The Pas Advent 3
18 December 2016
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 pg 812
Shepherd of Israel, who by a dream guided your servant Joseph to embrace your promise of salvation: lead us in the way of grace and peace, so that we may bear your promise into the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Looking at the gospel for today, this is a familiar text. It’s the introduction to the Christmas story that we’ll be
hearing on Saturday.
Joseph and Mary are betrothed, they’re engaged to be married. Suddenly, Mary finds herself pregnant, and Joseph isn’t the father.
The gospel tells us Joseph decides to quietly divorce her instead of making a public spectacle of it, which would require him to stone her to death. And looking at the plight of women in the more conservative Arab states, today, we can see women still being stoned to death for disobeying the men in their lives.
Yet, in our gospel for today, we find the angel convincing Joseph to change his mind, in his dreams, about the ‘quiet divorce’ he has planned, or even the more public stoning that law and custom required. He’s told that Mary’s pregnancy is to fulfill prophesy for all of Israel, for all of humanity.
We know this story well. We hear it every year, so we often just gloss over this familiar wording, this awkward social and traditional situation so that we can get on to the joy of Christmas, the miracle of the Christmas birth, or even the miracles that the adult Jesus performs that all point to his identity as the Messiah, as Emmanuel, as the Son of God, yet also the Son of Man.
But God likes small and humble beginnings.
God likes to just show up in our lives and in our hearts like a long-lost friend knocking at our door. You could almost see God at the door of our lives, cant you? A Christmas fruitcake in hand saying “Surprise!”
Today, from our perspective of hindsight, we are able to look at what’s going on underneath the words on the page. Today we are able to look at some of the underlying motivations that our passage talks about. We’re looking at purity, righteousness, law, custom, faith, and a bruised ego.
We’re looking at the way God has just taken everything Joseph and Mary knows about how relationships are formed, under the Hebrew traditions, and turned it on its ear. Not only that, but I‘m sure both Mary and Joseph looking at their images in the mirror, or even at each other and are asking ‘why me?’
They’ve kept to their betrothal agreement, they’ve striven to stay pure, to keep to local custom, to honour each other in righteousness, and the end result is God’s active participation in their lives, and Mary’s morning sickness, while Joseph is wondering where their idyllic lives left what is considered ‘normal,’ as his ego takes a beating before the gossip and the opinions of the village, as he fails to do what is expected.
Today, we see two average citizens of Israel, in a village so small, so far off the beaten track you can only find it with a map and directions, and they suddenly find themselves centre stage in God’s fulfillment of prophesy.
They find themselves awash in prophesy that they’ve heard all of their lives as they attend worship, as they study the texts of the prophets, as they engage in discussion of how and when such prophesy will be fulfilled in and for the lives of the Israelite people.
They find themselves surrounded by the fulfillment of God’s word that they have longed for, yet never envisioned that it would be them. When we think of God working in the world we always, always look for the influential and powerful to be God’s instruments, but time and again God chooses you, and me, he chooses Mary and Joseph, he chooses the one whom we don’t look at because our hearts are open to seeing God in action in the world.
Mary and Joseph, today, suddenly find themselves the object of village scorn and gossip. They find themselves wrapped up in all the aspects of righteousness, purity, law, custom, faith, and most definitely Joseph’s bruised ego.
The gospel tells us “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 1:18b)
The pledge wouldn’t have been given and received if Joseph in any way thought that Mary was unchaste, unpure, or even a flirt in the community.
They’re “pledged to be married”, requiring both to abstain from marital relations with each other or with anyone else. The custom of the day was to promote the purity of their relationship as they take this opportunity to get to know each other.
Perhaps she’s supposed to take this time to find out his favourite recipes, while he finds out what her hobbies may be; and then there’s the all-important discovery of the favourite colour, etc. But actual consummation of the relationship, ‘in biblical terms’ wouldn’t happen until they’re formally married at the end of the betrothal period.
