Advent 4: The Figures of Courage
Whenever we get to this reading about Joseph and Mary during Advent, I always have to take a step back and think carefully about their situation before their own community of Jewish people, and before God. The story indicates that Mary and Joseph had not yet had sex and so, if pregnant, Joseph and the community, would have concluded that she had had sex outside of marriage, and has done so while engaged to him. According to Jewish laws at the time- although usually not their actual practices - a pregnant and unwed woman would have faced, at the least, shaming or condemnation from the community, at the worst, death. Needless to say, the stakes for Mary and Joseph would have been much higher than they are today in most of the Western world.
And this is really important to take into account for our readings today. Otherwise we might diminish the risk Joseph faced, and so too then, his ultimate humility and courage. The reading from our Gospel lesson this morning tells us that Joseph is a righteous man and does not want to expose Mary to certain disgrace because of course she’d had sex outside of marriage. Potentially then, she could be exposed to both immediate danger of punishment, and longer term struggle because her supposed actions would make her unsuitable to be married to anyone. So Joseph, being a righteous man, decides that he’ll silently dismiss her so that no one knows what actually happened to her. He upholds the law in not marrying someone who has been with another man, and she potentially might be able to find another husband who would provide for the family, because her story would be unknown.
Joseph’s righteousness here is twofold: he upholds the law concerning marriage given to the Israelites by God, concerning sexual relationships and so won’t take her as his wife since she’s had an elicit affair with another man; and yet, he does not enact condemnation and judgment but opens the merciful way for her to continue to live and to bring about new life from that act of his mercy, namely, a child.
In this one decisive act, we see a fulfilment and foretelling of God’s merciful act in sending Jesus who does not condemn but takes on the burden of our sin and opens the way for us to have new life in his death and resurrection. And then we see exactly why these acts of Joseph are righteous: ”just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
And this raises for us a pattern that we see throughout Scripture: God tells Abraham to risk, to go out in faith and sacrifice his only son Isaac on the altar. And Abraham, who of course doubted, along with Sarah's laughter at God’s promise to provide a son, follows this command. But before Abraham can complete the sacrifice, God says, “stop Abraham. While I have tested you, I do not want you to do this, I will provide the sacrifice." And God of course provides a lamb and ultimately, himself in the Person of Jesus, the Son.” This is why we often see depictions of Jesus with a lamb around his neck in art and religious symbology. Then we have doubting Thomas who certainly remains with the Disciples, but like others, struggles with how to make sense of God’s promises when things don’t seem to work out as he thought they would. Not believing Jesus to be the resurrected God come to him, he demands a sign. And of course is granted one in being able to put his hands into Jesus’s wounds, whereupon he is finally convinced. And Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
In every case we have a person or people who struggle in the day-to-day affairs of the world, trying to figure out where God is in the mess of real life: a seeming sexual indiscretion, the tension of unfulfilled desires for a family and the purpose and meaning that would bring for an Israelite facing the potential of having to sacrifice this and be left with nothing, the disgrace betrayal of a loved one, jeopardizing not just one’s reputation, but the capacity to find a way to put food on the table and a roof over one’s head, let alone be protected from legal punishment. Loss that grows into despair and doubt
Into each of these situations - at the moment where these people are most vulnerable, with knees bowed in prayer of fragile hope, doubt and fear casting a looming shadow - the Son is born and comes to us as promised: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." You shall not faint or fall; his yoke is easy and his burden is light for he has borne the suffering and death of sin from the beginning of time to its very end and so all of your lives. So indeed, if God feeds even the sparrows, how much more will he feed you, his children.
The angel who comes to Joseph confirms to him what Joseph already knew, what had been written on his heart, but could only see in that moment on the precipice between this world of shadows where we know God only through the glass darkly, and the transfigured body of Christ who illumines all things for what they truly are: a place bridged where our courage to persevere not because we see, but solely by faith, like Abraham and even doubting Thomas, is met by God’s act in Christ. My friends, the way forward, what choices to make, what is faithful, what is right, how to respond to so many of our situations and the circumstances we find ourselves in and all the temptations we have to follow pathways that are familiar, that seem right and just, these things can be so difficult to discern. But we are never alone. The promise of Christ’s coming isn’t reserved for a particular point in time. It is a promise that stretches out to all people, everywhere, at every point in time. This Emmanuel is ours for he has come to us and is with us. To what extent, I ask, are you willing to step out with courage to more deeply follow this one who is moving us and drawing us ever more deeply to him? AMEN