The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Matthew 1:18-25


The angel Gabriel did not appear to all the townsfolk of Nazareth and assure them that the child conceived in Mary was “from the Holy Spirit.” In fact, there was no public annunciation, and in Matthew, no expressed annunciation to Mary, but only to Joseph. That means there was no public corroboration, and thus no protection, from what was about to be revealed.

Indeed, poor Joseph needed all the help he could get. He was “a righteous man,” Matthew tells us, which meant that chances were better than average he had obeyed his father growing up. By working with his father and keeping the family traditions, Joseph, like other Jewish boys, came to be marinated in the religious observances of his people.

Beginning at a tender age, his father would have begun to teach him the commandments of the Lord. As he grew older, his father would explain the sacred rites of Hebrew religion and reveal their meaning, whether it was Sabbath observance, daily prayer, circumcision, or Passover.

The great deeds that the Lord had done for the nation would have been recounted to him repeatedly, so that at 13 years and a day, the boy would become a bar-misvah, “a son of the commandment.” From then on he would be held to, responsible for, obligated to observing the Law, the prayers, and the fast days.

If Joseph had been less righteous, the news from Mary wouldn’t have been so hard to take. He could have more or less ignored the situation, prescribing a “geographical cure” for himself and Mary. Or he could have publicly dismissed Mary in an embarrassing, humiliating, and potentially lethal scene, washing his hands of it all. But he didn’t.

At the time of Mary and Joseph, there were marriages of attraction. However, most marriages were arranged. This was so due to the very young ages of the future spouses. (The rabbis set 12 as the minimum age for girls and 13 as the age for boys.) We can assume that both Joseph’s parents and Mary’s parents had in good faith arranged their marriage, a commitment which would entail two objectives: mutual support and fruitfulness.

Presumably, the mohar (the money or property the future groom had to give to the father of the betrothed) had been worked out. The date for the wedding had been set, the invitations picked out. The guest list had been finalized, the caterer and the florist hired. The synagogue reserved. Aunts and uncles and a multitude of cousins had their calendars cleared for the trip.

The groomsmen and the bridesmaids were selected. The presents were beginning to trickle in. The coffee tables in both homes were littered with travel brochures of possible honeymoon destinations. It had all the makings of a righteous wedding, by righteous people living by righteous values in a righteous community for all the right reasons.
And then . . .

Mary comes into the living room and asks if she and her mother can talk–away from Dad. Looking a little puzzled, her mother agrees and follows Mary into the kitchen where she hears the story about the Holy Spirit’s “overshadowing” Mary. Her first thought is to call a psychiatrist, but, just to humor her daughter, they go together to the local drug store and buy a home pregnancy kit. And it turns out positive.

After receiving the family doctor’s confirmation of the test results, they hold each other and weep–that is, until her mother gets “in touch” with her anger and considers the inevitable public shame the family will suffer. Then she begins to upbraid her daughter and lash out at that no good, sorry, seducing (and a couple of other choice words) Joseph. How, after all of their proper training and good parenting, after all they had done to arrange their marriage and this grand wedding, could they do something like this to their families-and then blame the whole thing on God!

Joseph comes over, disturbed at the shakiness in Mary’s voice over the phone. Her pale look as she stands at the front door frightens him. She tells him to sit down, and he does–next to his mother-in-law-to-be, who sits motionless, staring out the window.

He takes the news like a righteous man would. He is hurt but incredibly kind. He proposes to call his lawyer and have the whole thing annulled. His idea of “dismissing her quietly” takes shape in the suggestion that Mary visit a distant aunt and give birth to her illegitimate child away from the community. The best solution for all concerned

And there it is. Mary. Joseph. Their parents. Their reputations. The whole thing seems tragic. But then grace comes. God may not always be on time, but grace is never late. Gabriel appears and tells the undone Joseph that the same Spirit of God who swept over the face of the waters of creation to initiate the created order has likewise moved over his fiancé to impregnate her with the New Creation. His name will be “Jesus,” which means “God saves.” Somehow, by grace, Joseph believes the revelation enough to take unmarried, pregnant Mary to be his wife. They love one another in spite of their misunderstandings and frustrations, which reflects something of the Gospel they are giving birth to as parents.

Unbelievable. Or, at least, it seems so to many who study the Mystery of the Incarnation, and stumble over the scandal of the crib. What an absurd and improper way for God to enter into the world. It’s an uncomfortable reality to grasp: that in Mary’s swelling womb, there grows not just a holy or enlightened mystic, not just a great political leader to redeem the nation of Israel, not just a moral teacher to instruct us on how to live, but Emmanuel —God with us, —God enfleshed.

We look at the miracle of the Incarnation in the light of this understanding of God with us, and we are amazed, overwhelmed! The One whom we await this Advent is Emmanuel. It is by God’s action, following the promises down through the centuries, that he comes to be with us, to take our nature, to live our life.

Yet, it requires human cooperation as well. Mary as an obedient human servant was allowed to share in the task. As was Joseph. As are each of us, if we are willing to open ourselves to God’s coming and presence and movement in our lives. The thought of so cooperating with the Holy God to bring about redemption is mind-boggling; stupendous; unimaginable; beyond our finite grasp.

But it is totally necessary; for if Jesus is not more than we are, The Word, then he cannot make the evil of the world into something holy. And unless he truly became what we are, Flesh, we ourselves have no hope of becoming those whom he redeems.

But “The Word became flesh and lived among us . . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people . . . and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.”

This is the mystery and the glory of the Incarnation, of the birth of Emmanuel, of God with us.

So stay tuned. Stay alert! Pay attention, and be ready! The miracle of miracles is one week away. And is coming, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.