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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA December 15, 2013.

Advent III; Year A (RCL): Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

     Reflecting on this week’s sermon, I considered the benefits, side effects, and sometimes burdens of living in this greater VA-DC-MD metropolitan area. In the Nation’s Capital, we have constant access to on-the-Hill actions, deals, scandals, and late-breaking reports, being assaulted by headlines and bylines, text alerts and news broadcasts. So I began imagining a title for this sermon. I rarely think of sermon titles beforehand, but this one came to me regarding today’s Gospel.

Scandal Averted, Prophecy Fulfilled!

       In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear the story of the Birth of Jesus Christ from Joseph’s perspective. It is sometimes called The Annunciation to Joseph. There is so little written in scripture about this most important surrogate father. If this were the birth of a common child, we would not need to hear anything from Joseph about it. Yet this is no ordinary birth. This is the birth of Christ Jesus the Messiah: The Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, when God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is also a story about a man’s devotion and character.  

To look more closely at Joseph’s part in this story, we must consider the Jewish tradition regarding Marriage. Marriage, a step in life too significant to be dependent solely upon the affairs of the heart, was often arranged by the parents or a “matchmaker.” The first step was to show intent through an engagement. Effectively, it was a contract managed by family who determined whether the couple was well suited for one another, and a future marriage. We know nothing about how long Joseph and Mary were intended for one another.

But later, that intent would be forged into a stronger union through a betrothal declaring that these two were now husband and wife. A betrothal was a public ratification of engagement, allowing time for the couple to become known as belonging to one another, but not yet having the rights of living together as husband and wife. The woman would continue to dwell with her parents for months, up to a year, before then going into her husband’s house. Mary was to consider Joseph her husband, and Joseph to have Mary as his wife, in all manners except that which leads to family. On that, they must wait. Furthermore, this pledge was binding. The only way a betrothed relationship could be ended was by divorce. Under Jewish Law, if the husband/fiancé’ died during the period of betrothal before the woman had entered his home, she would be considered “a virgin who is a widow.” In this reading, Mary and Joseph were in the middle stage. The last step would be marriage proper.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear that Mary had found favor with God, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, had conceived in her womb the Son of God. Mary returns from visiting her cousin Elizabeth carrying this child which is not Joseph’s. What did Joseph think when he saw the expectant Mary? Did he feel disgrace and shame? How did Joseph react when he saw the faces of others who had seen Mary, a mother-to-be, but not yet living with him as his wife? It’s a curious thing that we never actually hear from Joseph. Ever. But we should consider that when God chose Mary, he chose Joseph also. It is Joseph’s response to what happened which tells us he said “Yes” also. Joseph’s “Yes” is just as important as Mary’s.

Today’s gospel tells us Joseph was a righteous man. We could suppose many things from this word “righteous”—maybe that Joseph was a good and gracious man, practical, honest, and hardworking, who was reverent in keeping the laws and tradition of his faith as a descendant from the house of David. But the gospel says only that Joseph did not want to subject her to public scorn and ridicule. Under Jewish Law, Mary could have been judged an adulteress to be stoned to death for her infidelity. Rather, Joseph sought to handle the matter quietly for her sake, and for his own. Here we learn more about Joseph. He displays tenderness and charity as a man of compassion. Without an accusation from him, there could be no trial or any action taken against Mary.

Once Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly, then God acted and Joseph must respond. God did not intervene until such time as Joseph had decided for himself what he thought he must do. An angel of the Lord visited Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary’s story: “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.” Joseph awakens, and contrary to his first inclination, he did as the angel commanded.   We learn something else about Joseph; that he is open to mystical experiences, even being divinely inspired. Scandal Averted!

“You are to name him Jesus.” In Jewish tradition, it was the father’s right to name his child. Joseph assumed the role of the legally recognized father of Jesus, adopting him as his own by naming him. The name Jesus means "Salvation of Jehovah" or "Jehovah is the Savior.” Through his active obedience to God, Joseph completed the Davidic line foretold for the Messiah. His active obedience is the response that God sought to complete that which was foretold by the prophet Isaiah (7:14): “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”. Prophecy Fulfilled!

