Sermon: Scandalous mercy

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church

4th Sunday of Advent, 22nd of December, 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

Way back in the eighties and early nineties there was an Australian television program called A Country Practice. I wasn’t allowed to watch the first seasons, but by the mid-eighties I had joined all my school friends in my addiction to it. Every year, around Christmas time, memories of one particular episode come back to me. As I remember it, the episode centred on an older woman who found herself unexpectedly pregnant and was considering ending the pregnancy. Naturally, everyone in the entire town knew this and had an opinion on it, no secrets in Wandin Valley, and one of the doctors went to visit a church to think about it. There she met a priest who asked her about different scenarios in which a termination might be appropriate. One was when the mother was an unmarried teenager for whom giving birth would be particularly risky. Would she perform an abortion in that circumstance? The doctor said, yes, of course. Ah, said the priest, but what if the mother’s name was Mary and the town was Bethlehem?

I don’t remember anything else from that episode. I suspect that, since this was Australian commercial television in the eighties the woman had the baby, but I honestly don’t know. In the past I have tried to find more details about it online, but all I’ve ever discovered was that this story was screened in 1987, when I was fourteen. That scene’s stayed with me for a long time.

I think that one line in that episode was the first time I’d been aware of the potential dark side of the Christmas story. Last week, in my R-rated sermon, I talked about the four other women Matthew mentions in Jesus’ genealogy. Their stories prepare Matthew’s readers for the scandal that he describes in today’s reading. Our idealisation of the story of the birth of Jesus, shown in the cuteness of many Nativity plays, distracts us from the fact that Mary became pregnant out of wedlock in a time when that was definitely not acceptable.

“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” At the time engagement was the equivalent of marriage; infidelity while engaged was adultery. As far as Joseph was concerned his betrothed was an adulteress, like his ancestress, Bathsheba. And Joseph was a righteous man, a man who obeyed the law. The law did not allow the husbands of unfaithful wives to simply forgive them. The penalty that the legal code in Deuteronomy prescribes for women who are found not to be virgins at marriage is that ‘they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’[1] This probably wasn’t happening in first-century Judaism, but at the very least Joseph would be expected to divorce Mary, and a divorced woman had very little value.  If Mary was lucky, she might have been taken in by her family and supported; otherwise her alternative would have been to support herself through prostitution, as Jesus ancestress’ Rahab did; as his ancestress Tamar pretended to do; and as his ancestress Ruth might have had to do had she not attracted the honourable eye of Boaz. The story of Mary’s pregnancy is intimately linked with the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba that we heard last week.

As a righteous man, Joseph is prepared to do what the law demands, but to do it quietly, rather than publically disgracing Mary. But God intervenes.  God’s angel addresses Joseph in a dream, encouraging him not to be afraid to go through with the marriage and take Mary to be his wife. The angel goes on to prophesy the birth of a son, the name he is to be given and the role he is to play. The story finishes simply. Joseph follows the instructions. He goes through with the second stage of the marriage. He takes Mary home. He refrains from intercourse until the son is born. He gives the baby the name Jesus, and by giving him his name, Joseph acknowledges the baby to be his son, making him legally part of the house and family of David.

What seemed to be a potential scandal, a situation completely unacceptable to the society in which it happened, turns out to be God acting and intervening in the world. Mary is said to be “with child from the Holy Spirit”, that is, from the Spirit of God who brings about new things. In the incarnation God has become part of the world in a new way; as ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us.’ Had Joseph simply acted as a righteous man, as the law demanded of him, everything would have gone wrong. But Joseph listened to God, did something totally contrary to the rules of his society, and a potential scandal became God alive and at work in the world.

As we’ll see over the coming year, the Gospel according to Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the law. This is why Matthew’s version of the nativity starts with a dreamer called Joseph, son of Jacob; why the announcement of Jesus’ birth is followed by the story of a king who kills the baby boys, as Pharaoh did; and why “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”[2] The nativity echoes the story of Israel in Egypt and of Moses’ liberation of his people. For Matthew, Jesus, like Moses, is a liberator and law-giver; a law-giver with a particular way of interpreting the law. Twice Matthew’s Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea:[3] “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We’ll talk further about that in this liturgical year, but for now we can just note that Joseph has it right. In Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy we see someone who, prompted by God, chooses mercy.

So, to sum up, last week we heard the stories of the women in Jesus’ genealogy; stories of sexual scandal and impropriety through which God was working. Today we hear the final and most important story of potential scandal, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and find that here, too, God is at work. And in Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy, his willingness to act with mercy rather than to simply carry out the letter of the law, we get our first hint of the way in which Jesus will act as law-giver. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his followers to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” a teaching that would terrify us if we did not know that mercy is at the heart of the way Jesus interprets the law.

The two nativity stories that the Bible gives us, the stories according to Matthew and Luke, are different stories with very different emphases. Matthew’s story is a story of social conventions being overturned and of mercy outweighing merely-legal righteousness. This Christmas, I invite us to look for the way God is present in people and situations we might otherwise condemn, and to offer mercy to all people, everywhere. This is how we can live out the Christmas message we hear in Matthew’s gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 22:21.

[2] Matthew 2:14-15.

[3] Hosea 6:6.

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1 Response to Sermon: Scandalous mercy

  1. Tony Johnson Joncevski says:

    Reblogged this on Tony Johnson Joncevski's Open Diary and commented:
    Another excellent sermon from my colleague. This is worth reading. Ignore my posts and read this. 🙂

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