Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 18, 2016)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
It happens all the time. The person you thought you knew turns out to be someone different. Maybe it’s a colleague who you thought you could count on, who was quick to laugh with you when times were good, but who suddenly began to fend for himself when word of job cuts spread. Or maybe it’s that sweet, thoughtful boy who always seemed to say the right thing, who takes the girl for ice cream in the country and points out Cassiopeia in the stars. Who does he turn out to be? That guy sitting on the couch watching Patriots games, cheering for some guy named Brady. I’ve heard this kind of thing even happens in churches. That person who was so eager to volunteer in the beginning doesn’t come around anymore; that friend you thought you could confide in, share your struggles with, turns out to be not very interested.
There’s no tragedy in this. These are the ways we discover one another’s fallibility. These are the every day encounters that confirm the truth that we are not perfect, all-knowing, infinitely loving beings, but sinful, selfish, profoundly limited creatures whose shortcomings are vexing and whose callousness is galling. Tragedy ensues when we let these limitations become our fate, when we let our fears about one another’s limitations determine what’s actually happening between us. It is at this point when we go past wrestling with the limitations that condition our interactions and contemplate something else. We consider dismissing one another. We begin to imagine life without one another’s company.
This is what we find Joseph contemplating at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson. Mary has been “found to be with child” (Matt. 1:18). To any reasonable outside observer, there are only two possibilities. Either Mary has conceived the child with Joseph, which Joseph knows not to be true, or she has been unfaithful. What is Joseph supposed to think? Evidently Mary is not who he thought she was. But what should he do about it? Matthew informs us that she was found to be with child during a specific time, in his words, when Mary “had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together” (1:18). He’s referring to the betrothal period, which, in ancient Judaism, two families established through a specific economic transaction, the payment of the bride-price. This economic dimension made betrothal a binding contract, much like marriage, breakable only through death or divorce. Given the formality of the arrangement, to be unfaithful during the betrothal was on par with adultery, and the book of Deuteronomy spells out the penalty in no uncertain terms: “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, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death” (Deut. 22:23-24).
For those looking to avoid such a scene, there was another option: one could, as in the case of adultery in marriage, obtain a certificate of divorce and send away the betrothed quietly. That is what Joseph is considering in verse 19. He knows that he would be within his rights to subject her to public disgrace, but we are told he is a “righteous man,” and this inclines him to choose the more merciful path of quiet dismissal. It’s a textbook case in crisis management. He has found a way both to acknowledge the wrong and spare her the disgrace. We can imagine Joseph being quite pleased with his solution.
There’s only one problem: his reasoning is based upon a mistaken premise. Mary hasn’t been unfaithful, and this is not a case of adultery. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “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” (1:20). Things are not as they appear. It’s possible that Mary has been faithful after all, and that there is an entirely different way of accounting for her pregnancy. Yet to understand how requires suspending all the usual rules, all the usual frames that influence how we read and interpret everyday life. Joseph cannot read the evidence and make his usual deductions. For the extraordinary has burst into the ordinary and disrupted all of our normal assumptions about cause and effect. The story has entered new territory; it is following a plotline Joseph could not foresee or imagine. From here forward, he can assume nothing.
It is striking that the angel prefaces this announcement with the counsel, “Do not be afraid” (1:20). Up to this point, we have heard nothing about fear. We have only heard about a magnanimous man who, though he could subject his fiancée to humiliation, chooses instead the path of mercy. Yet the angel unmasks Joseph’s apparent righteousness as fear. He is in fact a fearful man, guided less by moral scruple than the narrow conventions of his society. What’s to fear in taking Mary as his wife? Quite a lot. People will assume either that he and Mary violated the sanctity of their betrothal, or that he married an unfaithful woman. Either way, he will be disgraced, and in a culture that trades in the currency of honor and shame, he stands to lose his most valuable asset: his good name. Initially, Joseph appears as a sympathetic character looking to minimize the disgrace that his erstwhile companion’s mistakes have justly earned her; the angel’s words reveal that what Joseph really cares about is preserving his own reputation. It’s not Mary’s disgrace that he wants to minimize; it’s his own. This tells us a lot about where his head is: not with Mary and who he knows her to be, but with what other people will think and how they will read this situation. Again, he’s thinking like a first century crisis manager: how do I minimize this? How can I get this to blow over? The preoccupation with the question, “What will other people think?” shapes, and ultimately determines, how he reads his own situation, including what he assumes about his beloved Mary. That’s where this story threatens to become a tragedy. It is certainly not anything Mary has done that actually threatens Joseph. It is all in how Joseph perceives the facts. It’s in misrecognition, it’s in false deductions, that the tragic door of dismissal opens. And it’s Joseph who opens that door, not Mary.
