Advent 4 A, December 18, 2016, Gretchen Rehberg
Mary was engaged to Joseph, but was found to be pregnant. Not a good thing. Even in today’s day and age I think the fiancé would not be happy, not at all. And Joseph was not happy. He also we are told, was a righteous man, and so he resolved “to put her away quietly.” In other words he decided that he would not do as he could have done, according to the laws of the day, and call for Mary to be publicly exposed, shamed, and then put to death. He could have done that. He anger could have been so great, his own sense of betrayal so strong, that he could have had Mary killed. And yet he did not. He did not, we are told, because he was righteous. Which is interesting because the righteous thing in this story did not involve doing what the Law allowed, but following the deeper law of love and mercy and compassion and forgiveness. Now Joseph isn’t totally at that point yet, at the beginning of our story he is only at mercy, quiet mercy, with some compassion for good measure. Not really sure we are seeing forgiveness yet. But we are seeing mercy and compassion, and we are told that this is righteousness.
In many ways Matthew has set the story up to tell us right at the beginning that there might be something different from what we expect, some twist on the tale. We didn’t read that set up this morning, but immediately before the gospel passage we heard was the genealogy as told by Matthew. That is the list of all the ancestors of Jesus going back to Abraham. In that genealogy are some folks who are normally left of during the recitation of the “famous righteous ancestors” list. The list contains five women who all have some sort of scandal as part of their story, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the unnamed wife of Uriah and Mary. These were all women who had done something different, something outside what society had deemed totally appropriate, and yet God had blessed and used what they had done.
It might be a bit odd to think of Mary as doing something scandalous, after all we have totally cleaned up the story and made it holy. But think for a second from Joseph’s point of view and we see the scandal. And perhaps that is another reminder that God does not act in the nice polite ways of society either, God acts in ways that the world often finds scandalous. God acts by giving up power and becoming weak, coming among us as a baby born to people living in a small village in a small conquered nation. God acts by defying all social convention and saying that all people are loved, welcomed, included, and saved. All people, even the poor, even the crippled, even the foreigner, even the enemy – all people, God says, are loved, welcomed, included, saved. God said that even in the face of persecution and violence and death that the only appropriate response is love.
Joseph was confronted with a choice, could he accept the scandal, show mercy and compassion, and live into true righteousness, or would his own sense of right and wrong, his own wounded pride, his nation’s teaching about righteousness lead him into judgment and condemnation. Joseph chose mercy and compassion, he chose the righteousness of God, he chose the scandal of love.
We don’t know much about Joseph other than that fact – that when confronted with the choice Joseph chose love. He disappears from our story not long into it. Perhaps that is ok, for Joseph can be a good example of the normal every day person who is trying to live a good and faithful life and who, on the whole, the world knows nothing about and who will disappear from the story pretty quickly. But this every day normal guy, this person who lived in a small village in a small country and who was probably considered as of little account by the rich and powerful of his day, the man, by his choice of love, allowed God to come into the world.
How will we respond? You and I today are trying to live good and faithful lives, we are simply normal every day folk, and yet we too will be confronted with the choice of the scandal of God. We will be confronted with the scandal of love. How we respond will make a difference in whether God will come into the world through our own lives and work.
It won’t be enough to simply go along with what our religion teaches – after all the Law of Moses taught Joseph that he could have Mary put to death. It won’t be enough to go alone with how our society understands what is right, after all the people of Israel held that they were to be separate from the Gentiles. It won’t be enough to simply listen to our own wisdom, after all Joseph himself had already decided to be merciful by putting Mary away quietly. No, in order to choose the scandal of love we must learn to listen to the words of God, we must learn to hear the voices of angels. For only God can lead us beyond culture, beyond religion, beyond ourselves. God has been doing this for generations past and God continues today.
Joseph we are told heard the voice of an angel in his dream, and he recognized that voice as an angel, and followed the words and chose love. How did he know that the voice was that of an angel and not merely the rumblings of his own stomach? How does anyone hear the voice of God and recognize it as such?
When that voice takes you out of your own comfort and challenges you to grow in love – it might be the voice of God.
When that voice invites you to see another person as beloved of God, to recognize the stranger as your own brother or sister – it might be the voice of God.
When that voice speaks words of healing, of inclusion, of mercy, and compassion, and forgiveness, – it might be the voice of God.
The voice of God speaks through the words of our Gospel stories. The voice of God speaks through our dreams. The voice of God speaks through the longings of our heart. The voice of God speaks through the words of our friends, our neighbors and even our enemies.
If we listen, we can hear God speaking to us, calling out to us, inviting us into the choice of the scandal of love.
May we this day join with Joseph and listen to that voice, and choose the scandal of love.