The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 12/21/03
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Do you know the name Melana Scantlin? She is a former NFL cheerleader, a former Miss Missouri. She is beautiful, she is blonde, she is brainy. Melana is the beauty who squared off against 16 "beasts" in television's latest surpassingly strange reality series, "Average Joe." The premise for the show was that, while it is a no-brainer to be attracted to a hunk with washboard abs and $50-million in mutual funds, it is something else to fall for someone who is plain and unexceptional, a toothy geek with a goofy grin, freckled face, bad hair or even no hair - not "beasts" really, just "average." Can someone fall for a person like that?

Strange question. Between you and me, all most of us have to do is look in the mirror to see that such a thing is not only possible, but in the real world, highly likely. Average Joes and Average Marys get together most happily all the time, thank you very much. And they do it for far more important reasons than looks. One would certainly hope.

We do not know what got the Joe and Mary of our lesson this morning together. Not looks, to be sure. After all, these folks come from a culture in which marriages are arranged - they are not left to foolish whims. More about that in a minute. Suffice it to say that we are not privy to the details here; all we have is Matthew's genealogical account of the birth of the Christ child: Jacob is "the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."

Nothing exceptional here. Decent enough blood lines. The gospel writer traces him back through Israel's most powerful king, David, and back further to the greatest patriarch of his people, Abraham.

Oh, there are a few glitches. Four women are identified in this genealogy,(1) and they are all foreigners, that is, non-Jews, and, except for Ruth, they are all of doubtful moral character, and even Ruth could be considered aggressive. Tamar, a Canaanite, posed as a prostitute in order to blackmail her father-in-law Judah, into keeping his promises to her. Rahab, a Canaanite of Jericho, was a prostitute (this one, for real) who helped the Israelites secure an important victory. Ruth was a Moabite who found a loophole in the law to snare Boaz into a marriage. And "Uriah's wife," Bathsheba, was a Hittite by marriage, and had adulterous sex with the king, although, in her defense, she was more victim than seducer. These are Joseph's great-great-grandmothers, and as one commentator observes,(2) "Few parents use the stories of Tamar, Rahab, or Bathsheba as positive moral instruction for their sons and daughters." Hmm.

So here is the original "Average Joe." Put yourself in his sandals. A simple man, a carpenter, a construction guy. Down to earth. He is about to get married. It would be the normal Jewish three-step procedure.(3) There was the engagement, which was often made when the couple were only children, usually through the parents or a professional match-maker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other (so looks do not enter in) - as we say, marriage was considered far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart. Then there was the betrothal which was the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. It lasted for one year during which the couple was known as man and wife, although they would not live together. Betrothal could only be terminated as a full-blown marriage could be - death or divorce. The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.

Joseph and Mary were at stage two. Suddenly, Mary turns up pregnant. And the baby is not Joseph's. Joseph KNOWS it is not Joseph's. Wow!

What a jumble his feelings must have been! Rage? Unquestionably. Fury at her unfaithfulness. Fury at whomever had defiled the marriage bed with her. Embarrassment? Of course. Half his friends would think he was a fool for having been cuckolded, and the other half would think that he did not have enough self-control to wait until after the marriage feast. Sorrow? No doubt. His life was planned out - it was going to be with Mary. Now that would not be possible. Sorry for her too, even though this was something she had brought on herself.

Now what? Jewish law allowed stoning as the penalty for adultery, but that was a sentence not often carried out in practice. Joseph could have made a public spectacle of Mary to prove his own innocence in the affair, gone on some first century version of Jerry Springer to show the world her true colors. But no. Finally, the decision was made to handle the situation quietly, to give her a Bill of Divorcement in the presence of two witnesses as the Law required, and then let her go her way. Perhaps she would return to the home of her cousin Elizabeth to avoid the shame of having the child in Nazareth. One way or another, it would be over.

But we know the story does not end there. Joseph was asleep, but sometime during the night, was awakened with a start. "Joseph. Joseph. Wake up."

"Huh?" He looked around in the dark of his room, the only light from the moon beaming through the window. He saw the silhouette of a man. But there was something about him that told Joseph there was no reason to fear.

