Sheepscott Community Church December 19, 2010
Isaiah 7: 10-17
Matthew 1: 18-25
What Does Love Do?
I’m going to talk about two things this morning in relation to the title of the message, “What Does Love Do?” First, I’ll spend a few minutes talking about Mary and Joseph and the significance and meaning of their relationship as revealed in this morning’s gospel, and then I’ll talk about the incarnation again, a kind of part II, following last week’s message in anticipation of this week’s feast of Christmas : God born into the world.
First, Mary and Joseph. The reading from Matthew tells us Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. Betrothed is a word you may have heard before in this connection, like Alex Wajer and Greg Rice of this parish. They are betrothed. There were three distinct steps in the Jewish marriage procedure. First, the engagement. This would have been an agreement entered upon by the parents of the involved parties or a matchmaker, when the parties themselves were still children. Marriage was considered way too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.
Next came the betrothal, which was the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. At this time, the engagement could be broken if the girl or woman was unwilling to go through with the marriage. But once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year, during which time the couple were known as man and wife, although they did not have conjugal rights, which only kicked in at the time of the wedding proper, as I said, a year after the betrothal. The only way to terminate a betrothal was with a divorce, and that is what Joseph planned to do, as we heard in this morning’s gospel, when he was confronted with Mary’s pregnancy, which could apparently only be the result of adultery.
The scripture tells us that Joseph was a just man, and the implication of the word is that he was religiously scrupulous and obedient to the will of God. In this reading this morning, the word can also mean sympathy and kindness, evident in his plan to divorce Mary rather than expose her publicly to legally justified stoning. That is what love would do, isn’t it? Do what was necessary to prevent the stoning. And that’s what he planned to do with the information available to him at the time before the dream of divine visitation with its message to take Mary as his wife, that the pregnancy had a divine source.
It’s worth noting that the word “Father” as an ascription for God had been used only infrequently in the Hebrew scriptures, and it usually implied national and not personal relationships, as in, God as the Father of the Israelite nation. But Jesus used it in intimate ways and taught us to do the same, when he taught us how to pray what is now called the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. That fact may be partially a tribute to Joseph’s care for his household, and it is also fair to assume that Joseph was the channel through which Jesus drew some of his incomparable wisdom. Jesus learned how to be a man from how Joseph was a man. It is also worth noting that Mary was anything but a passive player in this whole human drama. She had set the play in motion with her agreement to do whatever was necessary in order for God’s plan to be carried out. “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Mary’s fiat.
And now, on to another consideration, that of incarnation from a theological rather than sociological standpoint. Thomas Henry Huxley has said, “The highest altar man can raise is to the unknown and unknowable God.” That resonates deeply with me. The importance of allowing God to be God and not containing God in our own forms of idolatry––This is how to worship God! No, this is how to worship God, because this is who God is.––These two arguing at each other is exactly why the highest altar would be built to the unknown and unknowable God.
But such a God strikes me as ultimately cold and distant, the antithesis of the coming of Christ we are going to be celebrating five days hence, right in this sanctuary. If we think about one of the titles of that Christ, by which we just invoked him in the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we were singing of “God with us,” which is what the name means. We are expressing a belief that a particular mortal body, a human soul––Jesus––became for a little while the habitation of the Spirit of God. And because of that Christ, we too can become habitations of that same Spirit of God. What a Christmas gift that is!
If God is personal, we would expect that One would want to make himself, herself, itself known. If that One is indeed Love, then nothing could keep her away from her children. She would find a way to be with them. Christian theology proposes that that is exactly what happened in and through the Incarnation. God with us. Emmanuel.
If God is Love and Jesus, the Emmanuel we are speaking of this morning is the embodiment of that Love, all that Jesus was and is, God was and is. Perhaps more, we don’t know, but we do know, or at least some of us believe that at least that much is true: All of what Jesus is and was, God is. Recall that Jesus is quoted as saying in John 14: 9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
God revealed himself in the person of a human being because human nature, being spiritual as well as bodily, made it possible for God to do so. That very special human being, Jesus, spoke of God as his Father. Whoever has seen Jesus has seen God the Father. Apart from Christ, Huxley’s word is quite true: “The highest altar a man can raise is to the unknown and unknowable God.” But in Christ, God has made himself known.
From William Blake’s “The Divine Image”:
For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
And Peace, the human dress.
God is with us and therefore known to us, for who can deny the deep longing of the human soul for connection, through love, with other human beings and with the Source of Love, whom, or which, if you prefer, we call God, revealed in the Emmanuel, Jesus, God with us, soon coming to a stage near you. Friday night at 7.
Emmanuel. God is with us to seek and to save. The fullness of salvation as forgiveness, healing, comfort, moral strength, example cannot be given from afar or in an impersonal fashion. It is the touch, the connection that makes it real and makes it healing. Which is what salvation means: health, wellness. Pain is not removed from the heart by a word of sympathy from one who knows nothing of its anguish. To be the One who brings health and wellness, i.e., salvation, God entered our lives in an utterly human and personal fashion. He faced our temptations, dealt with our sins, and carried our sorrows––the saving length his love would go to that we might have life and have it abundantly. That is what love does.
Emmanuel, God with us. “Unto us is born a Savior! For love of us he came, and for love he still abides. “For lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Do you remember last week I noted that the world is a dark place, and it seems to be getting darker, rather than lighter, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it, constantly renewing our hope.
Emmanuel, God with us. By the light of nature we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel we see him as Emmanuel, God with us in our own nature, and, which is more, in our interest. That is the great gospel that is proclaimed by this title and which is exemplified in the Christ who bore it. God is not against us; he is for us and with us and on our side. Amen.
We have five days left to prepare for Christmas. Believe me when I say I know about the practical preparations that have to be made. But more importantly believe me when I say that those preparations are nothing beside the preparation of our hearts, the readying of our hearts, minds, souls to be opened, healed, laid bare to the eye of the All-Seeing God who loves. What does that Love do? It comes and saves us from our worst selves, full of indolence, indifference, meanness, and walks with us as we choose to be better, spending ourselves for others while finally coming to love ourselves, by the grace of God.
By taking some time apart––5 minutes, an hour, 5 hours––between now and Friday, we can prepare the way of the Lord. We can lift up the portals and open wide the doors and let the King of Glory come in. Amen.