Sermon - 23 December 2007

Notes for a sermon preached for the Church of the Annunciation, Oradell, New Jersey, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23 December 2007, by the Reverend J. Barrington Bates, Rector (Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7,17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25).

On this fourth Sunday in Advent we always hear a little bit of the annunciation story, that most amazing act of God, when a peasant girl named Mary became pregnant by the words of an angel and gave birth to the son of God. So in a way, we have two feasts of title for our parish church-the Feast of the Annunciation, in the spring, and the Sunday before Christmas each year.

By long-standing custom, this is a Sunday devoted to Mary. This year we hear the first part of the annunciation, about Joseph; next year, it will be the Angel Gabriel speaking to Mary; and last year we heard of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the singing of that very song.

There is much richness in this little three-year cycle of scripture:

* The willingness of Mary to accept God's unbelievable call to her, saying not "Are you crazy?" or, "I am only a youth," or, "I am not worthy," but simply, "Let it be with me according to your word."

* And the amazing gift of a child to the elderly Elizabeth - and not just any old baby, but the prophet John the Baptist, about whom we've been hearing these past two weeks.

* And the peculiar divine method of in vitro fertilization, in which Mary's ear and God's word become like sexual instruments.

* And the powerful imagery of the Magnificat itself: God casting down the mighty from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.

* And the most incredible occurrence of all: just about everyone in the story being "filled with the Holy Spirit."

But in today's gospel, we focus on Joseph.

Just who is this Joseph? - We know he's Mary's husband, Jesus' earthly father, a carpenter. And he's Joseph, spouse most chaste - as we used to say. Did you ever notice that at a Christmas pageant no one ever volunteers to play the part of Joseph? And why not? Well, we don't know much about Joseph, for one thing. The Biblical account just doesn't feature him much. He gets lost in the crowd - or maybe even crowded out by more prominent characters in the narrative? And he's relatively unimportant in the story - Jesus was conceived without him, after all.

We do know this: Joseph was given the freedom to choose, and he made some excellent choices. Joseph was given a vision from God, and he chose to heed that vision. Joseph was given a horrible predicament, and he chose not to punish but to follow the path of compassion.

Now, let's reset the stage and remember the particulars: Joseph and Mary are engaged - not married, engaged. This whole story takes place "before they lived together," according to Matthew's gospel. You all know what this euphemism means, right? Before they "knew" each other in the Biblical sense.

And Mary is found to be pregnant. They're not yet married, they've never shared sexual intimacy, and yet Mary is going to have a baby. That's a serious issues even in our time, but in Mary and Joseph's it was a crime. Mary could be cast away, taken back to her parents, dismissed quietly (as the gospel tells us Joseph intended), or even stoned to death. And the impending marriage was certainly in jeopardy. Joseph would have been fully within his rights to say, "You're pregnant; I'm not the father; that's it. You're out of here, Mary."

But Joseph chooses instead to listen to the voice he's been hearing in a very troubling and disturbing dream he's been having - a voice that tells him not to be afraid, a voice that invites him to consider seeing things from Mary's perspective.

Joseph, instead of punishing his definitively sinful wife, accepts her and her child with compassion. This is what happens when we look at things from the other perspective, when we imagine that we may not have all the information, when we open ourselves up to the possibility that we may not hold the entire truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When we consider what the world may look like through something other than our own two eyes, we begin to piece together a more complete view of reality.

My charge to you today is to wonder what things look like through someone else's eyes. And to help you remember that throughout the day, I have a handout. (Distribute handouts)

When we consider things from the other perspective, we open ourselves up to truth - and truth, remember, will make us free. Joseph considers Mary's perspectives, and thus opens himself up to the truth that he has not been dishonored. He is, in fact, truly the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, the servant helped. By seeing things from the other perspective, Joseph is able to completely reverse his view. What was a crime becomes instead a blessing. What was adultery becomes instead the working of God. What was a problem becomes instead an opportunity.

This is the power of considering the other perspective, and that power is called compassion. Compassion takes our hearts when set on revenge and turns them instead to care and concern. Compassion turns sin into grace, difficulty into occasion for growth, death into life.

In a way, the Incarnation itself is another (and yet more potent) manifestation of compassion. Consider this: God is known in the Old Testament as wrathful, angry, and vengeful. He bashes babies' heads against stones, he drowns all but two of his people, he sends plagues and causes his people to wander aimlessly in the wilderness. God declares laws, sends prophets to enforce these rules, and punishes people for disobeying them.

God says, over and over again, to his people, "You aren't getting it right. You are sinful, disobedient, wicked people." All this, perhaps, because God - even God - did not have the whole truth. God could not imagine what it was like to be one of his own creatures. God did not know what it was like from the other perspective.

And so God breathed a holy word into the ear of a girl named Mary, and that word became flesh. God became human in a person named Jesus, the wonderful and amazing mystery we recall this and every Christmas.

And when God became human in the person of Jesus, God changed-or at least appeared to us to change, or chose to reveal a different aspect to us. A message of punishment became instead a proclamation of forgiveness. A declaration of law became instead an announcement of good news. A requirement of behavior became instead a welcome extended to all. God saw things from our perspective. God was hungry, thirsty, tired, happy, wet, cold - and experienced everything else we know as life. God knew sadness and joy, hope and pain, love and betrayal. And through that experience God became more compassionate toward us.

We rejoice and give thanks for such an amazing gift, given because God decided to become one of us - to look at the world from our perspective - and because a man named Joseph chose not the path of vindication, but the path of compassion. This is a sign given of God: consider the other perspective, imagine a different viewpoint, visualize what others see. In this way, we, too, will walk the path of compassion - and discover ourselves prepared to greet the new-born "God with us" this Christmas. - Amen.

What does the world look like through someone else's eyes?

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