Advent 4 A December 18, 2016
It had been a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem—and Mary and Joseph were both exhausted as they pulled into the parking lot of the Motel Six.
Joseph went inside to get a room—just as the “No Vacancy” sign lit up.
The innkeeper said:
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no room here.”
“No room?” Joseph replied, “But my wife is pregnant!”
“I’m sorry again, sir,” said the innkeeper, “but that’s not my fault.”
“It’s not my fault either,” Joseph replied.
Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was not Joseph’s fault.
The child within her womb was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”—without male DNA.
And Joseph had no idea—until he was shocked into reality by an angelic visitor!
We can only guess what Joseph’s thoughts might have been before he had this revealing dream.
But we are told that Joseph was a “righteous man”—and wanted to avoid exposing Mary to the “public disgrace” of an adultery investigation.
Imagine his surprise--his utter amazement—to discover that Mary’s son would be the long-awaited Messiah!
Today is the fourth—and last—Sunday of the Advent Season.
Up until now—the Scripture readings have concentrated on the future coming of Christ.
But today the focus shifts—to the promises fulfilled in the first coming of Our Lord.
Those ancient promises include the fact that the Messiah would be a “son”—a “descendant”—of the great King David.
He would be “descended from David according to the flesh”—as Saint Paul would later put it.
Joseph was responsible for the fulfillment of this prophecy—since he was a direct descendant of David.
According to the Law—he was Jesus’ father—since he was married to Jesus’ mother—and that was considered more important than biology.
The other promise is what theologians call the Virgin Birth—or sometimes the Virginal Conception—of Christ (not to be confused with the “Immaculate Conception of Mary”—which is something entirely different!)
The Prophet Isaiah—living in the eighth century B.C.—had foretold that a “young maiden”--a virgin—would conceive and bear a son.
In Isaiah’s prophecy too—the child would be a member of the “House of David.”
This royal child would be called by a special name--Emmanuel—which (in Hebrew) means God with us.
Eight hundred years later—Mary’s son was born.
Although he was given the name Jesus—he would also be called Emmanuel—God with us in—human form.
As Saint Paul says—he “was declared to be Son of God”—with divine powers—shown most clearly in his “Resurrection from the dead.”
We are specifically told that Joseph took Mary as his wife--“but had no marital relations with her” until after the child was born.
Some wise person—a church-goer himself, no doubt—has said that the attentiveness of a congregation during a sermon is inversely proportional to the number of Greek and Hebrew words the preacher explains.
So I’ll give you a break—and leave it at this:
The name Jesus—given by the angel in Joseph’s dream—also has a meaning.
In Hebrew, “Jesus” means: God will save.
The child was given a name that said what he was destined to do:
Jesus—son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God—who was called Emmanuel—“God with us”—was born to be the Messiah—through whom “God will save.”
That is the Good News in today’s Scripture readings!
But what about Joseph?
I’ve always felt a little bit sorry for him.
Joseph seems to get the short end of the stick in this story.
He doesn’t get nearly the recognition—nor the adoration—that the Virgin Mary does.
As Jesus’ foster father—Joseph was also his protector—and presumably his teacher.
But—unlike Mary—he disappears quickly from the biblical narrative.
Tradition says that Joseph was much older than Mary—and that he died when Jesus was still a child.
Joseph must have felt somewhat humiliated by the events that unfolded in today’s Gospel—especially since it soon became publicly known that Jesus was not his biological son.
One of my favorite Christmas carols portrays Joseph’s humiliation very poignantly.
It’s a 15th Century English ballad—called The Cherry Tree Carol.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to sing it to you—but the lyrics go like this:
When Joseph was an old man—and old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary—the Queen of Galilee.
Then Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,
There were berries and cherries—as fair as might be seen.
Then Mary spoke to Joseph—so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries—for I am with child.
Then Joseph flew in anger—in anger flew he,
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”
In this version of the story—Joseph is portrayed as ignorant of his wife’s pregnancy—until Mary reveals it to him—under the guise of a sudden craving for cherries.
Joseph’s immediate reaction is anger—and an implicit threat to terminate their marital relationship.
However—the Holy Child intervenes:
Then up spoke Baby Jesus—from in Mary’s womb,
“Bend down, thou tallest branches—that my mother might have some.”
The branches obey their Incarnate Creator’s voice—and bend down to drop cherries into Mary’s hand:
“Now look thou my Joseph (she says)—I have cherries by command!”
At this development—Joseph immediately recognizes his error—and repents.
In some versions of the song—the last verse says:
Then Joseph said to Mary—from down on bended knee,
“May the Lord have mercy—have mercy on me.”
It is interesting that the story told by this fanciful carol has the same basic elements as our Gospel reading:
Joseph is miraculously informed of the truth about Mary’s pregnancy--not by an angelic visitation—but by a cherry tree that is obedient to its Master’s voice.
As a result Joseph reconsiders his intention to end the marriage—and comes to accept his divinely-ordained role as foster-father and protector of the Messiah.
And so today—our Advent journey comes to an end.
The stage is set for the next act in the drama of redemption:
Our hearts and minds have been prepared for the Coming of the promised Messiah—whose birth was long-ago foretold.
I will give British poet—and fellow Episcopalian—W.H. Auden—the final word.
Auden says that dogmas—such as the Virgin Birth—should be understood “neither as logical propositions—nor as poetic utterances.
“They are to be taken, rather, as ‘shaggy-dog stories.’
“They have a point—but whoever tries too hard to get the point—will miss it.”
The point for us is about saying “yes” to God.
Both Joseph and Mary said “yes” to God—with a courage that makes the rest of us look spineless by comparison!
And because they did—they became part of the greatest miracle of all:
The en-flesh-ment of God as one of us!
What happened to Joseph and Mary must also happen to us.
Through our faith—Christ can be born into the world today—and become incarnate once again—in our flesh and blood.
All it takes is for you and me to do what Joseph and Mary did—and say “yes” to God!
Now let us pray.
You so loved the world that you gave your Only-Begotten Son—that whoever believes in him might not perish—but have Everlasting Life.
Open our hearts by the Grace of your Holy Spirit—that Jesus—Son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God;
Messiah—Savior—Emmanuel—may be born in us this Holy Season;
And that we may be born again in him.
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