Sermon for 4 Advent 2016

Sermon for 18 December 2016
4 Advent, Year A

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In this morning’s Gospel we encounter Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, and he’s a figure we don’t hear much about in the Gospels. In Luke’s Gospel Joseph shows up, but does little but follow Mary and Jesus around. In Matthew’s Gospel, by contrast, Joseph is shown taking the initiative in taking his family to Egypt on the eve of King Herod’s execution of the Holy Innocents and, of course, he is presented in today’s Gospel being faced with what is by all appearances a rather sticky situation.

We learn first of all that Joseph is betrothed to Mary when the events in today’s Gospel lesson take place. Some modern translations use the word “engaged” to describe the relationship, but that’s actually not completely correct. The Greek word Matthew uses is μνηστευθείσης, which suggests an intermediate stage between engagement and marriage, namely betrothal, in which the legal arrangements surrounding the marriage would have been organized by the couple and their families. Vows would have been exchanged and contracts signed. Suffice it to say, Mary and Joseph are not at this stage “engaged to be engaged”.

This “ups the ante”, as it were, for Joseph; and lest we think his initial impulse to “divorce [Mary] quietly” would have been a selfish act on Joseph’s part, the Gospel tells us that this plan was motivated by Joseph’s righteousness and his desire to protect his intended from public disgrace. Technically, should Mary have been found guilty of infidelity, the Jewish Law would have actually permitted execution. Instead of turning Mary over to trial, Joseph intended to discretely divorce her, which would have shielded her from public scorn but would likely have led to some significant financial burden for him, just like some modern divorces. So, Joseph acts here in a more selfless manner than the Torah would have demanded and so we might even modify Matthew’s positive description of Joseph. Simply following the Law would have made Joseph a “righteous man” by most peoples’ estimation; to decide on a course of action, above-and-beyond the demands of the law makes him a Saint.

It is after this act of selflessness that the Lord demands even more from Joseph. We all know how the story goes. An angel appears and explains to Joseph that the virgin had not been unfaithful, but that she had conceived a Son by the Holy Ghost, a Son who would bear the sins of the world and save mankind. Joseph was ordered to take Mary as his wife and to be our Lord’s earthly father. Now Joseph knew that his wife had not been unfaithful; rather she had been reckoned as highly favored of God. This, however, diminishes neither the difficulty of God’s mandate to Joseph nor the great faithfulness Joseph displayed in following it. Joseph knew that his wife was a virgin, but the world would not have known. We do not know how Joseph was seen by his friends and neighbors and business associates. The Gospel is silent on this issue. Even so, we know that Joseph ran the risk of being seen as engaging in serious impropriety by going through with the marriage.

That brings me to the point of the sermon, which is really quite simple, but it may be counterintuitive: sometimes God’s mission is offensive to societal norms of propriety and sometimes, as Christians, we are called to act in apparently scandalous ways in service to the Gospel. Now, let me confess that I am more guilty than most when it comes to making an idol out of norms of propriety, so I say this with some reticence. Also, I am not suggesting that society’s rules of propriety are “meant to be broken”. Rather, sometimes we can see where these rules hinder us from the work of the Gospel. For Joseph, God’s will was made quite clear and he knew he had to “break the rules” so to speak. For the prophet Isaiah, as well, God was quite clear in demanding that he be very impolite indeed by walking around naked for three years. That, by the bye, is one of those bible stories I would have loved to have heard as a child, but we never covered it in Sunday School for some reason.

Anyway, these are both rather grandiose examples of the point, but we can think of some which are more likely to come into our immediate spheres of influence. For example, I grew up being told that it was horribly impolite to talk about religion pretty much anywhere outside the walls of the church. But is this in keeping with the Gospel’s mandate to share our Good News with all people? Propriety demands that we not consort with dissolute, licentious people; but Jesus hung around with outcasts and sinners. Propriety demands that we try so hard to be nonjudgmental that we stay silent for fear of offending our brother or sister; but sometimes the Gospel demands that we speak the truth, in love, when we believe they have gone astray.

All of this is to say that sometimes obedience to God’s Will will be unpopular or impolite. Occasionally it may even be scandalous. We may take heart, however, that it was thanks to one man’s obedience, in spite of societal expectations, that our Lord and his blessed mother were given a home and a guardian, and that the scripture might be fulfilled: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel.”

Let us pray:
O God, who from the family of thy servant David didst raise up Joseph to be the guardian of thy incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to thy commands; through the same thy son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.