"Saying Yes" on Matthew 1:18-25 by Michelle Ellis for the 4th Sunday in Advent – Dec. 18, 2022
Today, I’d like to focus in on the character of Joseph and how God draws him into His story. Joseph often plays a background role in the telling of the Christmas story. In fact, none of his words are ever recorded in any of the tellings of Jesus’ birth or anywhere else in scripture. We never hear him speak a word. But his actions have a huge influence in the story. His actions are pivotal for Mary, for Jesus and for us.
Imagine with me this young man, in his late teens or early 20’s. He’s a quiet guy, but a keen observer and a deep thinker. Though he comes from the family line of a king, he’s not a man of much means. His trade is carpentry, and he is a skilled and diligent worker. He enjoys carpentry partly because it allows space for his thoughts to roam while he builds and also because of the satisfaction that comes from making something both useful and beautiful. He cares deeply about God’s law and being faithful to it. He has seen that God’s law, too, is both useful and beautiful. He is sincere in his desire to follow God and to do the right thing.
A number of months ago, this young man became engaged to a young woman. They had a ceremony with their families where they both agreed to marry one another in about a year. Now, as this young man works in his shop, his thoughts joyfully wander through the dreams he has of beginning life with his fiancé. He lovingly crafts furniture for the home that they will share together. His is a quiet, but deep joy in anticipating all that is to come.
But then talk begins about his fiancé. They say she’s been having some fun running around with other guys before her wedding. The young man is angry that people would spread such unjust rumours. But then it becomes painfully apparent it isn’t just talk. This is not just a rumour. His fiancé is in fact pregnant. She is expecting a child. And the young man, Joseph, feels like he has been punched in the gut. He is all too aware that he is not the father and that someone else is.
Joseph bears this pain, the pain that that no other person he knows can share with him in the same way. He sits in his shop with his feelings of rejection, betrayal, confusion and anger. He sits with these feelings for days. He turns the situation over and over again in his mind, considering all he knows of his fiancé, all he knows of himself, all he knows of the many implications of the situation he is now in, that his fiancé is guilty of adultery, and what the laws are governing these types of actions in his land. It used to be punishable by death in the past.
In time, he begins to make space to set aside the immediacy of his feelings of hurt and betrayal to consider what now to do. He cares for his fiancé, Mary, he has loved her sincerely and with tenderness and in spite of what has occurred, he doesn’t want to shame her with a public adultery trial and all that would involve, even though that is the prescribed course of action. But even if he divorces her quietly, people will shortly put the pieces together, and Mary would be left to raise her child alone, condemning her to a life of poverty and exclusion. But he can’t just ignore the glaring fact that he is not the father of this child, and go ahead with the marriage, pretending nothing has happened. Joseph has moved from an eager fiancé, full of bright hopes for his future, to a rejected, wronged young man facing divorce before he has even married. A rejected, wronged young man trying to do the right and faithful thing in an extremely broken and messy situation. He thinks he has discerned the best of all the bad choices before him. To quietly end the engagement through divorce without public trial.
But then a messenger of God comes to Joseph in a dream. The angel tells him not to be afraid to take his fiancé into his home as his wife because the child within her has not been conceived with the help of some other guy, but by the Spirit of God. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. Mary will give birth to a son and Joseph is to raise him as his own son, to provide for him, care for him, and to name him Jesus.
Joseph receives what many of us so long for in moments of intense decision. A direct word from God, with explicit guidance as to what to do. And this young man, Joseph, immediately obeys. There is no doubt or confusion. His actions reveal his response of yes.
I want to pause at this point in exploring Joseph’s story to notice how vital Joseph’s 'Yes' is. It is through Joseph's 'Yes' that Mary and the vulnerable boy Jesus will be supported, protected and provided for. Through Joseph’s family lineage, Jesus is from the line of David. Joseph’s participation, his 'Yes' is not only vital to Mary, but to the Messiah as well. Through God’s will and invitation, this sincere, quiet and in many ways incredibly ordinary young man in the very middle of his own life, and his ordinary dreams of getting married and making a life for himself, trying to do the right thing in a messy situation is drawn into a story bigger than himself. At this point, the story hinges on his response. God in His mysterious wisdom, has made His plan dependent on the faithfulness of this quiet, ordinary young man. At this point, the story hinges on Joseph’s 'Yes'.
It’s on Yes's like Joseph’s, Yes's like Mary’s, that God chooses to bring about His kingdom. These Yes's and all the ones like them are the means by which God in His wisdom chooses to bring about His work of redeeming His world. Notice in this story how vulnerable God’s plan appears. It hinges first on a teenage girl saying 'Yes' to bearing God’s son, then it hinges on her fiancé also saying ‘Yes.’ 'Yes' to supporting, protecting and providing for Jesus, a boy who is not his son, who kings will try to kill even as a small child. It hinges on hidden, ordinary people responding in faithfulness, responding in trust. In fact, God chooses to do His most powerful and beautiful work though the seemingly ordinary, simple and perhaps even naive Yes's in response to His invitation.
