Year A, Advent 4 December 18, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“… and you are to name Him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
I pray that everyone is surviving this patch of treacherous weather. We lost that beautiful maple there in front of the church. It will have to come down. I know a few of you have trees down on your property if not your houses. I just want to brag, anonymously, on a few folks, who even with this ice, even with power out at their homes, even with trees down folks showed up to keep the Egan warming center open! The South Hills got it the worst in this storm, and the South Hills Egan site, ours, had the most volunteers. It should just warm our souls that such good will abounds. As we say at morning prayer this time of year, “Our King and Savior now draws near… so look busy!” And so many do, and actually are. God bless you.
Our Gospel for today is the Nativity of St. Matthew. It is sort of an odd story in that it is a nativity, a birth narrative, but it is not about the mother or the baby, but is about the father. But be need to back up a bit, first, to the beginning of this chapter. The first 17 verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel is the genealogy of Jesus, from Abraham to Jesus, 42 generations. (Interestingly, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, 77 generations if you include God the Father). These are the begats. “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob…” Sometimes it seems that the most interesting part of passages like this are the pronunciations: Jechonaih, Zerubbabel, Eliakim. But there is actually a lot more there, and it is very illustrative of how God comes to us, and how God deviates from our expectations (or maybe how we deviate from God’s expectations).
The lineage of Jesus is, when you get right down to it, kind of scandalous. We all know the foibles of Abraham, giving Sarah to Pharaoh, nearly sacrificing his only son. Isaac was a bit of a dupe. Jacob stole his brother’s birthright. We all know those stories. But look further down the family tree. The only woman besides Mary mentioned in the lineage is Tamar, who conceived the twins Perez and Zerah by being raped by her father-in-law Judah. Solomon was conceived by the fatal adultery of David and Bathsheba (she is almost mentioned, the line reads “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah…” Uzziah was punished by God with leprosy for his arrogance in the temple and overstepping his bounds (an early precedent for the separation of church and state). Mannaseh brought the worship of Baal and Asherah back to Judah. That is a pretty gnarled family tree that the root of Jesse springs forth from.
So that’s the first 17 verses of Matthew. The final seven, the ones we hear today, are about Joseph. I must say, that I do not spend a lot of religious energy on St. Joseph. I don’t think about him much. I have always thought of him as a place holder in the story. But this year, reading this, I must say, I am experiencing a newfound respect for him.
So a lot of this story has to do with sexual purity laws. The laws and social morays of the time have little to do our current situation. That is not to say that sexual morality is not important, it is, recklessness, impropriety, dishonesty, disordered attachments around our sexuality are as important issues now as then. Our sexuality is a great gift, but it is powerful stuff, our sexual impulses, powerful enough to propagate our species and cement the bonds of love between people in uncanny ways, but it is powerful enough to also lead us to destruction in countless emotional, physical and cultural minefields we encounter in this realm of our lives. At least we don’t do a lot of stoning for adultery and fornication any more. But the situation that Joseph, this righteous man, finds himself in, really is important to us right now.
The Laws of Israel were very specific in how they dealt with sexual impropriety and it is rather sophisticated how the Deuteronomic code handles it. It is very situational. And it is very patriarchal! Women were considered property, and a virgin was a valuable commodity, so the compromise of a woman’s virginity was an egregious loss to her father or her betrothed. There was loss of honor, of course, but there was a loss of economic value. There is no righteousness, no justice, no decency in this fact, but it was the historical fact (and is a contemporary fact in too much of the world, up to and including some of the abstinence only education programs peddled as sex ed in our own country). But the code is not a one sized-fits-all tool, it recognizes fault.
For example, if an engaged woman (presumed to be a virgin) has sex with another man within town limits, they are both to be stoned to death for both are culpable. However, if an engaged woman has sex with another out in a field, only the man is to be stoned. The idea is that if she had called for help, she might not have been heard in a field, so the man is culpable. (The converse logic is that if the act occurred in town, the woman is punished as well for not calling for help). If an un-engaged virgin is found having sex with a man, the man must pay her father 50 sheckels and marry her. And in marriages like this, divorce is not possible.
