First century Jewish wedding traditions were very different from the wedding traditions of our current culture. Parents or other intermediaries arranged marriages. The groom paid a bride price to compensate the bride's family for the loss of their daughter's services. The bride's parents provided her with a dowry that was intended to provide for the bride in the event she became a widow. The wedding ceremony itself took place on one day, but the couple did not live together for about a year. The groom would leave after the wedding and prepare a place for his bride to live. While the groom was gone, the bride would prepare her wedding dress.
The couple is betrothed. They are husband and wife, but they have not consummated their relationship. They each live as they did before except they are both in an intense time of preparation and eager expectation.
After the groom finished building the new home, he would return for his wife. The groom, his friends, and his family would dress like royalty and come in splendor to the bride's home. When the groom arrived, the bride and her family and friends would likewise dress in royal clothes. They would form a royal wedding procession to their new home. There the happy couple would preside over a celebration of their coming together. This celebration often lasted a week or more. This was probably one of the few times that the poorer members of that culture could feel special about themselves.
The Biblical wedding is a strong metaphor for the relationship between God and His people. In the Old Testament, God brought forth his people out of Egypt. God provided all their needs including both the dowry and the Bride Price. The wedding took place at Mount Sinai, but the marriage was a rocky one. The wife was constantly unfaithful and cheated on the husband. Even while the wedding ceremony was taking place, the bride was already unfaithful as she worshipped the golden calf. Yet, the wife often complained and accused the husband of being unfaithful. God constantly sought reconciliation, but Israel constantly sought divorce until they found themselves exiled in Babylon.
In spite of all this, God continued to court his wife. He constantly sought reconciliation and eventually He succeeded. This time we see Christ paying the bride price on the cross where He paid the debt of our sin and gave his church the wedding dress of His righteousness. The wedding ceremony became complete when Christ rose from the dead and showed Himself alive to His disciples. With His ascension, He left to prepare a place for us to live with Him forever. Even now, the church is the Bride of Christ eagerly anticipating the return of her Husband to take her home with Him. The church is betrothed to Christ her Lord.
Our gospel for today tells us that Mary and Joseph also had that time of betrothal, that time of eager anticipation. Joseph and Mary were both busy preparing for their lives together. Mary eagerly awaited that time when her husband, Joseph, would come in royal splendor and take her to their new home. All was going according to plan when Mary suddenly left to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Imagine Joseph's shock when his wife returned and was obviously pregnant. The betrothal could not go on as planned. Joseph thought he had good reason to be depressed, disappointed, offended, confused, and angry. His wife was pregnant and he was not the Father. There was no way for him to take Mary into His home. He would have to divorce her.
According to the law, Joseph had every right to have Mary stoned as an unfaithful woman. Joseph chose not to do that. Our Gospel tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. He would divorce Mary quietly so that she would not be subject to the death penalty. He would help her all he could, but there was no way that they could continue as husband and wife. Joseph was prepared to make the biggest mistake of his life, but he didn't know it.
The church often finds itself in Mary's position. The church has something within her that is very good for the world. The church has the Word of God, the message of salvation, but the world takes offense. "What gives you the right to tell me that I am a sinner? I am just as good as the next guy." "How can you say that Jesus is the only way? That's pretty intolerant." Of course the world is not like Joseph and many Christians die for their faith. Their were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined and the Twenty-first Century promises to be no different.
But before we condemn the world, we need to look at ourselves. The world's offense at the Gospel often finds its way inside these walls. We follow in the footsteps of Israel and are unfaithful to our God and then have the audacity to find God's Word offensive and seek divorce from Him. How? Listen to this question from the rite of confirmation. Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the divine Word, to be faithful in the use of God's Word and sacraments, which are his means of grace, and in faith, word, and action to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Or listen to these words from our baptism. Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?
