As the Lord Commanded Him

A sermon for Advent 4; Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:17, 16-18

Boyfriend: “What would you say if I asked you to marry me?”
Girlfriend: “I’d say ‘DUCK’!”
Boyfriend: “Duck? Why?!”
Girlfriend: “Because my father will want to shoot you.” (not always romantic.com).

This just goes to show that some things haven’t changed a whole lot in 2,000 years. Mary is engaged to Joseph. That means a lot more than engagements mean today. It is a legal contract with stiff penalties for breaking the engagement. According to Deuteronomy (22:23-27)

23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

This morning’s Gospel story opens after Joseph has already decided what to do (Boring). Its opening is full of heartache (Lose). Joseph is a righteous man, which means he keeps the law but it also means he is a just man (Boring). Joseph is engaged to Mary who is unexpectedly pregnant. He decides to keep the law, but by quietly sending her home. In the face of a disgraceful situation, with all its heartbreak, Joseph’s makes a rational, gently ethical decision (Epperly). Though distasteful, his troubles will soon be over. Joseph heads off for a good night sleep.

We are always encouraged to get a good night’s sleep. I expect that was exactly what Joseph was hoping for. Only the dreams that come with a deep sleep can be so disruptive, they can change your world (Epperly). Ask Joseph. He falls asleep, deeply asleep. And then ~ then he dreams.

In his dream, he is spoken to by an angel, a divine messenger from God. The message turns his world over. Joseph is told Mary’s child is of the Spirit. He is not to be afraid He is to go ahead with his marriage to Marry, as socially unconventional and shameful as it is (Harrelson). The child will be named Jesus, and he will save God’s people from their sins. Perhaps Joseph in his dream remembers Isaiah: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7: 14) Whether it be the angel or the citing from Isaiah there was some credence or importance to the message because Joseph … did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. (Matt 1:24)

It is Joseph’s actions that captured me this morning. He displays the obedience Paul refers to in Romans when he writes as part of being set apart for the Gospel … to bring about obedience of faith (Romans 1:1, 5) (Ellingsen). We already know Joseph is righteous because he follows the law. But, righteousness is more a quality of one’s relationship with God (Pankey). One measure of Joseph’s relationship is that he is also open to the divine mystical, this time a divine message in a dream (Epperly). We learn that he is righteous by his actions, that are counter-intuitive, and difficult; it is a near certainty that some of his neighbors whispered over fence lines. We have to learn from Joseph’s actions because Joseph never speaks; not in this story never ~ in all the Gospels does Joseph say a word (Hoezee).

Joseph’s actions reveal his mysticism. Part of being open to the mystical is to be open to divine power that is at work within us that is able to accomplish more than all we can ask or imagine, (Ephesians 3:20) (Epperly). I doubt that Joseph ever imagined that he would be the pseudo father of God’s son on earth. Being open to the mystical is to accept the unexpected. Jesus himself is unexpected. That God did not choose an accomplished priest, a Pharisee, a Sadducee or an accomplished politician is unexpected. But he chose a rather ordinary man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needs angelic guidance to accomplish it is all the more startling to us (Lose). Think of how startling it is to Joseph. Joseph’s righteous mysticism allows him to be part of the apocalypse, the revelation of the divine secret for the future of the world known in Jesus’ birth. (Sakenfeld) (Allen).

Joseph’s face to face with the unlikely manifestation of the presence of God in the here and now is a model for all of us who encounter a divine message through an Angle, the Spirit, Jesus or God’s divine self (Allen). His acceptance and actions make him a part of the message that the birth of Jesus signals that the final transformation of humanity and the cosmos is underway and that the community, we, can remain faithful even in the face of conflict and chaos because they can believe that the transformation is already in process (Allen). Joseph’s story reminds us that it can be safer to keep God at a distance; because when we are in God’s presence, someone is going to tell us a truth whether we want to hear it or not. One the other hand it is Advent; and Advent is a time to see divine light, to reorient our lives to that light and to share the light, the light, of the truth of God’s presence (Lewis). This story also reminds us to be wary of those who speak of Christmas, or Jesus’s birth, without trembling at the mere thought of divine incarnation that God would come to us, in human form (Whitley). Mary was troubled. Joseph was troubled. To speak so lightly of Jesus’ birth as to not be troubled may demonstrate a shallowness of soil in which roots, cannot take hold.

