Is. 7:10-17; Mt. 1:18-25
We began our advent journey with a story by Susanna Rodell about Ryan, her son-in-law, who had recently become a father. He struggled with the opportunity placed in his hands of a little extra sorely-needed cash. He chose righteousness because he wanted to educate his baby in the right way. We end our advent journey with stories about babies as well. In Isaiah, King Ahaz couldn’t trust a message about political affairs that depended on a baby. He sought a political alliance that he thought would assure security for him and for his nation. Isaiah offered him an alternative: the promise of a baby. Ahaz rejected it, and it cost him dearly. In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph struggled to do what was right in the face of a child in Mary’s womb that he knew wasn’t his. He, like Ryan, made the righteous choice.
The struggle that Joseph faced was a common one for human beings: his head-centered morality conflicted with his heart-centered compassion. His head knew that the only reasonable explanation for Mary’s condition was that she had sinned in a way that exposed her to public disgrace. But his heart was righteous, so he was going to dismiss her quietly to save her reputation. In that disposition he had a dream, and his soul was inclined to believe the dream, which told him that he should take Mary as his wife. So he did.
Little has changed in two millennia. The same struggle is common today among many people; not all choose life like Joseph and Ryan.
• Some are more like King Ahaz in rejecting the compassionate alternative.
• Fundamentalist Christians say they want to love the sinner and hate the sin, but end up hating sinners and misunderstanding sin.
• Politicians say they want to help the poor but their economic policies make sure the rich have enough so that they can help the poor, if they so choose.
• Business people say they want to pay decent wages but they are limited in doing so because they have to pay attention to the bottom line.
• Parents say they love their children but have to disown them if they do something against their religious beliefs.
• We say we want a society characterized by justice, but we allow ourselves to benefit from what our prayer of confession calls “the evil done on our behalf.”
Could there be something about Joseph’s decision and the virgin birth that enlightens the path to righteousness? Every Sunday we affirm in our creed what today’s Scriptures teach: that Jesus was born of a virgin. The main reason for that emphasis over the years has been to highlight that Jesus came directly from God. But another false and damaging reason has existed along-side that reason: sex is too impure to be the means by which the Son of God is born into this world. For much of Christian history, the belief has been held that the holy must be kept separate from corrupt human practices like sex. Beyond denigrating the God-given goodness of sexuality and the physical body, that view misses the moral challenge in the virgin birth.
What the Christian tradition ought to emphasize in the virgin birth is the kind of heart and soul needed to create the space wherein something divine can be born. What is at issue is not virgin birth rather than sexual intimacy but patience rather than impatience, reverence rather than irreverence, respect rather than disrespect, and accepting to live in tension rather than capitulating and compensating in the face of unrequited desire. God seeks a heart that lets love unfold in its own way rather than through manipulation, that lets gift be gift rather than something forced, that accepts the pain of missing out on consummation rather than insisting on sleeping with the bride before the wedding. That is the heart in which God is born. As one writer put it, “don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind; be led by the dreams in your heart.”
The traditional understanding of the virgin birth itself is called into question by the genealogy that immediately precedes the story of the virgin birth in Matthew’s Gospel. In that genealogy Gentiles were welcomed, sinners were changed, transgressions nurtured transformation and fear fueled courage. It is out of that heritage that Jesus was born. (Susan B. Andrews, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew)
I have mentioned before the title of a book by a friend of mine: From Mindfulness to Heartfulness. That title expresses what is needed when we struggle with the conflict between what our minds have been taught to do and what our hearts know is right and good. This is an ongoing issue for God’s people seen over and over again in the Scriptures. What do we do with the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus? How is righteousness expressed in ways that surprise and scandalize rather than confirm our views of orthodoxy? What Matthew calls righteousness in Joseph is very different from what some people of faith call righteousness today.
• How did some proclaim the liberation of slaves when most church folks believed that the Bible condones slavery?
• How did women claim their voice in the church when most Christians believed that women shouldn’t use their voice in church?
• How did divorced people inch their way back into the church when both clergy and laypeople looked down their noses at them?
• How did gay people dare to announce God’s welcome when the prevailing orthodoxy called them an abomination?
All of those actions by marginal people actually took them away from rather than toward the security of the religious practice of their time. But, like Joseph’s righteousness, theirs was a form of faithfulness tempered and shaped by mercy. What does that kind of righteousness look like in the debates of our time? Pro-life and choice? Interventionism and isolationism? Caring for the vulnerable in our own country and those in the rest of the world? Raising or lowering taxes on the rich? How might we re-learn the meaning of righteousness as followers of Jesus today?
I was reminded on Friday as I taught a baptism class to someone becoming a godparent that a large part of the answer is to allow God to be God. The re-learning we need to do is a lot about re-learning who God is. God is not the punishing God dangling sinners over the pit of hell. Even if you don’t believe that literally, some version of it rattles around in all of our memories. Today’s Gospel reminds us that God is with us – Emmanuel. God is the main actor in the story. God’s Spirit comes upon Mary. God speaks to Joseph. And God comes to the aid of Israel and all people according to their needs. The God who saves us in Jesus is more than the accumulated best of his ancestors. Emmanuel, born as a baby, throughout his life reveals the hand of God by undoing the damage that has been done by human sin.
Joseph seems to have really been shaped by the most beautiful, merciful and tender words of God that he heard since childhood. He lived out those words; but they were God’s words that found a birthplace in him. That’s the paradoxical truth: it’s not up to us, and yet we are called and invited to participate in living out God’s mercies. Emmanuel is God-with-us as a baby at the beginning of the Gospel, and also God who “will be with you until the end of the age” at the end of the Gospel. In this final week leading up to our celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, let’s open our hearts to be a birthplace for God’s righteousness in our world.