Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 December 2012
Sermon preached by The Vicar, P
Readings: Isaiah 10.33-11.10;Matthew 1.18-end
“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Matthew 1. 19)
Our society, police and prosecutors, judiciary and politicians, have had to come to grips in recent years with a new category of crime: “honour killings”: the murder of young women by family members because they have refused arranged marriages, or been seen as bringing shame on their families by behaviour considered immodest, or have simply expressed a desire for education and career and the right to marry someone of their own choice.
In cultures based on notions of honour and shame, often closely bound up with the sexual purity of women, regarded as the property of men – fathers or husbands – an event like the pregnancy of Mary before her marriage to Joseph had been consummated , would have been a matter of grave scandal. It would have brought shame and honour on her and her husband’s families; loss of face and respect in the community. The consequences for Joseph would be shaming. Those for Mary would have been much worse.
They would not have been just a matter of gossip and muttered disapproval. Even if, as scholars tell us, the stoning prescribed in Deuteronomy (22.23-24), was no longer enforced, the reality in rural backwaters might have been very different. There would be no women’s groups to provide sanctuary in a shelter, no police to ask awkward questions. If anyone came asking what had happened to Mary, a Mafia-like wall of silence would descend.
Even if Mary had not fallen victim to a lynch mob or been quietly disposed of by outraged relatives, she would probably have been disowned by her family, turned out of her home, and ended up in prostitution. There was no other means of survival for a single woman without family protection.
This all seems a far cry from carol services and nativity plays, but it is the world in which the birth of Jesus took place.
Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph. We can appreciate the sharpness of his dilemma when he becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy. The statement that she “was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (v.18) does not mean that he knew from the start that God was at work here. The Greek text echoes a Hebrew idiom where “was found” simply means more or less “came to be.”
We should understand that the relationship between Joseph and Mary at this stage was a fully marital one. It was common then for women to be married at a very early age – when they were about twelve. Then, because of their youth, they would remain a year or so longer in their own family home before moving to their husband’s. During this period, even though not living together, the couple were man and wife – not merely “engaged” in our modern sense. So Joseph could only have concluded at this point that, since Mary had not become pregnant with himself, her condition must be the result of sexual impropriety – that she was guilty of adultery.
Piety should not make us shrink from the implications of the story. From Joseph’s point of view, Mary is in a truly dreadful situation.
It is then that we learn something of Joseph’s character – summed up in that single word which is of great importance in Matthew: dikaios “just” or “righteous.” It describes one who faithfully puts into practice the requirements of the Torah, the Law. So, we might expect Joseph to do immediately what that Law tells him to do: to publicly expose his wife’s infidelity and divorce her.
But what Joseph actually does, intending to divorce her quietly so as to spare her open shame (v.19) – shows him to be “righteous” in the way that Jesus’ interpretation of the Law will call for: an observance in which “mercy” is the supreme criterion. Jesus echoes the word of the God spoken through the prophet Hosea, when he says to the Pharisees, the self-consciously “righteous” of his day, who complain about the company he keeps: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came, not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9.13)
Or again: “and if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (12.7)
Or later: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” (23.23)
In Joseph, we see someone who anticipates the fulfilment of the Law that Jesus will preach: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5.17-20)
When the angel appears to make the true situation known to Joseph, we see a familiar biblical scene: the annunciation of a birth. The miraculous conception of Jesus comes as the climax of all those earlier instances where the birth of a child in unusual circumstances heralds a new saving intervention by God.
But this birth outstrips its biblical precedents. Joseph’s dilemma is relieved when he learns what we already know: that it has come about through the agency of the Holy Spirit. There is to be no more thought of sending Mary away; he is to take her to himself fully as his wife. Through his lineage, the child will be Son of David (v.16). But conceived in the way described, the child will be, in a unique sense, God’s Son, with a distinctive destiny indicated by the name he is to be given: “Jesus/Joshua:” understood to mean “Yahweh saves.” This name means that his role will be to “save his people from their sins” (v.21).
That the Messiah would be a saving figure was not a new idea. What it was what he would save them from that was – not political and economic oppression – but their sin and its consequences. The phrase “from their sins” foreshadows the ministry of Jesus in which the lifting of the burden of sin will be so prominent; its full meaning will emerge as he gives his life “as a ransom for many” (20.28), his blood “poured out for the remission of sins” (26.28).
Matthew rounds off his account of Jesus’ “coming to be” (his genesis [v.18]) by saying that the birth of a child of David’s line in this miraculous way fulfils something announced beforehand by God (vv.22-23). For the writers of the New Testament, the chief purpose of Scripture was not to give information about the past, but to point to God’s purposes for the future.
Matthew, more than any other, makes use if fulfilment quotations for this purpose. In this passage, we have the first of them. Isaiah 7.14 comes from a passage in which the prophet tells King Ahaz that he should interpret the pregnancy of a young woman – presumably a princess – as a sign that the threat of foreign invasion is to be removed.
The Hebrew original does not suggest that the conception is virginal or that the sign points beyond the current reign. But Matthew, reading the text in the Greek version (the Septuagint which was the Bible for the early Church) which translates the Hebrew almah (a young woman) by parthenos (virgin), finds in it a divine indication that the Messiah destined to arise from the house of David will be born in this miraculous way: through virginal conception.
The second part of the text, “they will call his name Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us,’” plays an equally central role in this Gospel’s presentation of Jesus. In this child God will come among his people and remain with them in a uniquely close way. At the end of the gospel the last words of the risen Lord to his disciples, now becoming the community of the Church, will be an assurance of his remaining presence: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28.20).
These two assurances of divine presence, and the beginning and the end, frame the story in an open-ended way. The saving presence of God at work in the life of Jesus will continue in the life of the Church “to the end of the age:” “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18.20). We see that assurance in the sacramental action of the Eucharist which through which we are transformed by being taken, blessed, broken and shared. We are reminded of it by the reserved sacrament in the tabernacle which assures us silently of that abiding presence.
Obedient to the angel’s instruction, Joseph takes Mary to be his wife. He has no sexual relations with her until she gives birth to a son who – again obediently – he names “Jesus”. Matthew drives home the point that the child is not Joseph’s natural son. But Joseph, by naming him, becomes his adoptive father and so brings him into the Davidic line, making him legally “Son of David.” Jesus emerges from the account of his birth as the Son of God, “Emmanuel,” equipped to play the role of Messiah in a totally unforeseen way.
But we should not forget the human circumstances of this invasion of the divine: Mary’s morally suspect and perilous situation and the dilemma facing Joseph. A fraught human situation was the receptacle for the power of the Spirit and the emergence of salvation. No less than his subsequent obedience, Joseph’s initial ignorance, anguish of mind, and basic human decency are all part of the story. They help make it a story we can enter and recognise as our own. God does not wait till all is right, ready and perfect before entering the human scene. God enters it to heal it from within.
rebendary Alan Moses