these two of Jesus’s disciples.

The body of a crucified person would normally be thrown into a communal grave outside the city; all four Gospels take pains to report that this as not the fate of Jesus. The historicity of this claim must surely, however, be significantly doubted. The point of the narrative is not historical verification. The intention is to continue to attest to the significance of Jesus, acknowledged as king, given exactly the kind of extravagant funerary rites that were befitting for a king.

And that is the gift that Joseph of Arimathea offers to followers of a Jesus, even to this day: a compassionate, respectful treatment of the body of Jesus. It’s good to remember him for this, today.