Summary: What can we learn from Joseph’s response to the angel’s message?
A “Why’s” man
I wonder how many of you would hazard a guess as to which word I find the most troublesome in the English language? Despite its diminutive size it’s a word that has plagued me most of my life. It’s the word ‘why?’
Any of you who have ever been parents have, I’m sure, wished on more than one occasion that the word ‘why’ had never been invented. “Why must I go to bed now?” “Why can’t I have a pellet gun?” “Why must I wash my hands before dinner?”
Yet, paradoxically, for all it’s potential aggravation, it’s a word that I for one have never been able to do without. You see I have a questioning mind. I’m one of those people who wants to know the why of things. It’s not good enough for me that I can observe something happening – I want to know why, and how, it happens.
A lot of you would have been here last Sunday and listened to Father Mario. After I got home I spent a lot of time thinking about the challenge he gave us to be more open about our real thoughts and feelings, particularly when it comes to sharing these with God. All of us have worries, all of us have anxieties and all of us have doubts and we do ourselves, and God, a disservice when we hide them away behind blank eyes and a false smile. The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it became, in my mind, to challenge myself in this way at Christmas.
The cynic in me began to whisper, “How much of your joyous celebration at this time is an excuse for you to put your brain into neutral?” To stop asking the question ‘why?’ and just go with the flow.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not for one moment suggesting that any of our jubilation at the birth of our Saviour is misplaced or insincere – but I do wonder whether the familiarity of the Christmas story, and the celebration that surrounds it, sometimes encourages us to become blasé.
Imagine if you had woken up this morning and the headlines blazed “Young mother claims she is a virgin!” Or maybe on the back pages, “Young man gets word from an alien!” There’s very little chance you would have accepted those statements at face value. And there are many things in the Christmas story that, were they to refer to any circumstances other than the birth of Christ, would immediately start to raise questions in our minds, well certainly in mine!
Take for starters the relationship between Joseph and Mary as we have it described. Firstly we are told that they are pledged to be married. Then we hear that Joseph is considering divorce – but as far as we know there hasn’t been a wedding yet. Then she’s called his wife and still there’ve been no wedding bells. What’s going on? Is Matthew confused? Not at all. In fact he is writing in the context of the Jewish marriage procedure of the times.
The first step in this process was an engagement and this was often concluded between the respective parents, sometimes while the couple were still children. Marriage was considered far too serious a matter to be left to the vagaries of feelings!
The second step was the betrothal, which was to all intents and purposes a contractual ratification of the engagement. Once entered into it was legally binding and the only way out was through divorce. This period of betrothal lasted a year and during this time the couple were referred to as man and wife although they did not enjoy the rights of marriage. It was only at the end of this year that the marriage proper took place. So now we understand that Mary and Joseph were officially betrothed and that is why the only way out for Joseph was divorce. And Mary would have been called his wife throughout this period even though it was before the wedding.
There are many other such questions in the Christmas story that naturally arise even without addressing the imponderables of divine conception and the virgin birth. And lest anyone wonders where I stand, let me nail my colours to the mast – I firmly believe in both.
But this morning I want us to explore a very small ‘why’ that occurs in this story. In verse 21 we hear the angel say to Joseph “She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins?” The very appearance of the word ‘because’ always begs in my mind a ‘why?’ Why does the name Jesus imply he will save his people from their sins? Why should a name carry so much import? So I thought we would look a little closer this morning at why the Messiah was called Jesus.