Yet this morning’s Gospel lesson is not ultimately a tragedy. It’s what dramatists would call a comedy. It’s a story where an unlikely, unanticipated development changes the way the facts of the case are understood, and when the relevant parties are able to make that recognition in enough time to prevent tragedy from ensuing. A comedy does not try to erase the limitations of the characters; rather, it shows how the story continues in spite of those limitations. It shows what happens when we forbear, rather than dismiss, our limitations, and exercise enough patience to see that things stand differently than we might have assumed.
This dimension of the story becomes clear when we compare Joseph to King Ahaz in the Old Testament lesson. Both men try to hide behind a veneer of righteousness to avoid the really hard thing: trusting God with the terms of their story. Isaiah tells Ahaz that God will rescue Judah from the invading armies of the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria; he need only ask for a sign (7:11). Ahaz gets smart and says one should “not put the Lord to the test” (7:12); he uses this wise saying to hide what he would prefer to do: put his trust in an alliance with the neighboring Assyrian empire. Isaiah says God will Himself provide the sign, and before the promised child is weaned, Judah will be liberated (7:16). Joseph, too, is tempted to hide behind his human understanding of what righteousness requires. There’s a comfortable certainty that would come from dismissing Mary. This would not only protect his honor, but it would conveniently confirm Joseph as the man in control, the one who gets to determine the terms of the story. But credit Joseph with believing. When the sign comes to him, he lets go of that control. Matthew tells us, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife” (1:24). Joseph is admirable not because he exercises the mercy that spares an alleged adulteress her justified punishment; he is admirable because he is able to recognize the limits of his reading of her situation, and he is able to remain open enough to re-read the situation in terms that break through the suffocating boundaries of his shame and honor culture. He realizes there is a different way to tell the story of our world. History is not tragedy, but comedy, a divine comedy in which God breaks into the realm of the ordinary and suspends the normal rules long enough for us to realize that our limitations are not cause for dismissal, but for forbearance. In exercising patience with our limitations, and in spite of them, we can find ways to continue our story together. The key breakthrough for Joseph comes when he realizes that it is not Mary’s limitations that need forbearing, but his own.
Let’s not be naïve enough to assume that Joseph’s willingness to believe the truth about Mary will spare them disgrace. The rest of society will assume that they did indeed violate their betrothal, or that Joseph married an unfaithful woman. There is a cost. But in the end, Joseph is essentially prepared to say: assume what you want. I know a God who is capable of such things, and I’d prefer to live and act in a world that assumes the possibility of these things. Notice also what is gained from his belief. In believing that God is capable of such things, he is able to see the truth about Mary. She is who he thought she was. And she is much more. She is the mother of God, the mother of the promised Messiah, the mother of the king who has come to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). It is not incidental that in prodding Joseph to believe Mary has conceived from the Holy Spirit, the angel tells Joseph the identity of the child. Indeed, before the angel even does this, he addresses Joseph as “son of David,” as if to remind him of the genealogy Matthew has just reviewed for his audience earlier in the chapter (1:1-17). Joseph is from a royal line, the line of David, and God has promised to restore the Davidic monarchy, and the child born from the virgin is the sign of that commitment. Appealing to his faith in the God who will save His people, the angel appeals to Joseph to see what such faith might mean in the realm of the ordinary, and what it would mean about the nature and dignity of his betrothed.
This is what faith does. It allows us to see one another in our true light. Believing God to be a God who can conceive from the Holy Spirit, who can raise the dead, who can justify sinners, who can purify unclean hearts, we are freed to see one another as we are in God’s sight. Not as adulterers, not as competitors, not as stubborn and hardheaded enemies, but as reconciled friends, companions in a journey that will continue as long as we are willing to keep ourselves open to the possibility that things are not as they seem, that there are new plot twists in store, beyond our controlling, so long as we forebear one another, so long as we do not prematurely dismiss one another, so long as we give one another enough time to recognize that we really are as God sees us—that in God’s sight, I am who you thought I was, and you are who I thought you were. Amen.