Second Sunday of Advent – A Higher Righteousness
A Higher Righteousness
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.”
As we await the birth of the Christ Child this Advent, it is difficult to hear that issues of righteousness were smack in the middle of such a Holy time. We remember that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was informed by the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant. Mary was not yet married, and she was pregnant! In Mary’s time becoming pregnant before marriage was a sin worth being stoned to death for.
But Mary had no say in the matter. Though a virgin, she was pregnant. I believe that God knew Mary would understand what he was doing and trust God. Mary did say to the angel Gabriel who came bearing the troubling news that she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord,
let it be with me according to your word.
Powerful words for a young woman who up to that point had had no idea about what was happening to her.
But Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, faced the fullness of the dilemma of being engaged to a woman who was pregnant, all by himself. On his own he had to decide what was righteous – what was the right thing to do in such a situation. In his time and culture, the law said that under the circumstances he should divorce Mary. The law even gave him the power to turn her in, to be put to death by stoning. Joseph struggled with what to do.
Joseph knew the child Mary was carrying was not his. He must have felt the sadness and shame of betrayal. He must have thought about what others would say about him if they knew what Mary seemed to have done. Was he a man or not? Was he a righteous man who would do the right thing, the lawful thing? But love and what seems to be a great measure of humility led Joseph to decide to quietly divorce Mary to protect her. That is, until God spoke to him.
Joseph, like Mary, did ultimately receive divine help in his dilemma. The angel Gabriel had the job of telling Mary that she was pregnant, and of comforting her. Joseph, on the other hand, was visited by an angel of the Lord in his dreams, but only after he had struggled alone with the moral and personal dilemma of what to do about what appeared to be Mary’s sin and betrayal. Even then, the angel in his dreams told him to trust God and stay with Mary. Joseph did exactly that!
By trusting God above imperfect human law Joseph became an instrument of God’s redemption of the world! With Mary, Joseph made possible the birth of the Christ Child, naming him Jesus, the name of the One who saves us from our sins. Later, when the Holy Child’s life would be endangered, it was Joseph who would lead Mary with Jesus to migrate to the safety of Egypt. Joseph – who would father the Savior of the world, protecting him from harm, nurturing his faith, showing him what a man of faith looks like and sounds like, and teaching him the pleasure and responsibility of honest work.
Joseph shows us what can happen when we are open to God’s higher righteousness. As I write to you, I am pondering what higher righteousness may mean for us as Christians in our day and age. I would share that I believe that God is calling us to the higher righteousness of welcoming suffering migrants, rather than harshly applying imperfect law to them. I believe God is calling us to fully love and include LGBTQ persons in the church, even though our United Methodist Book of Discipline excludes and rejects them. I believe that God is calling us to love the whole world as our family, beloved of God, our brothers and sisters everywhere, even though our legal identification cards may say that we belong only to the community in the U.S. I believe God is calling us to the righteousness of second, third, and fourth chances for those who have committed crimes and broken the law. I believe in God’s higher righteousness that stands on the side of the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
It would have been easy for Joseph to just follow the law of his time. Instead he chose the harder road of being obedient to God’s law of a higher righteousness. In doing so he received the highest blessing possible: Jesus our Lord came to abide with him, and through his humble efforts, Jesus comes to abide with each and every one of us. Alleluia!
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño