A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
December 22, 2013
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (NRSV).
It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and after weeks of waiting and preparing we are so close to Christmas we can almost taste it.
And speaking of taste: in this Advent sermon series I’ve been talking about Coca-Cola’s new slogan—”Open Happiness”—and trying to open those words we traditionally associate with this season: hope, peace, joy, and love.
But here’s the thing: I’m not really a topical preacher. I find that it’s hard for me to start with a word and make a whole sermon out of it. I need a little more than that. So, I’ve been using the Gospel readings from the lectionary and trying to find the hope, peace, joy, and love in each of them. I think it’s given me a bigger understanding of each of those words than I might have had otherwise. For example, when I look at a passage about the Second Coming of Christ through the lens of Hope I end up with a bigger hope than I might have found on my own: not just a boy’s hope that he would get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, and not just our hope that a sick friend or family member would get well, but the hope that God would someday send Jesus to redeem all of creation, to make every wrong thing in the world right.
It’s been like that with peace and joy as well. When I look at John the Baptist preaching on the banks of the Jordan I begin to think about how we can have peace with God, and how God—in the person of Jesus—has come to make peace with us. When I look at him helping and healing the deaf and blind, the leprous and lame, I think about the joy that comes not when we get what we want for Christmas, but when we recognize—again, in the person of Jesus—that God is with us! And so today I turn my thoughts toward love, and toward the story of Joseph and Mary. It would be easy to talk about their love story. In fact, I think I’ve done that in another sermon. But because all these other passages have led me to look at the bigger picture, and to think about the hope of God, the peace of God, and the joy of God, I find myself thinking about the love of God, and wondering how it is present in today’s Gospel reading.
In the New Testament, the love of God is always agape love the self-giving kind, the kind that costs you something. And if you have eyes to see it that kind of love is everywhere in this passage. You see it first in the story of Mary. It comes in verse 18, where Matthew says, “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew doesn’t tell us much about Mary, but Luke does. Luke says the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she was favored among women, and that she was going to have a very special baby. But Mary asked, “How can this be, since I’ve never been with a man?” And Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And Mary said, “Let it be.” But this is where Mary’s love began to cost her something, and though neither Luke nor Matthew spells out the details you don’t have to have a very good imagination to understand why. You only have to imagine that moment when Mary couldn’t hide her little secret any longer, or, as Matthew puts it, when she was “found to be with child.” It makes me wonder who found her, and what they said when they did.
In his comments on this passage a Congregational preacher named Daniel Harrell says, “The Christmas story includes the very sordid tale of an engaged young woman who is apparently cheating on her fiancé. She’s carrying somebody else’s baby. She says that God did it, which adds blasphemy to infidelity. Ancient law allowed for the jilted Joseph to stone Mary, but preferring to keep the scandal out of the papers, he decides to break it off quietly and save everybody any further embarrassment. The whole thing was a miserable mess.”[i] Yes, it was a miserable mess, and according to Luke Mary could have prevented the whole thing by saying no to the angel instead of saying yes; by saying “Don’t let it be” instead of saying “Let it.”
She must have had some idea of how much it would cost her when she said it, but she said it anyway. “Yes, even though Joseph will think I’ve cheated on him, even though he could have me stoned to death, even though he will almost certainly break off the engagement, and even though people will probably whisper about me behind my back till the day I die saying they didn’t know I was “that kind of girl,” or saying, “Who does she think she is?” Even though all of that may happen I say yes. Let it be unto me according to your word.”
If we’re looking for God’s kind of love in this story, the self-giving kind, I think we find it right here. Because Mary is willing to give her self away for the sake of love—willing to give her life away, her marriage away, and perhaps most damaging to her everyday life her reputation away, because she lived in a time and place where a good name was more important than anything.[ii]
And that brings us to Joseph.
Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be with child,” and then adds, “by the Holy Spirit.” But Joseph didn’t know it was by the Holy Spirit, not at first. He knew it wasn’t his child; he could only assume it was someone else’s. I don’t get the idea that he flew into a rage, that he stomped around the house yelling at Mary and asking her how she could do such a thing. When I picture his face it’s not angry, it’s just hurt. You can almost hear the sound of his heart breaking. Mary is standing there pleading with him, assuring him that there’s nobody else, but in a way there is: there is God. It’s her love for him that led her to say “Yes,” to tell the angel, “Let it be.” But even if Joseph could believe it nobody else could. They would either assume that Joseph couldn’t wait for the wedding, or that somebody else had taken what was rightfully his. So, he decided to break things off as quietly as possible. “He was a righteous man,” Matthew said, “and didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.”
But then he had a dream in which an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And now it was Joseph’s turn to say yes to an angel, and he did. Matthew says that when he awoke from sleep he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Did it cost him anything? You bet it did. All over that little town people must have been whispering about the man who couldn’t wait for the wedding, or worse, the man who would marry “that kind of girl.” In a time and place when a good name meant everything Joseph laid his reputation on the altar of self-giving love.
So, I can see that the birth of Jesus cost Joseph something, and I can see that it cost Mary something. Both of them bore the shame of a scandalous pregnancy in a time and place when shame was the worst thing that could happen to a person, and they did it, as far as I can tell, because of their love for God. But what I wonder is this: did it cost God anything? Did he have any “skin in the game,” so to speak? I’ve told you before that I don’t think virgin birth is a very big miracle as far as God is concerned. Scientists can fertilize human eggs in a Petri dish. Surely the One who parted the waters of the Red Sea can cause an egg cell to divide and divide again; he can bring a baby forth from a virgin’s womb. I believe that he did. But again I wonder: did it cost him anything? John 3:16 says God loved the world so much he gave his only begotten son and the word that’s used for love is agape, the self-giving kind. I can see how the death of Jesus cost God something, but did the birth? It looks a little too easy from where I stand. “Sorry about your reputation, Mary. Sorry about yours, Joseph. But I needed somebody to bring my son into the world.” It seems almost callous.
Unless God’s reputation suffers, too.
I know I quoted from Philippians 2 a couple of weeks ago when I was talking about peace, but think about what it means for God to “empty himself, humble himself, take the form of a slave, and be born in human likeness,” as Paul says. It is, quite literally, humiliating for God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, to come forth from the womb of a Jewish peasant girl, wrinkled and red and absolutely helpless. He had some skin in the game, all right; he had his own skin in the game. And it was as tender and vulnerable as any skin has ever been. In that moment you could have bruised God with a feather.
God did this, the Gospel affirms: he made himself vulnerable.
Recently someone put me onto a video where a woman named Brene Brown talks about vulnerability.[iii] She says that she started her research by thinking about connection and what it is that makes us feel connected because, in her words, “that’s why we’re here.” But six weeks into the project she found this unnamed thing that threatened to unravel every human connection, and what it was, she decided, was shame. We’re afraid that if people knew the truth about us—the whole truth, that is, every dark and shameful secret—they would disconnect from us. But the paradox is that if we don’t allow ourselves to be seen for who we really are, if we keep hiding behind this mask of false perfection, then the connection we have will never be real.
Brene Brown spent six years interviewing hundreds of people, hearing thousands of stories, and what she found was that there are some people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and others who are always struggling for it, and what makes the difference between the two is a sense of worthiness. Some people feel worthy of love and belonging and others just don’t. When she took a second look at her interviews with people who felt worthy what she found was this: 1) they had the courage to tell the story of who they were with their whole heart, in other words to be less than perfect; 2) they had the compassion to be first kind to themselves and then to others because, as it turns out, we can’t treat others with compassion if we can’t treat ourselves kindly; 3) they had connection, and they had it as a result of authenticity—that is, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.
Finally, she said, they fully embraced vulnerability. “They believed what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to…invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.” But it is not natural. Our natural tendency is to pretend to be perfect, to have everything together, to be in complete control, so that people will admire us, and want to be like us, and maybe even love us. It’s natural but it’s not helpful. It doesn’t work. The only way we can connect with others is by making ourselves vulnerable. And as I heard her talk about this I thought about God Almighty—the only one who is actually perfect and in complete control—coming to us in the form of a tiny baby, making himself vulnerable, saying “I love you” first, being willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. That’s putting some skin in the game. That’s giving yourself away. That is, finally, the kind of love that costs you something, and as we will discover in this story, eventually…it cost God everything.
[i] Daniel Harrell, “Living by the Word,” the Christian Century, December 11, 2013, p. 18.
[ii] Proverbs 22:1 “A good name is to be chosen above great riches.”
[iii] In a Ted Talk called “The Power of Vulnerability,” delivered in June, 2010: (http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html)
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.