For centuries, society has looked to the ‘purity of the bride,’ and this has been a sticking point in many relationships, especially where the marriage is to bring wealth, advantage, and position.
I remember a line from the movie “Casanova,” a romantic comedy about the infamous Casanova and his historic exploits. At one point, a woman, Casanova’s fiancé, who is feeling jilted because he truly loves another, goes to the bishop, offering to testify at Casanova’s trial in exchange for the reinstatement of her Virginity, “her most prized possession,” which ironically, in the tale was still hers although public opinion would have said otherwise.
Today, we see Mary in this same situation, as far as the opinion of the community is concerned.
In the eyes of the community, Mary is to be, not only set aside, but cast out for her indiscretion. Yet, this doesn’t happen. Joseph doesn’t do what society, what custom, what tradition, and purity laws expected of him. Instead he listens to the angel, he sets aside his bruised ego, custom, and law in favour of love, the fulfillment of prophesy, and God’s plan for all of humanity.
In the eyes of the community, this relationship is so outside the realms of normal that all they can do is gossip, to speculate that Joseph is either impatient to become Mary’s husband, or that Mary had a fling with someone else, and Joseph has been henpecked by his wife into not setting her aside.
In the eyes of the community, all the rules, all the customs have been broken by this impatient couple. And instead of keeping to the laws and customs, the righteousness and the purity set out in the laws and customs, these two young people have embraced the angels words, the prophesy God is ready to fulfill, not for just their lives, but for all of creation, including you and me.
It all hinges on the angel. It all hinges on Joseph and Mary accepting God’s words from God’s messenger, moving forward with their lives, together,.
The “Nativity Movie,” the latest rendition of the nativity story released in 2006, takes a different take on the story. It looks at the relationship that is between Mary and Joseph, it looks at the way they live their lives under the oppression of Roman occupation, and even how the Jewish authorities have absorbed that occupation to legitimize their positions.
At the same time, it also looks at the personal insecurities that both Joseph and Mary have in the face of God’s determination to bring the Messiah into the world, in their midst, and through their relationship.
When Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant, it’s at the time when she’s returned from visiting Elizabeth who has just delivered her son, John, in fulfillment of God’s prophetic action, God’s living word.
When Joseph finds out she’s pregnant, he points out that he chose her for his wife because she was righteous, and upright, and pure. And when he decides to not set her aside, she is grateful for his compassion and generosity. She’s not talking love, she’s talking thankfulness that he has not decided to have her killed.
The community response, however, is much different. Mary and Joseph become the objects of the community gossip and speculation, to the point that when they depart for Bethlehem, Joseph points out to Mary that they will be missed by the community because they’ll have no one to talk about.
On their journey to Bethlehem, Mary theorizes that Joseph will be a great father to the child she carries. She points out that he will put himself last in the raising of the child, in the formation of their family, in the fulfillment of prophesy. That he will be a good father to the child she carries.
We started with rules and laws, with custom and tradition, and we’ve moved into trust and love, into family, into the acceptance of God’s will, and into the fulfillment of prophesy for all of humanity.
And we still are at this point, in our lives, today. It is with the love of God that we are able to come together, and realize the love we have for each other in the formation of our families.
We are still able to feel the love of God in and for our lives, as Mary and Joseph have felt and responded to God’s guidance, through the angels messages, in and for their lives.
Joseph and Mary have not yet known each other ‘in the biblical sense’, yet they are dealing with life as if they have. They’re pulling together in a family, they’re preparing to fulfill God’s prophesy, God’s promise for the deliverance of all of humanity, at the same time, they’re wondering where they’re going to get the furniture for the nursery.
They’re able to show us how to open our lives to the will of God, as we, too, prepare for the Christmas birth, as we, too, move toward that time of year when God’s love shines forth, not just from the manger cradle, but in our lives, in our families, and in the world, all around us.