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Doing the Right Thing

Isaiah 7: 10–16
Matthew 1: 18–25

Advent 4

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

O God,
We sometimes live as fearful people.
we are fearful of too many “dangers, toils and snares.”
fearful of not doing well
fearful of being left out
fearful of what will happen next.
But then you come and say, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
We hear, we trust,
we receive your comforting words, and we are made new.
Bless us in the speaking and the hearing of your words.

I made a new friend recently. I was visiting an elderly man in a nursing home. He is almost blind, not very mobile. He says that his days are long and despite regular visits from family, often lonely. Most of the time, he says, he feels helpless and hopeless. I can hardly blame him. Yet, he is bright and articulate and knows what is going on in the world. He knows his own mind and is not afraid to speak it. He gave me permission to share his story.

When I first visited him, I introduced myself and greeted him with Merry Christmas and the best of the season. After inviting me to come in and sit down, he asked in his straightforward way, “Tell me, do you really believe all that stuff? “What do you mean?” I asked feebly, playing for time. He went on, “I mean do you really believe all that stuff about a loving and all powerful God, about a virgin birth, angels and wise men from afar? If God is powerful, why is world in such a mess – the earthquakes, the starvation, the violence, the disease and all the rest? How do you explain that?” And then, as if to spare me any possible embarrassment, he added, “And don’t tell me I ought to pray harder. There are all kinds of people who pray their hearts out and still suffer terribly.”

As I stammered around, groping for a reply, he quickly (and graciously) added that if I found this line of questioning upsetting, we could always talk about something else. But what could we talk about? Having come in at this level, there was no turning back.

So there I was, sharing with this man, whom I had known for only a few moments, my own doubts, and uncertainties, my own difficulty in squaring the hard realities of life with the conventional doctrines about God. It was not a pretty sight, my groping. Nor was it a pretty speech. But at least I did not lie to him or fake it.

As I was thinking about this sermon with the story from Matthew’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus, I thought of that visit. This is a tough passage, tougher in some ways than the more popular one from Luke. As I was learning this passage by heart, I could hear that voice saying, “Do you really believe all that stuff?”

Now, as the Kidzone children taught us last week in the Christmas Pageant, the Christmas story only appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is nothing said in Mark and John, and in fact, Matthew and Luke tell very different stories. In Matthew, we have an angel appearing to Joseph and wise men visiting Jesus in a house. In Luke we have an angel appearing to Mary, Jesus in a manger (which is an animal feeding trough), and angels singing to shepherds.

Now one of our value statements as a congregation is that “We value a contemporary Christian theology that works through our lives.” The United Church of Canada and our congregation both have the stance that you do not need to believe a particular set of doctrines to be a part of our family. In fact we encourage questioning and doubting and seeking a faith that makes sense for you. We try to be a place where people can find God in a variety of ways – there is not only one route to faith, there are many. Progressive Christianity says that you don’t need to take the Bible literally and to believe everything which has come down to us in the Christian tradition of the past 2000 years to be people of faith.

Just before our scripture story this morning, we get Matthew’s genealogy which begins with Abraham and goes through King David and ends with “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” Does this mean that Joseph is the father of Jesus? If Jesus is the son of David, then Joseph must have been his father. Was Joseph his father? Well, no…yes…no.

This is the way it worked. Joseph was engaged to a woman named Mary. Remember, engagement back then was a legal thing. Marriages were arranged and engagements were serious business, and could be broken only by going to a judge. In effect, it was the same as marriage and binding in nature. So, Joseph was engaged, in fact, may have been engaged for years. Engagements lasted a long time. The two families came together, signed the papers, and when the young people became of age, they married.

Joseph is engaged to Mary, but discovers that she is pregnant. Now what is he to do? Joseph is a good man, a righteous man, we are told, a man who wants to do the right thing. That’s great, but how do you know the right thing. What is the right thing to do?

There are various options available to Joseph. He could get the opinion of the people in town. Go to the local coffee shop and ask “What do you think I ought to do?” Take a poll. But that would get the whole town talking and gossiping. It will spread everywhere. “Did you hear about Mary?” But Joseph will not go that way. He will not disgrace Mary, he will not expose her, humiliate her. Then what is he to do?

Some people say “Just do what the Bible says.” You cannot go wrong if you do what the Bible says.” How is that for an answer? I have heard it all my life. “Just do what the Bible says.” Well, do you know what the Bible says? It says that she is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of all the people. That is what the Bible says. This law was a way of protecting a man’s property, and was written down probably 2000 years before Jesus.

But you see Joseph is a modern man. He does not take the Bible literally. In fact, I am amazed that Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible. He reads the Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her dignity. I will protect her.”

Now where does it say that in the Bible? I’ll tell you where it says that. It says it in the very nature and character of God. Yes, Joseph reads the Bible through the spectacles of the grace and goodness and love of God.

If Joseph does not take the Bible literally, why do we feel we need to do that? So what do you believe about the Virgin Birth? My answer to that man in the nursing home, was, I do not know if the Virgin Birth took place. I am prepared to live with the mystery of it all. It is not an essential foundation to my faith. I can take it or leave it.

In fact, when Matthew says that this was to fulfil the prophecy of the Lord spoken through the prophet, he quotes Isaiah. But he misquotes the words in the Hebrew Scriptures. If you turn to Isaiah chapter 7, verse 14, it says “Look a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel.” The Hebrew Scriptures clearly says “young woman,” but Matthew is quoting a Greek translation of Isaiah, where the Greek word could mean a virgin or a young woman.

You see, what is really important to me about all this is not the science of it all – how Mary got pregnant, how she chose to express her sexuality. None of this, for me, really matters. Not even the seeming relevance of a 700 hundred year old prophecy from Isaiah. No, what matters, is the simple reality of a baby`s birth. A baby comes helpless and vulnerable into the world, and yet also brings hope.

Is this not the heart of the Christmas gospel, the sign, the symbol, the metaphor of faith that pulls it all together? That God should come among us not with power and might, but gently, quietly, in the helplessness and vulnerability of a child.

It is interesting to note that when Isaiah offers the sign to Ahaz, he does not say a young woman will have a child, he does not place it sometime in the future, no, he says, “a young woman is with child.” Now. It is already happening. Is this not true, now and every time a new life appears we have hope? Every time a baby is born, hope for the world. God`s love shown forth in the helpless, the vulnerable. An ordinary event – a baby`s birth is a beacon of hope for a despairing world.

You know I am feeling good about Christmas. The baby is not born yet; Mary is not even in labour; so we are waiting and watching. But it is Christmas because of Joseph. Usually Mary gets all the attention, but Matthew wants us to notice Joseph. Joseph has a dream and acts on it. Christmas for me has already started because I know that when Jesus is born, the man named Joseph will help to raise the baby and feed the baby. He will teach him, care for him, show him how to be a carpenter, take him to the synagogue, teach him his Bible, teach him how to read the Bible and teach him how to do the right thing. When you have someone like that, it is already Christmas, and Christmas will last as long as God can find in every community one person who says, “I will do what is right.”

What is right is to read the scripture and to read the human condition in light of the love and grace and kindness of God. As long as there is one in every community, it will be Christmas. The question, of course, is whether or not you will be that person.


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