Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2001
The Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
Sermon: "God's Righteousness"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 23, 2001This morning we are faced with a very important question. What is just? A little boy in elementary school always carried his lunch. When his class went to eat he would stay in line to buy his carton of milk for four cents.
After getting his milk he went to table, placed his bag lunch and milk at his place and then went to the water cooler for a drink of water. When he returned he would eat his lunch. He kept the same routine every day. Until one day his milk started to disappear. He would come back from the water cooler and find his carton of milk gone. He was faced with a problem. Instead of going to the teacher, he got back in line to get his milk. When he got his milk, he went out of the line without paying again. His logic said, "I paid for a milk; I'm going to get my milk." After several days he told his mother what was happening. Instead of getting angry with the boy, she suggested he take his lunch and milk to the water cooler with him. Remarkably the boy took his mother's advice and the problem stopped.
The issue still remains for us. What is a just response? Many people have various definitions of what is just. For example, if you hurt me, then I'm going to get even. Do you remember the movie Animal House? There is a great scene in this movie that touches directly on this issue. A member of the popular fraternity is harassing one of the pledges of the Delta fraternity. The pledge gets shoved down face first in a dirty stable stall. You can imagine what happens to him. Some of his fraternity brothers see this event. They go to their pledge brother when the harasser leaves. They look him in the eye and say, Delta's don't get even, we get back. Our humanity tends to push us toward getting even for wrongs or even going one step beyond what has been done to us. When we get even we feel justified.
Different cultures have even determined what just punishments should be for crimes against one another. Many of these codes were designed to prevent people from taking things too far. Hammurabi's Code was developed to stop people from killing someone for stealing. Instead of killing a thief, the thief would only lose the offending hand that stole the property. The Hebrew people had a code as well. The early Mosaic code was really stiff. For example a man or woman caught in adultery was to be stoned, killed. Divorce was not an option. If a person followed the Law then they were deemed to be righteous. They were seen to be a just person before God.
Yet, this morning we see a different definition of a just person. In Matthew's Gospel, Joseph is deemed to be just. I'd like us to notice how he is deemed righteous, just before God. Mary and Joseph are betrothed, engaged. In those days, betrothal was like being married without living together. All of the rules of marriage applied. Into this relationship Mary brings news that she is pregnant. The Mosaic Law states that Mary should be stoned. However, by this time in Hebrew history the rabbis have tempered the Law a bit. Mary would not be stoned. However, according to the Law, Mary was to be brought before the entire town by Joseph. She would be publicly humiliated and ostracized. Even her own family was to have no more to do with her. She would not be welcome in any home or even in the town proper. No one would speak to her or help her in any way. She would be a thirteen to sixteen-year old girl on the streets, pregnant and alone. According to the Law, Joseph would be righteous, just, and justified if he reported her.
However, Joseph in the scripture is righteous, just from another standpoint. Listen to the words of the scripture again, "Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." Joseph was not going to follow the letter of the Law. Joseph was not going to humiliate her. According to the Law, Joseph is not righteous. According to the Law, Joseph is not just. Yet, the scripture claims he is a righteous man. Joseph is indeed righteous. For Joseph has chosen to show Mary forgiveness and compassion. Joseph is righteous by God's definition. Joseph does all of this for Mary before he has the dream identifying the baby as the Messiah. So, to be righteous and just by God's definition is to be forgiving and compassionate.
Now, before we go any farther I want to dispel any thought about Joseph and Mary being a particular case. We might be tempted to think they were a special case. Of course, Mary and Joseph responded this way. God had it all planned out. No. Joseph was a human being like you and I.
Joseph had feelings and his feelings were hurt. He was going to call off the marriage because he believed she had been running around on him. Yet, at the same time he showed forgiveness and compassion. He showed the kind of forgiveness and compassion God shows towards us.
Let's think about it for a minute. How often do we sin against God? Do we really keep the Sabbath day Holy? Have we never put our desires over our relationship to God? Have we never said or thought about using God's name 'inappropriately? How often do we sin against our neighbors? Have we never lied? Have we never wanted something our neighbors had? When our neighbor sins against us do we forgive or do we want to get even?
Just imagine if God's justice was like ours. Imagine God's justice following the code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic Law today. Imagine God treating us according to the letter of our own law. Life with that kind of God would be unbearable.
Instead of treating us the way we deserve, our just God treats us with forgiveness and compassion. In a few days we will celebrate the ultimate act of God's forgiveness and compassion. We will celebrate the entry of God into the world in human form. In order to save us from ourselves, God comes to us in flesh and blood. God comes to us as a vulnerable baby boy who will grow and experience the world as we do. God, in Jesus, experiences the best and the worst we have to offer in the flesh.
Our question then is how do we respond to God's forgiveness and compassion? Do we respond with thankfulness and praise to our God? Do we treat others who have wronged us in the same way God treats us, with compassion and forgiveness? Do we go to those we have wronged, admitting our own fault, and asking for forgiveness?
Today is the last day of Advent. Today, we have an opportunity to reflect on these questions. As we reflect we have the opportunity to offer to God our dependence on wanting our own kind of justice. We have the opportunity to desire to be righteous in God's way. Then on the morrow when Jesus comes among us, we have the opportunity to see the world in a new way. We might see forgiveness and compassion through the eyes of the Christ child.