Advent 4A, 2010
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 fulfil 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.
I’m with Joseph, at least at the beginning of this story. If, a few months before Vicki and I got married – when I was in Georgia and she was in school in Charlotesville – she had called me on the phone and said, “I have some interesting news. I’m pregnant – but it’s not what you think. It’s by the Holy Spirit,” I would have broken the engagement for two reasons. First, my fiancée had been unfaithful. Second, either she was crazy, or she thought I was the dumbest man on the planet.
And I hope, like Joseph, I would have been loving enough to break off the engagement quietly, out of love for my fiancée. A quiet break was literally a matter of life and death – adultery by an engaged woman was punishable by stoning. Is it possible that years later, when confronted by an angry mob about to execute a woman guilty of adultery, Jesus thought about his mother’s predicament, and how close she had come to the same fate?
Joseph was simply trying to do the right thing. He had been wronged by this unfaithful woman, and he should have broken the engagement. The law entitled him to drag her before the elders for judgment and execution, but again, trying to do the right thing, he wanted to save her life and the life of the illegitimate child in her womb. She could go visit some relatives, have the baby, give it up for adoption, and move on with her life, and Joseph could move on with his. It was the right and lawful thing to do.
Or it was until that angel showed up in his dreams. This Joseph is much like his namesake a millennium and a half before, that pesky boy with the many-colored coat who kept having dreams about the world to come. “Joseph,” the angel said, “do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid: that’s not the last time we’ll hear that phrase in this story about the baby. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her really is from the Holy Spirit. No, really, Joseph. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s a boy, and you must name him Yeshua – the Lord saves – for he will save his people from their sins.”
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Afraid of what? Of the law, of shame, of your and Mary’s and the baby’s reputations? Afraid of not doing the right thing, because marrying an adulterous woman is just wrong in oh so many ways? How can an angel tell you to break God’s law? Is this a fallen angel – a demon – tempting Joseph to disobey God’s clear commandment? If we start making exceptions from the law, then the whole society breaks down. Nothing is higher than the law, and we need to do the right thing.
Kentucky novelist Wendell Berry, in his short story, Fidelity, tells of the hospitalization of farmer Burley Coulter. Burley had no surviving relatives except his illegitimate son, Danny Branch, so when Burley went into a coma and was placed on life support, no one was able to make decisions about his medical care. Knowing that his father would never want to be kept alive by machine or to die in a hospital, Danny sneaks up a back stairway in the middle of the night, disconnects Burley from the machinery, carried him down the stairs to his pickup truck, and drives him out to a deserted barn. There, Danny makes Burley as comfortable as he can, builds a fire for warmth, and lets Burley die in peace. He then takes his father out into the woods he loved, and buries him in an unmarked grave.
This, of course, is a kidnapping, so the FBI is brought into the case. Detective Kyle Bode quickly determines Danny is the most likely suspect, but no one in the community will help him find or indict Danny. Bode goes to the community lawyer, Wheeler Catlett, demanding his help, because Catlett is an officer of the court and the law has been broken. Wheeler refuses to cooperate, noting that while one might need permission to get into a hospital, no one needs permission to leave one, because that would make it not a hospital but a prison.
"Well anyway, " Detective Bode said, "all I know is that the law has been broken, and that I am here to serve the law".
"But my boy, you don't eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it, or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve."
"Why, all the things that are above it. Love."
Law is important. Rules are important. If we are going to live together without chaos, we need to have some boundaries for doing so. The law tells us what we expect of each other, and what God expects of us. There are perfectly good reasons for laws about faithfulness and adultery and breach of contract and betrayal. We want people to keep their promises to each other, and consequences when we don’t do the right thing. Joseph is a wonderful model as a man of faith – he is trying, with every ounce of his being, to do the right thing with God and with other people, including his fiancée.
But, the angel tells him, there are things that are beyond the rules, and above the law. The law exists to serve, and primarily to serve love. So, at Jesus’ conception, God breaks the law to reveal to us, through Joseph, that love is always the right thing to do.
Again and again during his adult life, Jesus will show us that love stands above all law: exercising compassion towards an adulterous woman; sharing meals with sinners; welcoming women, lepers, enemy collaborators, Samaritans, and Romans; defying the power of civil and religious authorities. Finally, he breaks the most absolute law of all: the law of death. In the name of love, he surrenders himself to death, shattering its power forever on the third day. “Only God,” said Francis of Assisi, “can say always and never.” All laws and rules, great and petty, exist only to serve all the things that are above them, most of all love.
This week, as you make your way to the manger, wonder and be astounded at this story that breaks all the rules. Born in a stable; attended by poor shepherds and worshipped by pagan astrologers; hunted by the authorities and becoming an illegal immigrant; finally executed by the law in the name of the law, Jesus is not just his heavenly Father’s son, he’s Joseph’s boy, too. He’s a chip off the block of the man who always wanted to do the right thing, and who ended up obeying the higher call of love.
Thanks be to God.
 Berry, Wendell, Fidelity, Pantheon: New York, 1992, p. 418