Advent 4, A
Isaiah 7: 10-16
Mary and Joseph.
Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Blessed Mother, Refuge of Sinners, Star of the Sea, Mystical Rose, Cause of our Joy, Queen of Heaven.
And Joseph. Husband of Blessed Mary. Never, not one single time, do we hear of Mary as Joseph’s wife – he is always Mary’s husband. Joseph is the role you want in the Christmas pageant when you want to participate, but not the the extent of actually wanting to, well, speak. We don’t have words for Joseph. Biblically, he is voiceless. The embodiment of ordinary. Joseph is a normal, well-meaning man, minding his own business, enjoying the modest ambition of making his quiet living with carpentry, marrying, having children, and raising them to be good, hard-working, devout people as well. To that end, he learned his craft, then become engaged to Mary. At that point Mary seemed pretty ordinary as well – a young, Jewish girl waiting for her life to really begin – all the superlatives came later.
Have you ever noticed that the reading says Mary and Joseph were “engaged”, but goes on to describe him as her husband? It turns out that “engaged” is an inadequate translation – it doesn’t give us quite the right idea. To modern day Americans, engaged suggests an informal arrangement, something that can be broken off at the request of either party. Marriage etiquette worked differently back then.
Getting married occurred in two steps. The first was in Hebrew “kiddushin” – the betrothal. Arranged by the groom and the bride’s parents, it committed the couple one to another, although the woman continued to live in her parents‘ home. While the relationship had not been finalized at this point, it was already considered a marriage, and breaking the relationship required a formal divorce. Any relations outside the agreement (at least by the female) constituted adultery, an offense punishable by death. The second step, “nissu’in” might take place as much as a year later – when the families feasted and celebrated and the husband finally took his bride to his own home. Mary’s now famous pregnancy became known between kiddushin and nissu’in. Now, Joseph almost certainly didn’t have a working knowledge of reproductive biology. He wouldn’t have known a fallopian tube from an appendix in form or function. He nonetheless knew perfectly well where babies came from, and was quite certain that this one didn’t come from him.
Being a perfectly ordinary man, if perhaps a bit kinder and more understanding than most, he made a perfectly ordinary assumption that someone other than himself had created this child. Forgivably, he assumed that someone was a mortal, living, breathing being complete with heart and bones and skin. He resolved on the kindest course of action he could devise, and still remain within his ordinary, everyday, time honored code of righteousness. A quiet, private divorce. It would leave Mary with an illegitimate child, unprotected, but at least she would not be publicly shamed, and even more generously, would not be stoned to death.
Then average, normal, run of the mill Joseph’s normal run of the mill life took a turn for the extraordinary. Not so much because he had this weird dream. Everybody has weird dreams. Rather because he allowed his heart to open to the truth within that dream – he managed to comprehend the influence of the Holy in his life, and act on it- against all customs, all conventional wisdom, against his own self interest. Not all of us could do the same from within our predictable, ordinary lives.
There was a TV show in the late 90’s called Evening Shade. I never saw it, but heard an interesting dialog from it. The two young children of the main character were sitting together talking before bed one night. The boy asks his sister, “Do you ever feel lonely and scared?” She answers, “Well, sometimes; but then I remember what they say in Sunday School, about how God is always with us and I feel better.” The boy thought a few minutes – then he said, “Yeah, well, that praying stuff is all right I guess; but sometimes you just need somebody with some skin on them.” (Reference thanks to Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton)
Ahaz got that. Ahaz was not an ordinary man. Ahaz was a king. Ahaz was a king between a rock and a hard place. Pressed on one side by an impending invasion from a coalition of forces, and on the other by the mega-empire of Assyria, he was offered comfort in is distress by God – a sign, any sign. He had already made his political bed, however, throwing in with someone with skin on, joining forces with the Assyrian empire – a power he could touch and feel and comprehend. With false piety, he declined a sign.
Are we far behind? God. God can appear such a far away concept. Everywhere, everything, all knowing, all encompassing. Faced with the infinite, with the source of all being, do you every feel lonely and scared? Forgiveness seems abstract, life everlasting remote, prayer a breath in the wind. We turn to something with some skin on – to human rules and roles, to human protection, to human security, to the safety of our ordinary lives. According to John Ortberg (God is Closer Than You Think) “The central promise in the Bible is not ‘I will forgive you,’ although of course that promise is there. It is not the promise of life after death, although we are offered that as well. The most frequent promise in the Bible is ‘I will be with you.’ ”
(Mary) shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” God with skin on.
Christmas is coming. Coming soon. Are you ready? Are you ready for Christmas? I’m not asking if your tree is decorated, or your shopping done, or your house ready for the relatives, or the presents wrapped. (I would fail the readiness test on all of those counts, by the way) The Christ child comes. We sing. We worship. We celebrate. God-with-us calls us to more. We are called from within our ordinariness, to abandon our illusion of safety, to become someone-with-skin-on through whom Christ can shine through for lost, the lonely, the frightened, the hungry.
Kind ordinary Joseph left his fear behind and reached out with love to raise the son he did not father. Can we not reach out in love to all God’s people? W.H. Auden prayed,
Mary and Joseph
Redeem for the dull the
That common ungifted
Believe that their normal
Walk to perfection.
We have just passed the shortest day of the year. The nights are long and the days are short. May the light of Christ shine in our hearts and shine through our lives. Amen.
(Thanks to Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton for concept of “God with skin on”)