December 18, 2016
The Rev. Robin Razzino
In the name of the One God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soon we will hear the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem, on a starry and silent night.
Angels will sing. Kings will visit.
Mary will ponder and treasure things in her heart.
We will be full of warm feelings of joy and wonder.
But that of course isn’t the whole story of the birth of Jesus.
Our hymns and art and dramatic interpretations rarely portray the fact that there was so much disgrace comingled with glad tidings - that our savior and king was laid in a feeding trough surrounded by the stink of animals and manure; that his mother - bloody and exhausted from having just given birth - is visited by none other than shepherds - the dirty, smelly, men who live on the edge of society, on the margins.
As much as the story of Jesus, of our Immanuel, of our God-with-us is a tale of grace upon grace, the beginning of the story of Jesus is filled with disgrace upon disgrace.
How is this a beginning fit for a king?
This morning we hear of a particularly disgraceful stumbling block that has been put in front of Joseph as he prepares to fulfill his obligations to Mary to whom he has been publicly betrothed.
Mary is found to be with child. And Joseph and Mary had not yet been married, were not living together and had had no sexual relations.
When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, you can only imagine what Joseph was thinking and feeling – anger, betrayal, grief, confusion. Feelings we are all familiar with. Feelings that are part of our relationships with those we love.
In whatever way Joseph grappled with these feelings he came to the conclusion that Mary had been unfaithful to him and he would move on, and do so in a way that would cause the least harm to Mary – he planned to dismiss - or divorce - her quietly, ensuring that she wouldn’t meet one of the more horrible consequences of infidelity prescribed by law – pubic stoning.
We do not know what Joseph was thinking – obviously – but we know, in this case, he chose to be guided by compassion rather than a strict sense of righteousness.
Perhaps this was the first time he had not followed the letter of the law. When the text mentions that Joseph was a righteous man we are to read that as he was a good Jew, a faithful Jew – notably observant of law and custom. His decision to be guided by something outside of the law itself was seemingly out of character.
Did he talk with Mary about his decision?
Did she defend herself?
The evening before the Angel appeared did they have an argument – were there tears, accusations, promises? How did they depart from one another?
Was he sleepless that night the Angel of the Lord visited him?
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Just as we do not know all that transpired between Mary and Joseph prior to this visit by the Angel of the Lord, we do not know the details of what transpired immediately afterwards.
We do know, however, that Joseph – afraid or not – did as the Angel said.
What happened in and to Joseph during that visit?
How did he understand the Angel’s message: the child is from the Holy Spirit?
How do we understand this message?
The Virgin birth is about as big a stumbling block as any for people of faith – and people not of faith – and for people of faith trying to talk with people not of faith – and vice versa.
We all know how babies are made and we know it takes two to tango. Most of us here would be with Joseph, assuming that Mary violated the law – or, worse, was violated.
But, when the Angel of the Lord spoke with Joseph, the angel led Joseph – and us - gently into a new way of thinking.
As Thomas Long says in his commentary on this Gospel, it is as if the Angel said to Joseph, “The child in Mary’s womb is not a violation of God’s will, but an expression of it, a gift from the Holy Spirit (Matthew, p 13).”
What you are now being invited into, Joseph, is participation in something entirely new and at the same time something that had its very beginning in your beginning, in your people’s beginning, in the beginning of time itself. God is doing something new and this new thing has been promised you from before time.
Remember the angel said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
The child is from God, but the language is particular – the child is from the Holy Spirit.
As another commentator reminds us, “When our Gospel text speaks of Gods involvement in the conception and birth of Jesus, it speaks of God not as father but as Spirit (Charles Wood in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1 p 96).”
And when we hear the word Spirit we are given a clue as to all that is happening within the miraculous beginning of Jesus of Nazareth.
Throughout the [history of God’s involvement with Israel] God’s spirit has always been the catalyst of the new (Wood 96).
This spirit is indeed - as we profess in the Nicene creed - the Lord, the giver of life (Wood 96).
“To say that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit is to say that his is a radically new beginning and furthermore that it is God’s doing, not ours (Wood 96).”
In just one visit of the Angel was Joseph able to understand his role in this new beginning?
Did it gradually sink in during the last few months of Mary’s pregnancy?
During his time in Bethlehem?
As Jesus grew up?
Joseph’s story is a story that begins in disgrace and ends in discipleship. He was a righteous man – before and after the visit of the angel. Yet, he understood righteousness differently following the visit.
Joseph “learns that being truly righteous does not mean looking for a rule in a book and then doing the right thing; it means wrestling with the complexities of a problem, listening for the voice of God and then doing God’s thing….
[It means asking] How is God at work here to show mercy and saving power?
[Joseph learns that] being righteous is never simply being pure and good in the abstract; genuine righteousness is always joining with God to do God’s work in the world (Long 14).”
In his life, Joseph becomes for us a model for the life of faith.
He models listening, responding, acting, and following. He models an expanded understanding of righteousness. He models discovering God’s will in and through relationship with those to whom he is closest. He models obedience. And he models trust.
Our text from Matthew’s Gospel reminds us of two important truths this fourth Sunday of Advent:
First, in the birth of Jesus – which we are anticipating with joy and wonder – God is doing something new – and until Jesus comes again, God is continuing to renew the earth; God is continuing God’s work of redemption.
The Holy Spirit remains active today.
And the second truth is this: The Lord the giver of Life is inviting you this day, this season, to join God in doing God’s work in the world, work that is at times both messy and miraculous.
Will you, like Joseph, respond to this invitation by listening – actively –for the voice of God in your life? Will you look for all the ways God is renewing life all around you? And will you join the Lord, the giver or Life, in this renewal?