Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Her husband Joseph, 
being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, 
planned to dismiss her quietly. 

We are used to the story of how Mary was told by the Archangel Gabriel that she was to conceive in her womb and bear a son.

We remember her words:
‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’

Gabriel informs her how this is to take place:
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’

Marys consent is given:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
let it be with me according to your word.’

That Annunciation we celebrate on March 25 each year.
It is a beautiful story, it expresses great tenderness.
It has a mystical feel.
It is no wonder it has inspired artists for centuries.
There is something in that passage that speaks to us on a very deep level.

The Annunciation to Joseph on the other hand is not celebrated.
It doesn’t t attached itself to our consciousness or our spirit as does Mary’s.
It has not inspired artists.
It remains a very much a neglected passage.

But that neglect is not justified, and in many ways,
the Annunciation to Joseph reveals much about how the baby that is to be born will change the way the world understands and lives with God.

Matthew tells us that Joseph is engaged to Mary,
but before they lived together,
she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Joseph at this point does not know the child is from the Holy Spirit.
All he knows at this point is the woman he is marrying is pregnant.
He also knows he is not the father.
A rather difficult time for Joseph.

We hear that Joseph,
being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,
planned to dismiss her quietly.

Joseph was righteous.
We are not to understand this in a contemporary way.
Righteousness in this sense means a conformity to the Law of God.
To be righteous was the supreme standard of Jewish holiness.

We need to look at the laws Joseph would be considering at this time.
Mary should have come to him at marriage a virgin.
If this is not the case, the Law had a few options.

Deuteronomy chapter 20 explains all the laws around this.

The Law says there are two ways in which a woman may become pregnant before marriage.

If the pregnancy is by adultery:

If evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found,
then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death,
because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house.
So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

If the pregnancy is the result of a rape:

if man seizes her and lies with her,
then only the man who lay with her shall die.
You shall do nothing to the young woman;
the young woman has not committed an offence punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbour. 

Now if Joseph was to go about his predicament lawfully both of these options would mean an investigation of Mary.
She would be put on trial and have to prove her case.
The trial would involve the use of her sheets to prove her virginity.
On one hand she would die, on the other she would still be shamed.

Joseph being righteous should have demanded such a trial.
If she were found guilty of either, he would be in the clear,
a divorce would be granted and he would he be able to keep the dowry.

The righteous thing for Joseph to do would be
to expose her to public disgrace.
That was what was expected. That was the law.

But something else is going on for Joseph,
even before he knows the origins of Mary’s baby.

He doesn’t want to put Mary through that.
He obviously loves her.
He is also righteous.
He has to do the right thing by the law, but then he thinks of Mary.
He thinks of the baby.

Already the new covenant with God and his people is working.

He decides he will go about this quietly.
He will divorce her, but will not expect any compensation.
He will just do it and get on with this life.
He will let Mary get on with her life.
She would probably still be in trouble,
but this would not be at Joseph’s instigation.

Fortunately for Mary,
an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
‘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.’ 

The angel tells Joseph that he is to marry her, and more than that,
he is to be the baby’s father in a legal sense.
By naming the child, Joseph accepts the role of father.
This saves Mary, and this saves the baby.

We are to be very thankful to Joseph for following the direction of the angel of his dream.
If he were to have followed the law,
Jesus would quite likely not have been born.

Joseph is a reminder to us of being legalists.
His predicament reminds us that while we can follow the rules
and ‘be right with God’ there are times when we have to go deeper.
We have to look into our hearts and ask what is actually the right thing to do.

Is what I am doing loving my neighbour?
Is my behaviour showing God’s love?
Is my attitude toward those who live a life that I don’t like revealing my love of God or my own bigotry based on a law?

If Joseph had followed the law, we would not be here today.
That bears thinking about.

If we behave in a legalistic way, hiding behind rules and laws instead of embracing God’s love, we can very easily miss the mark. We can very easily get it wrong. We can very easily cause harm.

Joseph was truly righteous.
He went about his ordeal with grace and love,
even before he knew what was really going.

In responding to God’s call on his life,
he was revealed to be righteous in the truest sense:
his response was one of loving God and loving his neighbour.

Within Joseph’s story, the new covenant is already coming into being.

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