Joseph and the Virgin Birth
Advent 4A Matthew 1:18-25
There was this
group of pastors, gathered together, around a table, preparing our
sermon for Sunday. We were discussing the passage about Mary and
Joseph, their engagement, Mary becoming pregnant, Joseph not being
the father, and Mary having to have this delicate conversation with
Joseph, trying to explain what happened.
We, as pastors,
were imaging the human situation of Mary trying to tell Joseph that
she was pregnant, not by him or another man, but by the Spirit of
God. We were in this intense discussion, when a new counselor in the
city walked into the room and introduced himself. We introduced
ourselves, each pastor taking a turn and telling briefly whom he or
she was. The introductions got around to me in this circle, and I
asked him, “Are you a trained pastoral counselor?” “Yes, I
am” was the reply. “I need some professional advice from you
today.” The group of pastors all groaned. I ignored the groaning
of my colleagues and continued, “I need some advice and I can get
it in front of my fellow pastors. I have this man who is coming to
see me and he is engaged to this young woman, who is pregnant. This
man is very upset because he knows that he is not the father, and he
is asking me what to do. What is your advice, professional
counselor?” By now the pastors were snickering, knowing that I was
playing on the Mary and Joseph story. The counselor was silent and
didn’t say anything. Finally, one of the pastors chimed in, “The
correct answer is, ‘They named him Jesus.’” The pastors all
laughed. We then explained to the counselor about our conversation
before he entered the room.
Today, I would like
to talk with you about Joseph, Jesus and the virgin birth. The story
of the virgin birth is at the heart of our Christmas celebrations,
and so the sermon today will focus on the story of the virgin birth.
Today, our gospel lesson is from Matthew and focuses on the person
and role of Joseph, and so our focus in the sermon will also be on
Joseph and the virgin birth.
Virginity is not a
hot topic in today’s world of conversation. We rarely if ever
discuss if someone is a virgin or not, whether they have had sex
before marriage or not. For most of us today, the word,
“virgin,” means a person who has not had sexual intercourse. In
our vocabulary today, the word, “virgin,” refers to someone who
has not been sexually active.
In the Old and New
Testament, there are two meanings to the word, “virgin.” There
is an Old Testament meaning, and a New Testament meaning. A Hebrew
meaning and a Greek meaning. The first meaning is this: the word,
means “young woman.” Such as in the passage from Isaiah 7:14
that was read for today. Would you closely look at that passage? In
Isaiah 7:14, it says that, “a young woman shall conceive
and give birth to a child.” The word simply says “young
woman.” Circle those words, young woman, in your mind. The
Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word for young
woman is “alma.” We have a person in our parish by the name of
Alma, Alma Edvartsen. In Hebrew, her name simply means “young
But there is a
second meaning of the word as well. Look carefully at the Gospel
reading for today in Matthew 1:23. “Behold, a virgin shall
conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
Highlight in your mind the word, “virgin.” The New Testament was
written in Greek, and the Greek word means someone who has not been
sexually active with anther person, who has never had sexual
relationships with another, who has not had sexual intercourse.
Eventually, the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek
language, and the meaning of the word changed from young woman
to sexual virginity. …
So in the Bible, there are two meanings to the word: In the Old
Testament, virgin means young woman and in the New Testament, virgin
means someone who has not had sexual intercourse.
Today, we celebrate
not simply the birth of Christmas, not simply the birth of the
festival of lights, not simply midwinter festival. Today, we
celebrate the birth of the Son of God. And the story of the virgin
birth accentuates that Jesus was and is the Son of God.
throughout history have valued virginity differently. That is, in
the ancient Greek culture, virginity was not prized. In the ancient
Roman culture, virginity was not regarded as precious. But in the
Old and New Testament, we find virginity being appreciated and
In the Old
Testament, virginity (meaning someone who has not had sexual
intercourse) was a highly prized value. A virgin was someone who was
precious. Rebecca was not merely a young woman; she was a virgin.
The Bible is very emphatic about that. There were several laws to
protect the virginity of women. That is, parents made arrangements
for their daughters to be married and they expected their daughters
to be virgins. If their daughters were not virgins, their value went
down by fifty shekels and that was a lot of money in those days. So
fathers made sure that their daughters were virgins. … If a man
raped a virgin, he would be punished by death. … If a woman was
engaged and she had sexual relationships with another man, she and
her lover were to be killed, both man and woman. Virginity was a
very serious part of Old Testament culture and law, and there was
great pressure to retain one’s virginity.
When we move to the
New Testament, we find a similar emphasis and high value placed on
virginity. The word is no longer the Hebrew word, “alma,” but
“apathone” in Greek. It is translated purity. The
King James Version of the Bible translates it “chastity.” Men
and women were to be chaste; that is, they were to be sexually pure.