Joseph’s story reminds us that God really is with you and there is a messenger with a special message, just for you. What are your dreams? what divine message is there? How is God communicating with you? what is your divine message? what is your calling? In the face of significant disappointment or heartache, how do you respond? With rational – ethical – gentleness; or some other way? Do you remain open to the mystical; open to more than we can ask or imagine? Joseph sets an ethical example for all of us. His behavior reminds us that ethics is acting in ways that follow God’s calling not social customs; even those we have long attributed to God.

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. In six short days, we will step into Joseph’s story. It will be our turn to receive and hear an angelic messenger. It will be our choice to fully live into the message, or not. It will be another opportunity to test God, to accept divine restoration, to be set aside for the Gospel, and share our faith in the divine mystery that has and continues to form our lives so that in all we do we bring grace and peace to all from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen


References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25. 18 12 2016 <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X!! vols. App Olivetree.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 18 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 4A | Matthew. 18 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. The Good News of God With Us. 18 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 4 A: God Really With Us. 18 12 2016.

not always romantic.com. shotgun-wedding. n.d. 16 12 2016. <https://notalwaysromantic.com/shotgun-wedding/21546&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “Jesus’ other name.” 18 12 2016. Draughting Theology.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Whitley, Katerina. “God is With Us! Advent 4(A).” 18 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

 

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A sermon for Advent 4

Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

We all know the Music of Handel’s Messiah, well at least the Alleluia Chorus. I would have said that he was no slouch when it came to lyrics, but then I learned, they were written by his good friend, Charles Jennens, a large land owner, patron of the arts,and devoted Christian scholar with particular interest in primitive Christianity; living as 1st century Christian did, and John Chrysostom, [i] the saint with the unpronounceable last name. So, I would now observe that Jennens, was no slouch when it came to storytelling. The lyrics are entirely from scripture, and he chose well, particularly from the new testament. Luke’s version, with his long journey, a city full of “no vacancy,” a sparse, spare manger, night shift shepherds, and angel choirs, is a really grand story. Jennens masterfully weaves it together, and Handel’s musical genius well its lasted centuries. 

But this is not the only biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew includes a birth narrative in his Gospel account; and it’s quite different; and it’s as dramatic, on its own terms. We heard it this morning. So we know Mary is engaged to Joseph. We know she turns up pregnant. We know Joseph intend to quietly divorce her. Finally we know Joseph: listens to God’s messenger angel, marries Mary, and names the child Jesus. To our ears, Joseph seems rather harsh, a self-centered prig. Until we forget all our social customs, and immerse ourselves in Joseph’s world; for Joseph’s story, challenges how we live today. 

Let’s start with marriage. In the first century, there is no falling in love, asking her father for her hand in marriage. Sons’ fathers made arrangements with daughters’ father. There were contracts. A dowry was paid to ensure the bride’s future, and to compensate her family for the loss of a productive family member. The payment of the dowry made a marriage legal before any feast. [ii] Then there is Deuteronomy 22:23 ff 

 23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her,  24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death,

 The first thing we hear about Joseph, is that he is a righteous man; and that means he is very intentional about living his life by the law. His decision to divorce Mary is not out of anger or feeling of betrayal, it’s out of his deep religious commitment. Love as we think of it in marriage is simply not part of the equation. It is not Joseph’s choice, it is his obligation. [iii] Yet, even in the first century there were legal interpretations, made by Rabbi’s through the years. And there was mitigation in cases of marriage contract violations, though they were harsh and humiliating. [iv] It reveals much about Joseph and about Matthew’s teaching, that Joseph seeks to follow God’s word, i.e. be righteous, and be merciful, perhaps stretching the boundaries of mercy, as Joseph seems to be more generous to Mary than rabbinic mitigation suggest.

We still have names to ponder. Joseph is common in scripture. The first time we read about a “Joseph” is the one with a coat of many colors. He is the eleventh son of Jacob, the first by Rachel. He starts out as a bit of a brat, gets sold into slavery by his brothers, makes a name for himself in Egypt, ends up running the show for Pharaoh, and when Jacob’s family shows up starving from the famine he generously provides for them, setting up the flowering of the Hebrew people. Joseph is a shepherd to the Hebrews. 

Normally a son would be named after his father. But Joseph is told to name his son Jesus, a common Hebrew name. Jesus is derived from ‘Yeshua’, which is derived from ‘Joshua’, who is Moses successor. By name Jesus is established as Moses’ successor.  [v] The importance of this might be akin to a person believed to be the successor to George Washington. By implication Joseph is the shepherd to Moses’ successor, as the true leader of the Jews.