‘'Yes,' I will follow you.’
‘'Yes,' I will trust you.’
‘Even though I don’t know the outcome, though I am not prepared, though I don’t even fully understand what I am being asked, yes.’
In His mysterious wisdom, this is the way that God’s kingdom comes—through the entanglement and vulnerability of depending on His people, drawing them together into His plan. God blesses and uses these kinds of Yes's to bring about His redeeming of lives, communities and even the whole world.
Many of us have said similar Yes's, Yes's to leaps of faith and trust, and embrace the mystery in response to an invitation from God.
‘'Yes,' I will take the job and move to the place I’ve never been.’
‘'Yes,' I will share my faith with this person I don’t know even though I can’t anticipate how they will respond.’
‘'Yes,' I will jump into the messy medical system, the messy justice system, the messy education system to try and do God’s work there.’
‘'Yes,' I will invite this person into my life and my home.’
‘'Yes,' I will lay aside my dreams and my plan and take up yours instead.’
‘Though I don’t know the outcome, though I don’t even fully understand what I am being asked, my answer is yes.’
And in saying ‘'Yes,'’ God has advanced His kingdom, has brought goodness, justice, comfort and His real presence in ways that are beyond our ability to grasp.
It is also worth noting that while some things are gained back though Joseph’s dream and become clear, others increase in their complexity, messiness and loss. Though Joseph gained back his fiancé, his trust in her, though he could now take her back to the home full of lovingly crafted furniture for them to enjoy together, things from this point will not be simple. Things were not simple or easy for Joseph, or for Mary. Things were not simple or easy for the thousands of people who have gone ahead of us who have said 'Yes' to God and in doing so have found themselves in the middle of entanglements that make their sense of right and wrong, the possible and impossible, even messier instead of more clear-cut.
To honour Joseph’s 'Yes', we must also name what it cost to be faithful to it. In saying 'Yes,' Joseph is also invited to lay many things down. In order to say 'Yes' to God’s invitation, Joseph must lay down caring about what other people thought of him. Saying 'Yes' meant living with the reality that others would perceive him either as playing fast and loose with God’s law in not holding Mary to account for her adultery, or as a fool for raising another man’s child. To be faithful, Joseph had to lay down his concerns with how others would perceive his actions. He laid down his reputation to say ‘Yes.’
Joseph in saying 'Yes' is also laying down his own sense of certainty about the way that God works. God had never worked this way before, making a young woman pregnant by His Spirit instead of the usual means. There was no precedent for what Joseph was being invited to believe. Joseph was committed to being faithful to God’s law. But this kind of faithfulness that was revealed to him looked very different from what he had come to expect. It was different than what he had been taught. In saying 'Yes,' Joseph laid down pieces of what he thought he knew, he laid down his understanding of how he expected God to work. This took humility. It took trust.
In saying 'Yes,' Joseph also laid down the posture that he himself is the star, the central character in his own life’s story. So much of Joseph’s calling had to do with laying himself down in order to support someone else, to lift up someone else. These things were pivotal for Mary, and for Jesus. He makes his calling focused on protecting and caring for Mary and Jesus. Later in the story, Joseph is guided again through a dream to flee with his family to Egypt, and then later to come back and settle in a place that was not his home, all to keep Jesus safe. This likely did not do wonders for his carpentry business or sustained relationships with his community. Joseph was called to lay aside his own plans and dreams for himself to support the central role of another person, to be part of the bigger thing that God was doing.
God in His wisdom, draws His people into the salvation story, depending on their involvement and faithfulness. Joseph is a very ordinary man, drawn into the salvation story of God and playing a hugely significant role in his faithfulness. Saying 'Yes' to mystery, saying ‘Yes’ to moving when the Spirit says to move, and uprooting Mary, Jesus and their lives to bring Jesus to safety in Egypt, bringing him back home at the right time, providing the everyday ordinary structures of provision for their lives to flourish and grow. All these actions are somewhat uncelebrated but took huge courage, perseverance, and trust as well as humility to lay down what he may have hoped for or desired, to support the work of God in another persons life.
In His wisdom, God provides for His people, makes way for His redemption through the very ordinary saints like those who we see sitting here around us, people who are called to respond to all the little and big ways that God chooses to work, people who may never know the impact of their faithful actions, people who quietly lay themselves down to lift others up, who respond with 'Yes' to God’s invitations big and small.
At Christmas, together we remember and celebrate that this is how our God chooses to work in power. Entering into the very middle of our ordinary, messy lives, drawing us into the big and beautiful work of redeeming His world. Taking the very ordinary stuff of our lives and extending invitations to us to make them holy through Him, to make them beautiful through Him, to partner with Him in redeeming His world.