Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We encounter Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, in today’s reading, 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 to 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, and the Authorized Version which we are using during this season uses the term “espoused,” but neither rendering is entirely clear. The Greek word Matthew uses is meinsteutheiseis, which suggests an intermediate stage between engagement and marriage, namely betrothal, a relationship status which we tend not to have in the modern West. At this stage the legal arrangements surrounding the marriage would have been organized by the couple and their families. Vows would have already been exchanged and contracts already signed.

This “ups the ante”, as it were, for Joseph; and lest we think his initial impulse to “put her away privily” (that is, to end the relationship without making a big deal of it) 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. What our translation renders as “put away privily,” and what more recent translations render as “dismiss quietly,” is literally, in the Greek, to “divorce secretly”- something quite different. Technically, should Mary have been found guilty of infidelity, the Jewish Law would have actually permitted execution–even if that were highly unlikely by the First Century A.D.–and it certainly would have led to the Blessed Virgin being subject to public scorn and both social and financial ruin both for her and her family.

Instead of turning Mary over to trial, though, Joseph intended to discreetly divorce her, which would have shielded her from public scorn but would likely have led to some significant financial burden for him, just like modern divorces can be expensive. So, Joseph acts here in a more selfless manner than the Law would have demanded and so we might even modify Matthew’s positive description of Joseph. Simply following the Law would have made Joseph a “just [or righteous] man” by the standards of his era; 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 humanity. 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 (at last!) to the point of this 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 way, 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. Sometimes 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 that the scripture might be fulfilled: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel.”

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