Advent 4 • Matthew 1:18–25 • December 19, 2010
by Paul Robinson
We were driving home from a Wednesday evening Advent service when my three-year-old daughter announced from her car seat, “I’m afraid of angels.” Her mother and I, in mild shock that our daughter should express such a sentiment, asked, “Why are you afraid of angels?” “I’m afraid they’ll talk to me,” she answered. Then we realized that all the Sunday school stories leading up to Christmas involved angels. The angels talked to people, and my daughter was afraid angels would talk to her.
And in one sense, she was right to be afraid. We should be afraid that angels will speak to us. When they speak in the Christmas story, whether it is here to Joseph, in chapter 2 to the Magi, or to Mary in Luke 2, lives are turned upside down and inside out and nothing is ever the same again. We should be afraid that angels will speak to us if we value worldly success and security or the honor and acclaim of society.
Joseph certainly had his own honor and good standing in mind when he decided to break his engagement to Mary privately. But he was primarily, we are told, concerned for her honor and perhaps for her very life. What Joseph learned from the angel in a dream was that his promise to wed Mary mattered, and had to be fulfilled, but only because it was part of God’s plan to fulfill his far greater promise to bring into the world a savior from sin and death. This conception was like no other conception in all of human history because the child of Mary was the Immanuel that Isaiah promised.
We don’t know exactly what happened after the dream—how or if Joseph tried to explain the miracle to relatives or friends—but from a human point of view this was far from the solution to his problems. His problems, which would include a flight for the baby’s life, were only beginning.
That’s why Luther talks about this text as expressing the turbulent side of the Christmas story. Matthew introduces the cross to the narrative of Jesus’s birth, Luther says. “‘When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’ Here we have the text of the Creed: Conceived by the Holy Spirit. Matthew then introduces the cross, namely, the confusion of Joseph, into the conception of Christ. For as soon as the Christian life is begun or anything else of Christ, there next thing the cross is at hand.” (Contio in Vigilia Nativitatis Christi, WA 27: 475–76)
The cross is at hand in our lives, too. Like Joseph we have the word of God in the midst of trouble and turbulence. The promise spoken by Isaiah and repeated by the angel to Joseph is not for him alone but is good news for all people: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel” (1:23). The promise stands sure even when the Christmas season comes amidst suffering and loss. Indeed, the story of Joseph as told in Matthew serves as an antidote to an overly sentimental Christmas. Yet what we have in this text is not a bucket of cold water that douses our celebration. Rather, we have the living water of God’s promises fulfilled— the real reason we celebrate.