I just realized that I never posted the last sermon I gave–Advent 4, back on December 19. Here it is, just a little late.
Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever wondered why there are four Gospels? Why does the Bible include four different accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection? Why didn’t the early church fathers who collected the writings of the New Testament choose just one? Couldn’t they make up their minds? Or, if they liked things about all four, why not edit them together into one book? Somebody actually did that early on, you know, took all four Gospels and mashed them together into one and proposed that that should be the authoritative version. Obviously, that was rejected. But why?
I think it’s because each of the four Gospels offers a unique perspective on Jesus and his life and death, and the community around him. Each Gospel writer had something about Jesus he wanted future generations to remember, a certain aspect of him and his ministry to emphasize. So each Gospel writer chose to tell the story in ways that highlighted the message he wanted to tell and addressed the theological needs of his own community, picking and choosing which details, which events to include, and how to tell them. Some things, of course, are shared throughout all four, but some things are very different. By reading the four Gospels, we get four different views of Jesus. It’s like looking at pictures of something from four different sides—the subject is the same, but the view is different. The lessons we read in church each Sunday were organized to reflect these different views. We read through the Gospels in church on a three-year rotation: the first year Matthew, then Mark, and then Luke, with pieces of John’s gospel tucked in various places.
Last year, St. Luke’s did an ongoing Bible study on the Gospel of Luke. Partly this was because we are named after St. Luke, but the reason it was last year in particular is that last year we read through the Gospel of Luke. This year, from now until next Advent, is the year we read through the Gospel of Matthew. And so here we are with the Nativity story as told by Matthew.
Christ’s birth is the event with the most differences between the Gospels. Mark doesn’t even include it; Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. John starts with poetry about the Word (by which he means Jesus) and then goes into John the Baptist as well. Luke has the birth story we’re most familiar with: Mary and Gabriel, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the stable, and the shepherds—but no wise men. In Matthew’s version, there are wise men instead of shepherds, and Mary is scarcely mentioned. For Matthew, Joseph is the important parent.
If I had to sum up the Gospel of Matthew in just one word, that word would be “righteous.” Now, righteous is a loaded word, a word with a lot of baggage, a word that can be used and misused. It’s only a small step, after all, from “righteous” to “self-righteous.” That was just as true in Matthew’s day as it is in ours. The true meaning of “righteous” is “being in a right relationship with God,” and this is the sense in which Matthew means it. And for Matthew, it’s not enough to just talk the talk. You can’t just say you believe; for Matthew, righteousness means putting your money where your mouth is. Righteousness means living out your faith, responding to God’s call by doing what God has called you to do. Just like today, there were a lot of people in Matthew’s day who believed they were righteous, that their knowledge of scripture, of religious ritual and practice made them more righteous than others, and showed that through a holier-than-thou attitude. But true righteousness is about following the spirit of God’s will, not the letter of the law.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the first person to be called righteous. Joseph was a good man who found himself in an uncomfortable position. He was engaged to a woman who was pregnant with someone else’s baby. Now, you know and I know that this is no ordinary case of infidelity, but at this point Joseph didn’t know that. Put yourself in his shoes, and imagine how hurt he must have felt, how angry and betrayed and humiliated. Did other people know the baby wasn’t his? Was there gossip about him and Mary flying through town? Were people talking about what Mary “deserved” for being pregnant out of wedlock? What were people were urging Joseph to do? And in the ancient world your reputation, your honor was the most important thing you had, more valuable than money, and as necessary to life as food and water. Shame was worse than poverty, worse than injury, almost a kind of death. And a fiancée who committed adultery brought shame not only on herself and her family, but on her husband-to-be.
It would have been so easy for Joseph to lash out against Mary, to let her feel the full brunt of the town’s scorn. After all, as far as he knew she was the one in the wrong. She was the one who had betrayed him, betrayed promises made in the sight of God and the community. How easy it is to return hurt for hurt, particularly when (as in this case) the law is on your side!
But Joseph didn’t do that. Joseph was a righteous man, and understood that God desires both justice and mercy. To satisfy justice, he would divorce her, but to satisfy mercy he would do it quietly, to protect Mary as much as possible from the consequences of infidelity, which for a woman could include being put to death.
And then an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. People think about angels as blessings and guardians and helpers, and perhaps that’s true, but it seems to me that most times when an angel shows up in the Bible it’s because God wants something very difficult that we would normally never do, that God is working in ways we wouldn’t expect. Angels are always a disruption in peoples’ lives, because let’s face it: if what God wanted was something they were going to do anyway, they wouldn’t need an angel to tell them, right?
For Joseph, the word of the Lord was that he should take Mary as his wife—Mary who was pregnant by someone else, whom he’d already decided to divorce—and raise her child as his own. Yes, she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit; she hadn’t been unfaithful in the way he’d originally assumed. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to live with the consequences. Mary and Joseph probably lived in a small community where everyone knew everyone else’s business. No one likes to have people talk about them behind their back, and in Joseph and Mary’s day it would have been even worse. Joseph had already been publically shamed by this, and now God wanted him to compound the shame in the eyes of the community? To expose himself to even more scorn, and sign up for a lifetime of it? Not to mention, anyone who’s heard many Bible stories knows that the people God chooses rarely have peaceful, quiet lives, and Joseph had to know that raising a child conceived by the Holy Spirit pretty much guaranteed that there would be more difficulties and problems to be overcome in the future.
Joseph was a righteous man, and did as the Lord said. The world would almost certainly not understand, would ridicule him as sentimental or a fool. There would be difficult and troubling times ahead. But he did what God wanted him to.
I have never seen an angel of the Lord, and I don’t know anyone who has. Things are rarely as cut-and-dried for us as they were for Joseph. It’s a lot harder for us to know what God wants, and sometimes we get it wrong even when we think we know. And yet righteousness is, at its heart, the same now as it was in Joseph’s day: living life with justice and mercy, and doing what God calls us to do. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It sounds so simple when you put it that way. I wish it were that easy. As individuals and as a society, we are tempted to choose vengeance instead of justice, and permissiveness instead of mercy. We are tempted to choose the easy path of pride in our own vision instead of walking with God. We are tempted to go along with the expectations of our friends, family, and community instead of following God’s call.
May God grant us the righteousness of Joseph: to know true justice and true mercy, to hear God’s call and follow it even when it leads us places we would not otherwise choose to go, even if it contradicts what society expects.