The silhouette spoke. "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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."

Joseph had no chance to reply - the visitor disappeared. What would Joseph have said anyway? We can see him lying there thinking till morning, then, at daybreak, trying to figure out what had happened. Had there really been anyone there the night before? A nightmare? Some undigested dinner? No. The message was from the Lord. It was too strange to have come from anyone else. "...what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." Uh-huh.

Will Willimon is Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He describes a student who came to him, distressed that he was, in his own words, "losing my faith." When he asked what the faith was that he was losing, he replied, "I have problems with the virgin birth of Jesus. [The same problem Joseph had, no doubt.] Don't I have to believe in the miraculous birth of Jesus in order to believe in Jesus?" he persisted.

"In one sense, No," Dr. Willimon answered. "Yet in another sense, Yes. We ask you to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus and, if we can get you to swallow that without choking, then there's no telling what someone can get you to believe. Come back next week and we'll try to convince you that the poor are royalty and the rich are in big trouble, that God, not nations, rules the world, and on and on. We start you out with something small, like the virgin birth, and then work you up to even more outrageous assertions, [like the incarnation, the miracles of Jesus...the resurrection.]"(4)

We know the rest of Joseph's story. The betrothal was resumed. There was that trip down to Bethlehem for the Roman census, not much fun for a very pregnant young lady. The baby came. Joseph named him - that was the prerogative of the father, and Joseph accepted this child as his own, in the ancient King James phrasing, "of the house and lineage of David." Good man. Hardly an "Average Joe."

One of my friends recalls the days when he taught confirmation to each year's 9th grade Sunday School class.(5) At this time of year, he would do the same exercise. He would tell the class that scholars thought that Mary was the same age as they were, about 14 or so. He would then show them Deuteronomy 22, where according to Jewish law Joseph could have brought charges against Mary, and if found guilty, she could have been put to death. He would then divide up the class with all the boys on one side and all the girls on the other. The girls' assignment was to list all of Mary's options, while the boys were to list Joseph's.

This usually would generate a lively discussion, especially once they realized they did not have to stick to nice, neat, happy-ending choices. With not much prompting, they would generate quite a list. Mary could have...had an abortion, claimed she was raped, committed suicide, run away, etc., etc. Joseph, on the other hand, could have...brought her to trial, quietly sent her out of town, left town himself, eloped with her, made up a story, etc., etc.

In one particular class when all of these options were listed on the chalkboard, my friend stood back. He asked, "What does all this tell you?"

The class was very quiet for a moment or two. Then John, the worst troublemaker in the bunch, said, "Wow! Look at all that could have gone wrong. God was really taking a risk."

Smart kid. Indeed, since the beginning of creation, God has been willing to risk. But I want you to note one thing, and if you take nothing else away from here this morning, take this. This very first story in the New Testament, this story about the original "Average Joe," this really GOD'S story. From this first story till the last, the essence of all of them is caught in something as simple as a name we often hear at this time of year from the prophet Isaiah: Emmanuel - God is with us. Remember that the next time your own life, like Joseph's, seems about to tumble in.

Now, here we are, four days from Christmas. For too many, not the time of joyous celebration that society expects. The sound and fury of war echo through the sky threatening to drown out the angels' chorus. The economy is turning around, they say, but not quickly enough for those thousands and thousands still out of work. There are empty chairs at the table where once sat love. How to cope? How to cope?

Remember the original "Average Joe." We never hear one word from him in all the gospel record. He just plods along and deals with whatever life throws at him, no matter what, because he is not alone. God speaks to him, even at most unlikely times - remember that too, and be alert. Emmanuel. God is with him. Just as with all of us "Average Joes." And that IS reason to celebrate.


1. Matthew 1:3-6

2. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook : a historical/theological commentary : Matthew 1-12 , (Waco : Word Books, 1987)

3. William Barclay, CD-ROM, Daily Study Bible Series, (Liguori, MO : Liguori Faithware, 1996) Used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

4. William H. Willimon, "Pulpit Resource," Vol. 31, No. 4, p. 51

5. Howard Chapman, Via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1998 12 20," #64, 12/17/98

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