As I read the Call stories of the Bible, I am still amazed at the immediacy of their response, especially when Jesus called his disciples. They leave their boats and fishing nets, their families, and former lives to follow Him. There are few if any questions. None of that “Yes, but…” stammering that might accompany the momentary wonder of “Why me”. Instead, they rise up and do as they are commanded. I know something now about responding to a Call. For a good long while, others around me thought I wasn’t listening or paying enough attention to be open to that still, small voice of God. My family and friends – they waited on me. But when that Call did come to me and, more importantly, when the Call was born in me, I rose in obedience, putting one foot in front of the other, walking the way to which I have been called, so that I find myself here with you now in this wonderful place. My hope for all of us is that, should we be called, to whatever God has in store for us, we will listen, hear, rise up, and go forth.

There’s a country song by Brad Paisley called "He Didn't Have To Be." It’s about a little boy whose mother kept dating guys who would quickly disappear when they learned she had a young son. Then a man showed up in their lives that even let the boy go along on some of their dates, who later became a father to him in every good sense of the word, and eventually married his mother. Part of the chorus is, "I hope that I can be at least half the Dad that he didn't have to be." Joseph didn't have to be a part of this “mess.” He could have saved himself much trouble, even as he tried to spare Mary the shame and possible death, but he didn't. He weathered the scandal, survived the gossip, and all along was obedient to God in accepting his vocation to be a protector of Mary and a father to Jesus. His “Yes” is important -- it gives us an example of parentage that God affirms.

Have you ever felt vulnerable or weak? If not, where is your security and what is the foundation on which your assurance is built? Where does that strength come from? Do you dream? Does God speak to you through dreams? If you experience vulnerability, are you also afraid? How might today’s Gospel speak to that fear? The angel told Joseph not to fear, giving him clear instruction about what to do with a difficult situation in his life. But that command took Joseph away from the security of Jewish Law and practice of his heritage. The wisdom in this dream – for it is true God can speak to us in mysterious ways, and thankfully Joseph listened and obeyed – led Joseph through an unsure and potentially scandalous time.

I tell you the Good News is true -- it brings salvation to all people, including us today. The name we hear so prominently today in Isaiah and Matthew – Emmanuel – means "God with us." God abides with us today, even as God was experienced near at hand in the two different settings of today's readings.

What does this mean for us? In what ways do we need to strike out in new directions, to persevere in opening our doors and our hearts? In what ways can we listen to the still-speaking God for instruction as Joseph did so long ago? What is the Good News we await on this Fourth Sunday of Advent? What dreams do we have of something new, different and challenging? What hope do we long to come to fruition? How do we need to be restored by the birth of this Holy Child, and the coming of the Reign of God? What are we doing, what do we need to do, to participate in its coming?

Today’s Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent offered at the start of worship says: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; ..” As a seminarian at St. George’s, a historic African-American congregation in Northwest DC, the rector often used this prayer when we readied for worship before stepping from the sacristy to the altar.

How do we ready ourselves ‘that Jesus might find in us a mansion prepared for himself?’ First, it is God’s Grace freely given that makes all this possible. God’s presence is with each one of us. Yet, we are encouraged, even called to, regular attendance at worship, receiving the sacraments, engaging in daily prayer and diligent study of the Holy Scriptures, giving alms and performing acts of mercy. These are also good practices for preparedness. But remaining open to God’s Call and then to be still and quiet enough to hear God speak, whether through dreams or other means, is how Jesus Christ will come to find that mansion prepared for himself in us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, said, “No one wants to know about your faith or unbelief. Your orders are to perform the act of obedience on the spot.” As noted earlier, we don’t hear Joseph’s words during all this; we only have his actions to show us he heard God, and responded to the call given him. The little we know about Joseph is a testament to the strength of his character and his trust in God. His story helps us to know that, as Bonhoeffer says, we too can be obedient to God.

Let us pray:

“O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to the be guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”