This is the cultural and legal landscape in which Joseph discovers that his betrothed, the now Blessed Virgin Mary, was pregnant, and the only thing he really knows is that he is not the father. Remember, by all reasonable accounts she was in this pickle because of her own infidelity. No one, even back then, would reasonably believe that an angel did it!
So St. Joseph is faced with a choice. An easy choice and a hard choice. What was the easy choice here? Put on your first century lens. Put on your Deuteronomic Code lens. Which is the easier choice for Joseph?
Any reasonable person would say that he had been betrayed and the law states that he has been legally wronged. He is entitled to compensation from whomever despoiled his bride-to-be, and he is entitled to dismiss her, to walk away from the whole thing and the disgrace that such goings on would bring upon him. He could have done this in the standard way, publicly disgracing her, at the worst bringing the punishment of stoning upon her, at the best consigning her to a life of destitution and probably prostitution as an unwed mother of a child born out of wedlock. By law and custom, the easy choice would have been for him to come clean, report the offense and let the letter of the law, the justice of the law be done.
And more so, he might have even been in some jeopardy himself if he did not follow the laws of the God and the land! What does the angel say, “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” He could have been afraid of embarrassment for marrying a “fallen” woman. He could have been afraid of being humiliated by whomever wronged him by impregnating his fiancé. That could have been something to be fearful of. He might have been in violation of some law, and failing to not dismiss an unfaithful woman could have brought on to him punishment or legal consequences around inheritance and such. In any case, marrying someone in this situation would have been in violation of any sort of conventional, culturally acceptable behavior, and violating customs is dangerous in any society in many ways.
But Joseph, as the text tells us, “…being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” He planned, by all accounts, to do the kinder thing. He placed kindness over following the exact letter of the law. Now she still would have been consigned to a punishing life of poverty and degradation, but the elders would at least not pin a scarlet “A” on her tunic, nor would anyone stone her to death. So Joseph’s righteousness manifested as kindness, and his kindness led him to make a harder choice and bend the Law of Moses a bit. His plan was to parry the letter of the law, putting away that which had been damaged, that wasn’t valuable to him anymore, but didn’t call for more damage to be done. This was a harder choice than just going to the cops and shouting “Fornicator!”
And then something happened: an angel of the Lord visited him in his dream, and told him not to be afraid to marry Mary, that the child was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and he should name him Jesus. Then this angel repeated the words of the prophet, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Now this is a really big deal; Joseph named Him. Naming means that Joseph was adopting Him as a son. There would be no difference legally or culturally than if it had been his biological child. What a different course of action than indicated by the Law! Joseph broke convention, if not the law, in doing the will of God as he knew it. The only action in this whole story by Mary or Joseph is obedience to the will of God. And just think about this for a second. Joseph knew the letter of the law, and he knew the movement of his heart. He chose the heart way. How many times did Jesus say, “You have heard it said… but I say on to you…” Maybe He learned this lesson from not only His Father in Heaven, but from his father from Nazareth as well. And all of this comes to us in an irregular way, under dubious legal, even moral circumstances, and from a famous, yet scandalous line.
How often does God emerge from situations our culture says are unsavory, deviant, illegal! Starting with St. Stephen, the martyrs of the church, generation after generation, were perverse cult-members in the eyes of their culture. The fathers of our nation were seditious traitors by all legal standards and by conventional wisdom of most in this country until the wind shifted and the revolution took hold. The abolitionists of the 1850s, suffragettes of the teens and civil rights and peace activists of the 60s were beaten, imprisoned, vilified and culturally black-balled right up until the point that they were canonized as saints secular and religious. Gandhi, King and Mandella were criminals and villains until they were heroes. Jesus was executed in the due process of the law of the land. Joseph took a wife that by all accounts he should not have. Sometimes the right thing to do, sometimes following the will of God is not right by the standards of our culture or by the letter of its law.
As Advent draws to a close and the arrival of Jesus Christ draws near, remember the words of the psalmist, “Restore us, Oh LORD God of Hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” AMEN