A mark of a true Christian was that he or she was pure in their
sexual relationships. Sexual purity became a defining characteristic
in contrast to a culture of sexual promiscuity. The New Testament
word for purity refers to sexual purity, not a more generalized
So, in both the Old
and New Testament, virginity is a highly prized value. It is the
expected behavior of Jewish men and women, of Christian men and
But then, it the
1960s, and during the past decades, there has been a sexual
revolution, especially in the Western hemisphere and the United
States and Europe. The sexual values have changed. In our culture,
virginity is no longer held in such high value as the Old and New
Testaments. That is, with the advent of “the pill” and a more
permissive society, virginity became not so valuable anymore. Then
came abortion in the mid 1960s, and abortion became a way to
eliminate unwanted pregnancies. The media and mass culture began to
promote the idea that premarital sexual activity was normal and
acceptable. Virginity became old fashioned. If a person is a virgin,
one may suggest that such a person is frigid. Men and women began
living together before marriage to see if they were sexually and
personally compatible. On TV and in mass culture, living together
seemed totally acceptable. If you add all these up, there became
enormous pressure against virginity in our culture, with the church
often fighting a losing battle. Virgins may not admit that they are
virgins because it may then be suggested that they are prudes or
inexperienced, and no one wants to be a prude or inexperienced.
revolution ran into trouble, with the advent of Aids and other
sexually transmitted diseases. Churches began to advertise how
condoms were not as safe as pretended. Even so, premarital and extra
marital sexual relationships seem the norm and almost nobody says
anything too strongly any more about virginity.
But in the Old and
New Testament, virginity was highly valued. It was the expected
behavior of men and women, so at the time of Mary and Joseph, it was
expected that Mary and Joseph would be virgins.
According to my
research, at that time in Jewish history, their families had
arranged the engagement and marriage of Mary and Joseph. Mary and
Joseph were probably second or third cousins. Mary was very young,
perhaps a thirteen or fourteen year old girl. The engagement was
very serious and called a “betrothal.” They were engaged before
two witnesses. The man would give the woman a present; her father
would pay a dowry. If the man died, she would be called a widow. If
the woman died, he would be called a widower. If the engagement
broke up, it would be called a divorce. During the time they were
engaged, they were called husband and wife. While they were engaged,
they were to be virgins and they were to have no sexual intercourse
prior to marriage. The engagement was to last one year and then they
were to be married. If a woman became pregnant by another man, she
could be stoned to death.
During that year
they were engaged, an angel or divine messenger visited Mary. Mary
was told that she was to become pregnant. She asked the divine
messenger, “How can I become pregnant? I have no husband. I am not
married yet. I am engaged to Joseph, and we cannot do that kind of
stuff. How can I become pregnant?” The angelic messenger said,
“The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the Holy Spirit shall
cause you to conceive and give birth to a child.” Mary waited. And
waited. And waited. She missed her first period. Her second period.
She started to have morning sickness, and it was now time to have that
important and delicate conversation with Joseph.
We have no Biblical
record of that conversation, but we do have our imaginations, and we
can imagine a delicate scene. This conversation was not at all
pleasant. Mary said, “Joseph, I have something to tell you. I
don’t understand it, and it is hard for me to tell you because
there is no way I can comprehend what is going on.” … “Go
ahead, Mary. Tell me. I can handle it.” … “Joseph, I don’t
know how to tell you.” … “Tell me; we can handle anything.”
… “I am pregnant.” …There
was a long silence. Truly, a pregnant pause. This was an awkward
moment between them. Joseph automatically assumed she was pregnant
by another man. He had been humiliated. Their relationship had been
humiliated. This woman had betrayed him. She had been fundamentally
dishonest with him and he was upset. He knew the legal consequences.
He knew the Old Testament law. She could die for this. So could the
other man. … So he asked the question, “Who? Who got you
pregnant? Whom have you been with?” … A divine messenger visited
me and told me that this was going to happen. The Holy Spirit got me
pregnant.” … “Sure Mary. Sure.” … The Bible said that he
resolved to divorce her quietly. Look carefully at the text; it
clearly implies that Joseph did not believe her.
… “What do you do? What do you do when the woman you
trusted is pregnant by another man? She can die for this. So can he.
What should I do in this nasty situation?”
In the passage in
the Bible, it says, “Joseph was a just man.” That means that
Joseph was a good man, a kind man, an honorable man. The Bible uses
the word, “righteous.” Joseph was a righteous man.
Then we come to the
next beautiful line, “Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame.”
That line says mountains to us about Joseph. He didn’t want to
hurt Mary. He didn’t want to destroy her. He was not punitive. He
was not revengeful. He wasn’t out for a pound of her flesh.
Instead, Joseph had these feelings of grace towards her, and so he
resolved to divorce her quietly.
Not tell her parents. Not tell his parents. Not
tell the Jewish rabbi. Not to tell the Jewish court so he could get
his money back. … So the first story about the birth of Jesus is a
story of compassion, a story of grace, a story of a man who had been
enormously violated by a pregnant woman and he vowed not to punish
her. He had been deeply violated, yet he still cared for her and
took care of her. This is the gospel.
