Advent IV, Year A
The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah– the king of Assyria."
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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 fulfill 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.
This Sunday’s Gospel text revolves around scandal. As we have said elsewhere in Preaching Peace, "scandal" is an important category in mimetic theory. It is also an incredibly important element in the Gospels. When Peter rebukes Jesus for his first prediction of the Passion, Jesus says of Peter, "You are a scandal to me!" When Jesus instructs his followers not to cause the "little ones" to sin, he tells them not to "scandalize" the little ones. When Jesus speaks to his followers at the Last Supper, tells them that they will "fall away" on account of him that night, he says that they will "be scandalized" by him.
Scandal is caused by mimetic desire. It is the result of gradually escalating rivalry that leads the one scandalized to violence, to the scapegoating process. Jesus uses hyperbolic language ("Cut off your hand!") to indicate how terribly important it is that we not cause scandal to one another as believers. Paul does the same thing. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1) And yet both Jesus and Paul maintain that Jesus and the Gospel will be a scandal to those still embroiled in mimetic conflict. Indeed, one of the marks of the in-breaking of the reign of God will be scandal. Of that we can be certain. At the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, all his disciples "fell away" (were scandalized) at the revelation of God’s purpose and methods.
And here, in the story of the beginning of Jesus’ life, a good and just man, Joseph, is scandalized at the discovery that God has acted, that Mary is with child. His compassion and goodness are made explicit in his determination to put her away quietly, to avoid shaming her or having her stoned (which he might have done), but finally, none of us, Joseph included, can avoid the snares of mimetic desire, and he plans to void the betrothal. Jesus begins and ends his life as scandal, and in the middle, he teaches us, "Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me." (We translate it "takes no offense at me." Matthew 11:6)
It is important to read this scandal in the context of the scandalous genealogy Matthew has given as its prelude. Four women are named as part of the genealogy. Many commentators have noted this, and most of them note that all four of the women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and "the wife of Uriah") have somewhat scandalous sexual histories. Following immediately on the heels of this recitation of Jesus’ strange ancestry we have the story of the pregnancy of Mary by someone other than her husband. Only a direct revelation of the Holy Spirit prevents Joseph from acting on that scandalous revelation. No matter how good the individual, we are all victims of scandal, and we all see the Gospel as scandalous at some level.
We have already noted the peculiarities of the genealogy that precedes this week’s Gospel text. The importance of this context for the birth narrative cannot be overstated.
What we’d like to point to, here, however, is another peculiarity of Matthew’s text. Daniel Patte, in his commentary on Matthew, elucidates, by way of his method of analysis known as "structural semiotics" the "hierarchy of convictions" of the evangelist. The method itself is far to complex to describe here (which may be why the method met an untimely end, folks just didn’t have the patience to learn and use this very illuminating discipline) but it leads out of the text insights that are otherwise quite invisible.
The "conviction" that we want to point to in the context of this reading is one about "believers." That is, according to Matthew, "believers" only come to the truth about Jesus’ identity by way of 1) knowledge of the Scriptures and 2) independent revelation. Both are required. Either leaves the believer without a grasp of the Savior’s identity. Patte’s illustration of this reality uses the story of the Magi, who, having received independent revelation (the star) could not find Jesus until they consulted the priests in Jerusalem, who told them that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Only then could they follow the star the rest of the way. Similarly, the priests, knowing the Scriptures, did not find Jesus, because they could not read the stars, and received no independent revelation.
In this Sunday’s text, Joseph knows enough of his Scriptures to know that he is not supposed to marry a woman who carries someone else’s child. But Joseph, being a righteous man, is also open to revelation, and God speaks to him through a dream, revealing Jesus’ identity, not only as God’s child, but God’s child who comes as scandal. Here we have enshrined in Scripture itself the antidote to certain forms of bibliolatry, as God demonstrates that we cannot trust text alone to lead us.
Most of us have preached at one time or another, a sermon noting that the real birth of Jesus wasn’t as pretty as the creche in the front of the Church on Christmas Eve. We have pointed to the dirty surroundings, the smelly animals, the loneliness of the setting, as an antidote to the antiseptic, Hallmark version of the Nativity.
But this reading calls us to something more. It asks us to find in the advent of the Savior something that scandalizes even us, as it scandalized Joseph. Where in this narrative, where in the Incarnation do we find the place that makes us say, "No, wait, I can go this far, but no further. If you ask this, I cannot continue to walk with you." Where is the place in the story where we fall away? where we put Jesus quietly away, not wishing to shame him, but not wishing to associate with him, either?
It seems that God must come to us in the scandalous, so as to make clear to us our natural tendency to scandalize, to make victims, scapegoats. It is no less true in the Incarnation than in the Crucifixion. Paul said it this way, "God chooses what is weak to shame the strong. God chooses what is foolish to make foolish the wisdom of the wise." If we are not scandalized by the Incarnation, we aren’t looking closely enough. Everyone, no less we who try to preach peace, needs to be made aware, over and over again of the way that we are like Joseph – good, but still entangled in mimesis, scandalizing others, and scandalizing ourselves at God’s self-revelation in Jesus.