“A Righteous Man”

Scripture – Matthew 1:18-25

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, December 18, 2022


The various writers of the New Testament faced a conundrum. How could they express their deeply held conviction that God was revealed in Jesus as in no other human being? Interestingly, they did not all solve this mystery in the same manner.

The earliest written documents in the New Testament come from the Apostle Paul. He only mentioned the birth of Jesus in passing and not as anything extraordinary. Rather, he pointed to Jesus’ resurrection as the confirmation that God was uniquely present in Jesus.

Some 15 to 20 years after the Letters of Paul, the Gospel of Mark was written. This author solved the mystery of the unique identity of Jesus by pointing to his baptism. When Jesus was baptized, the voice of God said, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.”

Ten to fifteen years after Mark’s gospel was written, the gospels of Matthew and Luke appeared. They claimed that Jesus became the son of God prior to his resurrection and earlier than his baptism. They pushed the defining moment back to his birth. Like the Roman Emperors of their day who claimed that they were gods born of virgins, Matthew and Luke asserted the same for Jesus.

Finally, the Gospel of John was written some time near the end of the first century, and he pushed the mystery back even earlier – to the dawn of time. John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

So, one week out from Christmas, with the gospel lectionary reading focused on Matthew’s account of the events that led to the history altering birth in Bethlehem, how do we hear his story? Fact or fiction? Or are those categories our only choices?

Theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that rather than thinking of the birth narratives as historical events that occurred exactly as described, some of us will find it helpful to think of the stories as being more like parables. That is, they are stories that point beyond themselves to truths about life. What matters is whether we treat them like fairy tales for children or parables that reveal truth to those with spiritually-tuned ears to hear.

Each year in December, we pull out all the stops. We bake buttery goodies, light candles, hold pageants, pass out presents, send cards, sing joyful carols, throw parties, and deck the halls with boughs of holly. There is no end to the ways we trumpet the birth of Jesus – from exquisitely decorated trees to wacky reindeer antlers on the hoods of cars. We know how to celebrate Christmas with great exuberance and joy!

What a far cry from the way things began. As Matthew tells it, the birth of Jesus got off to a rocky start. In fact, according to Matthew, writ large over the situation were the words: “Looming Disaster.”

Matthew says that a young peasant girl named Mary was promised to a man named Joseph. While engaged, but not yet married, she became pregnant. Or, as the Scriptures delicately put it: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

How many days did Mary live with the terrifying awareness that she was pregnant and she had no idea how Joseph would react to the news?

Mary surely shuddered when she pondered Joseph’s reaction. It was doubtful that he would resort to the harsh Levitical law that allowed an adulterous woman to be stoned to death. But, he might very well pack up his belongings, move far away from Nazareth, and leave her to fend for herself.

On Christmas Eve, we will sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The context will be the manger in Bethlehem and the focus will be on Jesus. However, this line from the carol fits well with today’s passage. In the patriarchal society of first century Palestine, the fate of young women often hung on a man. Mary’s hopes and fears rested on the decision of Joseph – whether he would abandon her or stick by her side.

Imagine Joseph’s initial reaction to Mary’s news. He no doubt had a vision in his mind of how his life with his beautiful fiancée would unfold. But with one sentence from her lips, it fell to the ground like a shattered mirror.

Do you know that feeling? Have you ever had your plans completely derailed? Perhaps it was a divorce or an inability to have children or an out-of-control teenager. Maybe you lost your job or received a devastating pathology report. Do you know that feeling of having your life thrown into total disarray and not knowing what to do?

It’s fair to say that with his life in a tailspin, Joseph most likely had some blunt and tearful talks with God. I picture him in great distress trying to make sense of his situation and to figure out his next step. No telling how many days he wrestled with his life-altering decision.

Eventually, Joseph struck upon a solution. Our passage says: “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” That sentence reveals Joseph’s character. He would not expose her to public shame and he would not pressure Mary’s family to compensate him for his humiliation. He would try to scrub Mary and her baby from his mind, move to another town, and carve out a new life.

Having decided on a new course, he could finally enjoy a solid night’s sleep. However, that night, he had a disturbing dream – one powerful enough to overturn his hard fought decision. He dreamt that a messenger from God said what messengers from God often say. “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife and raise this child. Do not be afraid to do what is right. Do not be afraid to take a risk for God.”

To what degree the story is literal or metaphorical is for each person to decide, but whether it is historical fact, legend, or parable, there are lessons to be gleaned. It is a story of dreams shattered, but then transformed into something great. It is a story of fears being faced and standing resolute rather than running. It is a story in which loyalty and love are put to the test, and the triumph of faithfulness.

Do you know the story of Ioann Burdin? He was a priest in a small village in the middle of nowhere. On Sunday mornings, there were only 12 people in the pews for worship. However, now he’s out of work, because the Russian authorities forced him out of his church.

His crime? Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, he voiced his opposition to the war.

It may be that Father Burdin was being prepared for this moment from the time he was in the fourth grade. He had recently become a Christian but, in a Soviet grade school, that was an invitation for bullying. One of his teachers even had him stand in front of the class and then encouraged his classmates to make fun of him. The barrage of taunts could have crushed his ego. But, instead, he garnered strength. He learned to stand steadfast when pressured.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church is a crony of Vladimir Putin, and he provided spiritual cover for the government to wage this war. This put Father Burdin at odds with his bishop.

Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government criminalized public opposition to the war. It even became illegal to call the war a war.

Last spring on Sunday, March 6th, Father Burdin preached a sermon in which he criticized the war. He said, “We cannot stand on the sidelines while brother kills brother, Christian kills Christian. We cannot close our eyes. The blood of Ukrainians is not only on the hands of the leaders of the Russian federation and the soldiers who carry out their orders. Their blood is on the hands of each of us who approve of this war, or who stood silent.”

Two hours after delivering his sermon to his humble congregation, he received a phone call from the police. They ordered him to come to the station where he was interrogated for several hours.

During the questioning, Father Burdin said that he did not try to change the officer’s political opinions. Rather, he said “he was aiming at the light that exists inside every human being. Even the worst people carry it.”

A few days after the interrogation, he stood trial on charges of violating the new censorship law. The government called on some of his parishioners to testify against him. You have to love their responses. One said she was almost deaf, and had a terrible memory. Two others said, “We were just praying. We didn’t hear anything.”

Of course, none of that really mattered. The outcome was predetermined. He was found guilty of discrediting the Russian armed forces. Though he dodged going to prison, he was fined the equivalent of one month’s salary. And the authorities warned him that if he did it again, he might be looking at several years in prison.

Father Burdin is out of a job and will not likely find another parish in Russia. So, did the state win?

Definitely not. First, he stood by his Christian principles. He was true to his commitment to Christ. And, second, his anti-war message that initially reached only a handful of congregants has now been published in papers around the world, and has reached millions. The Putin regime’s attempt to suppress his message resulted in amplifying it.

Father Burdin says, “All people have such moments in their lives when they have to make a choice. This is the question that God asks: Who are you? Then you have to answer this question with your words and your actions. You show who you really are. If you keep silent, that is your answer to God. If you approve, that is your answer to God. If you disapprove, that is your answer to God.”1

Father Burdin’s story strikes me as similar to Joseph’s story. There are moments in each of our lives when we have a choice between doing what is easy and doing what is right. And when the pressure mounts for us to drop our principles, may we hear a messenger of God whispering to our conscience: Do not be afraid to do what is right.



  1. Gary Shteyngart, “Putin vs. the Priest: A Big Story about a Small Sermon,” The New York Times, December 7, 2022.