Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon; Advent 4A; Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas is so close we can almost taste it. Christmas cookies and goodies are beginning to fill homes. A variety of gifts begin appearing under trees. Presents arrive on our doorstep that we are forbidden from opening. And some early-arriving gifts are already being enjoyed. It's almost Christmas – almost, but not quite.

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. Today is the last Sunday of preparation. Today we green the church in preparation for Christmas. The Christ candle will be added to the wreath. Altar hangings will be changed to white. Mary and Joseph will be moved up front and God, in the form of a baby, will be with us. It's almost Christmas – almost, but not quite.

It is still Advent. It is still the season of the already and the not yet: The Messiah has come and Mary is still pregnant. It is still the season to slow down. It is still a season of reflection. It is still the season of preparation. It is still the season to listen to the word of the Lord.

This is where we find Joseph today: in a season of already and not yet, a season of waiting, a season of preparation, a season of listening.

Joseph is engaged to Mary. When we hear that, we might think of a guy down on one knee popping the question, hoping that this woman will agree to marry him. Or maybe we think of a guy proposing at a camel race on the jumbo-tron. Or maybe we think Joseph went to Jared's.

But we also have a vague sense that the engagement could be called off. Maybe someone has serious doubts. Maybe someone knows this isn't right for them but is expected of them. Maybe someone finds out something that has been hidden from them. There's still a possibility that the marriage won't happen.

In Joseph and Mary's culture, however, engagement was part of a formal two-stage process. The first stage was a contract arranged by the parents. This provided for the right of property transfer from the woman's father to the husband-to-be. The legal term for dissolving that contract was divorce.

The second stage could come up to a year later when the man would arrive at the parents' house to claim his property and take his wife home. In between these two periods, the man man would be busy preparing or building his home in anticipation of the day his wife would arrive.

Being engaged meant that you were, for all intents and purposes, married.

But there's a disruption in this normal sequence of events and that is that Mary has gone and gotten herself pregnant. Because Joseph knows he's not the father, it is clear that she has broken the marriage contract. Since she has obviously broken both her covenant with Joseph and the Law of God, Joseph has no choice but to terminate the relationship.

We are told that he was a righteous man. This isn't simply a term Matthew throws out – it's a clear reference to Scripture. People reading or hearing this story would equate Joseph with Noah, Abraham, David, Job, the precepts of Proverbs and the ideal Israel as found in Isaiah. In short, Joseph loves God and is a man of deep religious conviction.

Because of his religious conviction he knows he must divorce Mary. He has two options here. The first is that he can follow the Law as written in Deuteronomy 22:22-23 and have her executed. The Law is clear: If a woman, either engaged or married, is caught having sex with another man (and Mary's pregnancy sort of proves that), then she shall be put to death.

The second option is that he can follow the Law as written in Deuteronomy 24:1 and give Mary a certificate of divorce – dismiss her – and let her try to find another man to claim her.

Neither option is ideal, but Joseph apparently thought that allowing her to live was the more preferable choice. And that's what he decided to do – dismiss her without any fanfare, let her keep her life and her baby, and hope she would find another man. Not the best of odds, but at least she would live.

Remember, Joseph is a righteous man. It is due to his religious conviction in following God's Law that obliges him to take this action. He may still love her, but her actions have caused her to be put out of his sight. He has no choice. As a religious and righteous man, he cannot allow her sin to contaminate his household. Another way of saying this is that he loves the sinner but hates the sin. Because he loves her, yet hates her sin of adultery, he chooses dismissal over stoning.

But just like with Abraham and Isaac, God steps in at the last minute. An angel appears in a dream and says, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”

This is a holy disruption to the way we've always done things. Hear the word of the Lord: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Don't sacrifice Mary for the sake of the Law. Don't be afraid to love Mary as she is. Don't be afraid to relearn that righteousness doesn't mean following the rules to do the right thing, but that righteousness means following God and doing God's thing. Don't be afraid to welcome those whom others would dismiss and/or condemn.

Joseph, as an Advent husband, was preparing for the arrival of his wife. Joseph, as a righteous man, was preparing for the coming of the Messiah. In Mary he got both. And he named the child Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us.

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. Today is the last Sunday of preparation. For what or whom are we preparing? Are we preparing ourselves to be righteous, as Joseph was, and to follow the letter of a Law that tells us exactly how to live in every circumstance and whom to sacrifice for disobeying that Law? Or are we preparing to receive into the world a God who is with us in the messiness of daily life, showing mercy to those whom others would sacrifice for the sake of righteous purity?

Today we are Joseph – Do not be afraid to welcome and love Mary.
Today we are Joseph – Do not be afraid to welcome and love those whom the Law condemns and others would sacrifice.
Today we are Joseph – Do not be afraid to do the God thing and show mercy.
Today we are Joseph – Do not be afraid to ignore the adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Today we are Joseph – Do not be afraid, for God is with us.



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