There is one more element in this ever growing complex weave of literary fabric. Joseph, a righteous, merciful man, has a dream in which God’s angle, God’s messenger, tell him: 

            “… marry Mary, and name the baby ‘Jesus.’”

 And Joseph does. There is something in Joseph’s character, that allows him to receive God’s word, even though it beaks strong customs, the naming of first sons, and even breaks God’s law as set forth in Deuteronomy. And even though is sounds like a sound bite from the Reformation, which is a millennium and a half after all this, Joseph’s personal relationship with God is stronger than whatever is handed down to him by tradition or written law. Joseph knows God. And that relationship allows Joseph to be obedient to God, even though obedience makes him appear to be unrighteous, and subjects him to humiliation and ridicule.

What this morning’s Gospel reveals is a righteous merciful man obedient to God to the extent that he violates established norms and law to shepherd God’s anointed successor to Moses.

And oh yea, one more little tid-bit; Joseph, as is Mary, are two bit players, from two bit families from a two bit tribe. In no way, are they the ones anyone, including us, would look to, to bring God’s incarnate presence into the world, into our lives into your lives.[vi] There is no pedigree, there is no education, no training, no experience, no nothing, except: righteousness, mercy and obedience, from Joseph, and acceptance, 

“… let it be with me according to your word.” [vii]

 from Mary.

All of this rather muddles up, our preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. But that is only half of our Advent observation, the other being preparation for the return of the King. So, if one wants to actively prepare, to actively participate in what we pray for, every day, (at least I hope you do)

… thy kingdom come, thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.

we have a model to follow in Matthew’s birth narrative. From Joseph: be righteous in flowing the law, God’s as revealed in scripture and interpreted by faith leaders, and secular law, which, at least according to Paul, are also established by God for the benefit of God’s people; be merciful in the application of the law seeking not only your benefits, but just consideration of others, be obedient, be discerningly obedient, and when God calls you to act, against the current interpretation of God’s law, and / or secular law, do so  trusting in God. And finally from Mary, when called to accept the unacceptable, do so trusting in God.

It only took me a thousand or so words to get here but the Incarnation gives us four little words to prepare for the return of the King: righteousness, mercy, obedience, and acceptance. May they be your guiding light: to the truth of incarnation and to presence of our King.

Amen

 

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[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Jennens
[ii] Eaton’s Bible Dictionary
     Holman’s Bible Dictionary
[iii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, Matthew
[iv] M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible
[v] ibid
[vi] Lose, Working Preacher, Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation, December 17, 2013
[vii] Luke 1:38

______________________
Arland J. Hultgren, Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25, Working Preacher, 12/22/2013
Scott Hoezee, Matthew 1:18-25, Center for Excellence in Preaching, December 22, 2013

 

Live righteously, do justice, and be obedient.

I got promoted last night. It was  well worth the two hours I spent standing in front of the big box store front doors ringing bells, wishing people “Merry Christmas” and saying “Thanks” when they made a contribution to the Blytheville Union Mission’s ministry to the homeless in Mississippi County and surrounding area. My benefactor was blond, maybe three. We exchanged Merry Christmas as she and her mom went in the store. Her mom contributed to the effort on their way out to a “Merry Christmas and thank you.” That’s when I got promoted, Dad arrived in their car, then as mom put her in her car seat, she said “Bye Santa” What a great ending to a long day.

I suspect it was my 60 year old gray beard and red pointy hat and not the exchange of “Merry Christmas” that lead to my promotion. But the truth is, it happened because I was where I was, doing my part to support the mission. In that respect the experience is a little bit like our relationship with Joseph. Scott Hoezee notes that Joseph never speaks a word in the Bible. (1) We know Joseph through his actions. He is righteous; he lives his life by the law (i.e. he intends to divorce Mary) he exercises justice (i.e. he chose to divorce her quietly, not exposing her to public humiliation and possible death) and he is obedient (he does what the angel of God tells him to do, and completes the marriage contract with Mary). At least according to Matthew, Joseph saves the day for the infant Messiah when, once again, he listens to God’s angel messenger and flees with his family (as unorthodox as it is) to Egypt to escape Herod’s fearful violent effort to keep what he has.

One could easily spend all their time reading the books and articles on how a church can make itself known through Face-book, Twitter, Web sites, Instagram, email news letters, and a bunch I don’t even know about. Jospeh’s story leads us to another conclusion. His model is to live righteously, do justice, and be obedient. I believe such a life will draw more attention than all the social media ever could.

(1) Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Matthew 1:18-25,