Grace Presbyterian Church
December 18, 2022, Advent 4A
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Advent Disruption, part 4: An Unexpected Calling
One of the great challenges in preaching or studying today’s gospel reading is the necessity of putting a much more familiar reading out of your head and not getting the two entangled. And we do need to do this at other times in life; it’s both rude and harmful to interrupt a person who is telling their own story by interjecting details of their more famous or popular or successful sibiling’s story in the midst of that first person’s telling it.
We are in the gospel of Matthew today, which means that a lot of the trappings of the Nativity story which we tend to assume or take for granted just aren’t there. Hopefully the elements of the church’s Nativity set as displayed here will help us sort out those differences.
We have here Mary, Joseph, and indeed the infant. Normally the infant wouldn’t appear until Christmas Eve, but Matthew’s narrative as it is divvied up in the Revised Common Lectionary does in fact announce the birth of Jesus, albeit barely. To be honest, it’s also fair to say that Matthew’s gospel barely announces the birth of Jesus, at least by comparison to that more famous Nativity story in that other gospel. While the holy family is here, the scene seems to be “missing” the stable that normally shelters them in this display; if you go back and re-examine the reading from Matthew, though, there’s no mention of any such thing, nor of any manger (but this child can’t be removed from it).
You also can’t help but noticing the absence of the shepherds, but again, no mention is made of such a thing in Matthew’s account. There aren’t even any animals at all, at least not as Matthew tells it – Joseph and Mary aren’t required to travel in this narrative, so no donkey is portrayed, and with no mention of shepherds or stable or any such thing no sheep or oxen or whatever are present. We at least justify the Magi (and their camel) off in the distance (on the organ for today), because even they don’t appear in today’s reading, we can look ahead into chapter two and surmise they’re on their way.
We can also somewhat explain the appearance of one angel. It’s not easy to suggest in this physical display that the angel is appearing in one of Joseph’s dreams, as happens two more times in Matthew’s narrative, but we will at least have an angel present to represent that part of the story.
It’s kind of important, because it is the appearance of this “angel of the Lord” and that angel’s message to Joseph that sets in motion the thing that justifies both of the Advent themes represented today. It helps set in motion the great thing we are to behold, as our fourth banner suggests, and it is perhaps the instigator or provocateur of what seems at the last an act we must know as an act of love.
Joseph learns that his betrothed, Mary, is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Let’s face it, the very convoluted nature of that phrase is enough to suggest, to most of our suspicious human minds, that some kind of dodge is going on. There is pressure, just because of the society in which Joseph lives, to get rid of Mary, by whatever means is necessary.
Not exaggerating there. Having Mary put to death was not out of the realm of a “righteous” response to this shame, as “righteousness” was defined in the culture of which Joseph was a part. Exposing Mary to public humiliation was probably the bare minimum of a “righteous” response to Mary’s obvious infidelity and sin. (Remember, the Magnificat celebrated in last week’s reading doesn’t happen in Matthew’s account).
Verse 19 describes Joseph as a “righteous” man, indeed, which means both of the above were legitimate options for him. The verse adds, though, that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” and that he intended to “dismiss her quietly.” While this does seem to be a step up, it still potentially left Mary homeless (there’s no guarantee her family would have taken her in, again in the name of “righteousness”) and with no means to provide for the child waiting to be born, and certainly subject to public humiliation when that child was born with no father in sight.
This is the state of things when the angel appears in that dream to Joseph. By his actions Joseph shows, first of all, obedience to God’s new and unexpected calling – to be the earthly father of the son of God, the one who comes to “save his people from their sins.”
By taking Mary in, marrying her, and giving the name Jesus to the child as commanded, Joseph is making that whole genealogy that fills up the first seventeen verses of Matthew’s gospel make sense. If you look at that genealogy, it starts with Abraham, passes through David and some interesting other names, and culminates with Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Note that this genealogy makes no claim for Joseph having the role of Jesus’s “father”; in the King James Version, there’s no “begat” attached to Joseph’s name.
This ancestral line, founded in Abraham and including the venerated King David, would seem to be a bit sketchy in that case; why wouldn’t it be Mary’s line that was important for establishing Jesus as being from David’s line? That’s a claim about Jesus that was out there before Matthew’s gospel was written down; you can see it invoked in the reading from Paul’s letter to Rome, where Jesus is described as “descended from David according to the flesh.” It takes Joseph’s choice, after this angel-invaded dream, to make that statement hold true.
The BBC drama series Call the Midwife featured an episode, a few seasons ago, in which a couple came to the titular midwives for their child to be born. When the child was born, its skin color made clear that the exuberant father present for the birth did not in fact father the child biologically. Confronted with this stark reality, the present father, without missing a beat, pronounced the child the most beautiful child ever and took in that child as his own.
The poem “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), by the turn-of-the-twentieth-century German poet Richard Dehmel, features a similar scenario: as a couple is walking in the woods at night, she confesses that, out of an overwhelming desire for a child, she engaged in a liaison (before meeting this man with whom she was walking) in which she became pregnant. Without missing a beat, this man with whom she is now walking declares his unbroken love for her and embraces the yet-unborn child as his own.
In both the TV show and the poem we see an act of love portrayed, to be sure. Joseph knows, because of the angel’s announcement, that Mary has not been unfaithful to him, but even so he faces even a greater challenge than those fictional loving fathers-in-waiting. Again, he’s being called to be the father of the Messiah, without the child having any biological relation to him. There is a step of responsibility in such a thing that none of us can know.
There is also a step of love.
It isn’t a “romantic” act of love. Joseph has to know that raising such a child will be a task of fatherhood like no other. And yet he takes it on, and he takes Mary as his wife. It is a chosen love, love for God and love for Mary.
The love that gets invoked in this final candle is given freely by God. Our call is to receive that love and then choose to give that love freely in the way God gave it to us.
It’s hard not to think back to that Call the Midwife story or the “Transfigured Night” poem. Inevitably, if we’re going to love at all, we’re going to be called upon to love *despite*. To love anyway. To love “even though”.
We never hear a word out of Joseph in either Matthew or Luke. We saw at first that he was at least somewhat of a compassionate person in his unwillingness to humiliate Mary; in the last he proves to be a loving person. And his choice, his actions in the face of this unexpected calling, speak far louder than any words ever could.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #82, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; #—, When Joseph heard; #—, Behold and see the promise come; #97, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night