But the story
continues. An angel or divine messenger appeared to Joseph in a
dream and said, “Mary is pregnant by the Spirit of God. The Spirit
hovered over her and she is now pregnant. You are to marry her and
name the child Jesus for he will save the people from their sins.
Call him Immanuel because God is always with us.” And so Joseph
remained with Mary because he believed the dream and the message of
The purpose of the
story for today is not to tell us that Joseph was religious or
righteous. The primary purpose of the story today is to tell us that
Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus.
That is the point of the story. Joseph was not the biological
father of Jesus. Joseph was the legal father. Joseph was the adopted
father. But he was not the biological father of Jesus and that is
what the story is all about.
stumble over different aspects of the Christian faith, and some
Christians stumble over the virgin birth story. These Christians
emphasize that the virgin birth was unimportant to the Gospel of
Mark, the Gospel of John and the Apostle Paul. Mark, John and Paul
do not use the concept of the virgin birth in their understanding of
Jesus but they still believed that Jesus was the Son of God. So also
with some of these Christians. They believe that Jesus is the Son of
God but they trip up on the story of the virgin birth.
But there are other
Biblical arguments that reveal that the same thought that God was
the Father of Jesus. Let me explain.
For example, when
Jesus was found in the temple at the age of twelve. The parents
looked for Jesus for three days in Jerusalem, trying to locate their
lost son. Finally, they found Jesus teaching in the temple and they
said, “What are you doing here teaching in the temple?” Jesus
replied, “Didn’t you know that I was in my Father’s house,
doing my Father’s business?” Who is the father of Jesus? That
story in the temple is clear. God is Jesus’ Father.
In his prayer life,
Jesus always called God, “abba,” which is translated papa or
Do you realize that
in the history of civilization, nobody had ever called God,
“Father,” in prayer until Jesus of Nazareth did? In the history
of the world, nobody had ever called God, “Father,” in prayer.
Jesus did this all the time. “Abba” is the common address that
Jesus used when calling on God in prayer. The story of the virgin
birth reaches the same conclusion, as do the stories of his prayer
life; that God is the Father of Jesus.
In his teachings,
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. He who
believes in me believes in the Father who sent me. Whoever loves me,
loves the Father. He who walks in my ways walks in the Father’s
ways. He who has seen the Father has seen me. I am in the Father and
the Father is in me. I and the Father or one.” When you add up all
these teachings, you come to the same conclusion that God and Jesus
are interconnected like Father and Son. This is also what the virgin
birth story concludes: God is the Father of Jesus. The story of the
virgin birth is consistent with the other similar teachings of Jesus
in the Bible.
So the primary
purpose of the story for today is not to tell us that Joseph was a
righteous and religious man, but that Joseph was not the biological
father of Jesus. Jesus was and is the Son of God. It is basic to the
Christian faith. Today, we celebrate not the birth of Christmas, not
the birth of a festival of lights, not the birth of a tradition of
exchanging presents, but we celebrate the birth of the Son of God.
The life of Jesus
of Nazareth is strange in many ways. The way that Jesus exited this
world through the resurrection and ascension is strange; the way
that Jesus entered this world is equally strange. I want to
take a circuitous route and then bring you back to the primary theme
of the sermon again.
People have always
been trying to prove the resurrection of Jesus, and nobody has ever
done this successfully. Similarly, people have always been trying to
prove that there is life after death, and no one can prove that
either. These fundamental beliefs rest on faith and not proof. But
every generation tries to prove it. … Do you remember seeing the
movie, THE SHROUD OF TURIN, at the adult educational class a few
weeks ago? The movie is the story of the linen shroud that Jesus was
wrapped in after he was crucified. Scholars have discovered that
this shroud can be traced back to the time of Christ, although other
scholars contest these conclusions. Scientists snipped a fragment of
this linen shroud and did carbon dating on it. They concluded that
the shroud came from the time of Christ. In 1900, a French
photographer discovered that there was a photographic negative on
the shroud. “How could you forge a photographic negative so many
centuries ago?” is what many scholars asked. The scientists put
that photographic negative on the wall, and there was an image of a
person who had been crucified. There was an image of blood coming
down his head where the head had been pierced by the thorns. There
were holes in the wrists from the nails, and this was
important because the holes weren’t in the palms of the hands as
were all medieval paintings. The holes were in the wrists. How did
they figure that out so many centuries ago? His back had been
whipped by lashes. There all was in photographic form. How could you
forge something like a photographic image so many centuries ago?
Then some scientists got together, studied the shroud and concluded
that a sudden burst of energy left a photographic imprint on the
cloth. That is strange.
It was strange, the way that Jesus Christ exited the world.
But it is equally
strange the way that Jesus Christ entered the world. The
Bible says that Mary became impregnated by the powers of God, the
overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
It was indeed a strange entry into the world, but no stranger
than the way Jesus exited this world.
Christmas is all about. Christmas is not about the birth of
Christmas. Not about the birth of a festival of lights. Not a birth
of a tradition to exchange gifts. No. Christmas is about the birth
of the Son of God. Amen.
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