4 Advent A 12/22/13 – God, With Us
“This is how the birth of Jesus came about?” With all due respect to the author of Matthew’s gospel we just cannot be sure how his birth came about. The incarnation, God becoming human, is, after all, a matter of faith. However, there are some things we do know about the cultural context surrounding the birth of Jesus. These facets may help us understand this passage a little more and … what it might mean for us today. Let us step back in time to that Middle East village where Joseph and Mary lived.
Poor Joseph. The human father of Jesus is the last one to know that his girl friend Mary, to whom he is betrothed, is pregnant. His buddies are saying to him, “Hey Joe what’s up with Mary?” Joseph shrugs his shoulders. Then there are the women in the town. They are all abuzz about why Mary is not coming to the mikvah for her monthly ritual washing. Mary herself is wondering what is going on with her body. She runs off to her cousin Elizabeth for advice rather than having a heart to heart talk with Joseph. Finally, Joseph gets clued in to what’s going on by an angel. Poor Joseph.
What is at stake in this passage? Both Mary and Joseph, were embarrassed by what was happening. Betrothal was the first step in their marriage process which was most likely arranged by their families. They were not living together. Having sex during their betrothal was taboo. But Mary was pregnant and the whole town was talking.
So Mary and Joseph were scared and ashamed. Their honor was at stake. Further, in the Mediterranean culture you did not take what did not belong to you. So Joseph could not take the baby because the baby was not his. And, the only way to break off the betrothal was by divorce. His only hope was that the real father would step forward to claim the child and marry Mary. Joseph had to quickly decide what to do. 
Joseph acted honorably and took Mary to be his wife. He did not blame her. He made no excuses. He put aside his pride. He risked his own reputation, all to protect Mary’s welfare and her good name. One could say in hindsight the wisdom and compassion of the incarnate God was already at work in young Joseph.
What does this story, colored by the faith and experience of the church of the first century church,  have to do with us two days before the Christmas festival? The Advent expectation is summed up in the word Emanuel … “God is with us.”  What does it mean to say God is with us? It is not about the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth. That date did not get formalized until the fourth century. It has to be about something else. If we take this infancy narrative seriously we can surmise that God is present to us in many unpredictable ways.
God is with us when we protect the good name of others like Joseph did. God is with us when we follow an intuition, a hunch, as if an angel were speaking to us. God is with us in our conversations with others like the one Mary and Elizabeth had. We learn that God is present to us in places and at times that are unpredictable and quite ordinary.
Joseph and Mary were young teenagers. They really did not know for sure what was happening to them. They were just trying to figure out what was the best thing to do. For you and for me? It may be as simple as paying close attention to someone talking to us. It may be seeking reconciliation rather than revenge when someone hurts us. It may be taking delight in the birth of an idea that at first seems utterly impossible.
So … God is with us. How do we know? All we need to do is look around, listen carefully and take some risks.
1 John J. Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1995. pp. 10-12.)
2 Brown, Raymond. An Adult Christ at Christmas (Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 1978, pp. 3 )
3 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 2006, pp. 11-13.)