Advent #4…Series A
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (December 17&189th, 2016)
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Title: Gospel Righteousness…
Matthew’s story of the birth of the Messiah…the story of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ begins with a sex scandal. Joseph has discovered that Mary (his beloved fiancée and soon-to-be wife) is pregnant and Joseph knows beyond a shadow of any doubt that he is NOT the father of this child! Now Saint Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “RIGHTEOUS MAN” which means (by the standards of the day) that he was a devout observer of the Law of Moses…that Joseph did his best to live his personal life in harmony with and not in contradiction to thhe Law of Moses (the Torah…the first five books of the Old Testament). And because Joseph was a righteous man, he was (I am certain) deeply offended by what had happened (or what appeared to have happened). Mary had been unfaithful to him…she had broken the promises she had made when they were engaged…she had violated the 6th Commandment…Mary had committed adultery and now she was pregnant with somebody else’s child.
And the Law of Moses said that, under these circumstances, Joseph had two choices…two alternative courses of action. First, Joseph could have had Mary arrested and brought to a humiliating public trial and if she were found guilty, she could have been stoned to death (adultery was a capital offense in Jesus’ day). The second alternative was for Joseph to spare his beloved fiancée the humiliation and embarrassment of a public trial by divorcing her QUIETLY. Those were Joseph’s two choices and Saint Matthew tells us that, because Joseph was a righteous man…and because Joseph loved Mary, Joseph decided to “DIVORCE HER QUIETLY”…
But the story doesn’t end with Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly…the story takes a surprising and unexpected turn when an Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and presents Joseph with a third alternative…another course of action. The angel said, “Joseph…don’t be afraid to take Mary home to be your wife, because the child growing in her womb is NOT the result of an adulterous sexual relationship (as you suppose)…this child is “FROM THE HOLY SPIRIT”
Now this third alternative…the alternative to marry his pregnant fiancée, was one that Joseph (or any righteous man under similar circumstances) would never even briefly considered…Why??? Because to marry his pregnant fiancée meant that Joseph would accept personal responsibility for the child…he would acknowledge publicly, that he was the father of this child produced outside the bonds of marriage…and in doing that, Joseph would accept and share with Mary the shame and the public humiliation that would be directed at a young engaged couple for conceiving a child out of wedlock. Now I know this sounds rather strange to our 21st century ears. Today, the conception of a child outside of marriage is no big deal…it happens all the time (did you know that 41% of children born in America today are born to parents who are not married, .and for women under the age of 30, more than 60% who give birth are not married)…it’s no big deal…it happens all the time…but, believe me, for Mary and Joseph and for young couples living in first century Palestine, it was a very big deal, indeed
So what does all of this mean for us…21st century disciples of Jesus? Well, I think the story of the Annunciation of Saint Joseph is a reminder that one reason that Jesus came was to show us a new kind of righteousness…not a righteousness which is based on LAW…a righteousness which involves scrupulously keeping a long list of religious rules and regulations (like the righteousness of the Scribes/Pharisees/Teachers of the Law)…but a righteousness based on the values of the Gospel…things like mercy and compassion and generosity and forgiveness and justice and grace and love…love which bears all things…believes all things…hopes all things…endures all things…a love which gives with no expectation of getting anything in return..
Dietrich Bonehoeffer (the German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945) defines this new Righteousness… this GOSPEL RIGHTEOUSNESS in this way: going beyond and anxious concern about our own impeccable behavior to a willingness to bear and share the guilt and shame of another human being for the sake of love….to bear and share the guilt and shame of another human being for the sake of love…Friends, that is exactly what Joseph did when he agreed to do what the angel asked him to do…to marry Mary…his pregnant fiancée!
And on this Fourth Sunday of our Advent preparation, we are reminded that Joseph’s righteous decision is a prelude to what the child growing in Mary’s womb would himself do some thirty years later.
- Jesus…who was the sinless Son of God would “BECOME SIN”…he would carry on his broad shoulders the sins of the whole world…Past/Present and Future.
- Jesus…He who was without sin would, on that fateful Friday afternoon on a hill outside Jerusalem, voluntarily bear the guilt, shame and humiliation and pay the just penalty for our sins…
- Jesus…this tiny, helpless, vulnerable child… would grow up and become the Good Shepherd…the Agnus Dei…the Lamb of God who takes away our sins…your sins and my sins and the sins of the whole world…
Amen…Come Lord Jesus!!