All of us have answered these questions or ones like them. How did we answer? How have we kept our promises? Do we find that we send the children of this congregation to Sunday school, but are too offended by God's Word to attend Bible Class ourselves? When we have out of town guests, do we eagerly anticipate sharing the Word of God with them or are we so offended by God's Word that we decide to stay home? Are we ashamed to discuss our faith in social settings? At Work? If we examine ourselves in the pure light of God's Word, we must all confess that we are regularly offended by God's Word. We are regularly embarrassed to admit to our faith. We must admit that we have broken our confirmation and baptismal promises more times than we can remember and we haven't even gotten anywhere close to death on account of our faith. We, like Joseph, are seeking a way to have a nice, clean, no fault divorce, not from our wives, but from that holy relationship with God and our fellow believers in the church.
How blessed we are that God works to prevent such a divorce. He works to enlighten us so that we can see that his gifts are not causes for offense, but instruments for reconciling us with Him.
God enlightened Joseph by means of an angel in a dream. "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." In one sentence God reminds Joseph that he is the rightful king of Israel by calling him the Son of David, He tells him to take Mary under his protection, and He informs him that his wife has been faithful because what is inside of her is not of man, but of the Holy Spirit. In one sentence, God answers all of Joseph's fears, removes his ignorance, and prepares him for a very special vocation.
In the next sentence, the angel reveals the reason that God used such an unusual way to bring a child into the world. This child is important, not just to Joseph, but also to the whole world. "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." The words of the prophet reinforce the importance by telling us that this is Immanuel "God with us." For nine months, Mary was a living Temple, for the Temple is the place where God dwells with His people and God was dwelling in Mary's womb. In elegant simplicity, the angel tells both Joseph and us that Jesus is both God and man in one person. He tells us that this God-Man is the one and only savior.
The Word from God transformed Joseph. Before he heard God's Word from the angel Joseph is a common laborer who believes his wife is unfaithful. Afterwards, the Holy Spirit worked through the words of the angel to create faith in Joseph's heart. By faith, Joseph realized that his wife was the living Temple who carried the King of kings and Lord of lords in her womb. By faith, Joseph takes up his vocation as king of Israel to protect and nurture this royal family.
God came to Mary and Joseph in a way that changed their lives forever. He also comes to make an eternal change in us as well. He no longer comes to us by way of angels in dreams, but He sends his messengers never the less. Sometimes it is ink on paper or dots on a screen as we read God's word in our private devotions. Other times, the messenger is the father or mother who leads the family in Bible study. God's messenger comes as a pastor proclaiming the word to God's people. You are even God's messenger when you take the Good News of Jesus Christ to your friends at work or school.
The message of God comes to us through all our senses. In private devotions God comes to our eye as we see God's word on page or screen. He comes to our ear as we hear God's Word proclaimed when we gather with Christ's Bride, the church. In Holy Baptism, God comes to us in the touch of the water combined with God's word. At the Lord's Table, God comes to us through taste and smell as our mouths receive Christ's true body and true blood.
Regardless of the messenger God sends into our lives, we, like Joseph, can never be the same again. Before the messenger brings God's word, we are doomed sinners destined for eternal punishment in hell. We are helpless and hopeless. In our despair we lash out at God's message and find it offensive. We blame God for the punishment we have brought upon ourselves and only distance ourselves from the one who loves us and wants to save us. After He comes to us, He opens our eyes and we realize that we are the ones who destroyed our relationship with God. We freely admit that we have earned eternal punishment with our sins and we have no hope of saving ourselves.
It is then that the angel's message to Joseph brings comfort and hope to us. The baby in the womb of the Virgin is our savior, Immanuel, God With Us. He is hope for the hopeless and help for the helpless. This is God eliminating the distance between us by becoming one of us. He is God's message in the flesh and, in the flesh, He will take the punishment we have earned onto Himself. Here we see the Son of God wrap His glory in humanity. Here we see his first step on the road to the cross where He would pay the ultimate price for his bride. Here we see the salvation of our God. Amen.
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