Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Second Sunday of Advent, 2016
In the late 80's, we lived for a few months with a family in Lancaster County. I was, at the time, working with a mission organization in Villanova in addition to my graduate studies at Temple University, so I spent a lot of time traveling. One day, as I was leaving, I heard that we were having chicken pot pie for dinner. I spent the whole day looking forward to that, expecting to arrive home and enjoy chicken pot pie in a crust; after all, when I was growing up and put a chicken pot pie in the oven to bake, this is what it was. But when I got home, what we had for dinner was soup, not pie. There were noodles, or pieces of dough, in the soup, and somehow this justified the name “chicken pot pie.” By my understanding it wasn't pie at all, and I've had a grudge against Lancaster County ever since that day. We really ate very well during the time we stayed with this family, so I can't complain, but this experience stuck in my mind because I was expecting something different from what actually happened, and that's what disappointment is. Disappointment doesn't necessarily result from bad experiences; disappointment results from things not turning out the way we expected or hoped. Sometimes disappointments are bad experiences, but not always. Often they're just different than what we were expecting.
The first thing I want to take note of, in our passage, is the discovery of Mary's pregnancy in verse 18. The discovery is made, but no one apart from Mary knows the cause of her pregnancy. She was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her what was going to happen. It was a wonderful thing, the announcement that she was going to experience something utterly unique. So she knew that her pregnancy was miraculous, but no one else had any reason to believe that. We're not given any details into the discovery of Mary's pregnancy, but we do know that everyone, including Joseph, assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Jewish marriages at the time involved three steps: first the engagement, followed by betrothal, which usually lasted about a year during which the couple did not live together. But this was a binding arrangement, and a divorce was required if either one decided not to go ahead with the marriage. The third step was the marriage itself. Mary's pregnancy is discovered in the second step, after she is betrothed to Joseph.
Here's the thing: Mary has been chosen to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God, as a virgin. What is happening in her body has never happened in the history of the world. So wouldn't you expect God to make some kind of public announcement to this effect? Wouldn't you expect Him to tell someone else what is going on, especially since all the people around her are going to assume the worst? But He doesn't, and even Joseph, at this point, is in the dark, and no one is going to believe it when she tells them about Gabriel's words, even if she has the courage, or even the opportunity, to tell them.
Everyone knows that Mary has been unfaithful. There's no other explanation for her condition. Women don't become pregnant for no reason. But they don't know the whole story; their assessment of the situation is wrong. And we often get things wrong because we don't know the whole story. Anne and I, in the early 80's, spent two years on a ship called the Logos, which was run by Operation Mobilization. There were many Americans on OM from very conservative Evangelical backgrounds who believed that drinking alcohol was completely off-limits for Christians. There were even some books written during that time arguing that Jesus, at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, turned water into grape juice, not wine, because it was unthinkable that He would actually do a miracle involving alcohol. I read two of them, but neither is really worth reading, because all the evidence in Scripture is against what they're trying to prove.
The ship we lived on had previously been owned by a shipping company but had been renovated for our purposes. But one day the captain decided to do a thorough cleaning in his cabin, and way back inside the bulkhead (or wall) he found a half-empty bottle of whiskey. He didn't want it in his cabin, so he took it to the chief steward, who was in charge of all the food, and said “I just found this in my cabin; I thought you might be able to use it for cooking or something, but in any case I don't want it in my cabin.” And he left. While the chief steward was standing there with the bottle in his hand wondering what to do with it (and thinking that he also didn't want it in his cabin), there was a knock on the door. So he put the bottle down on the table and answered the door. The zealous young person who was at the door saw the bottle and came to an obvious conclusion. Being chief steward is a stressful job and he's coping with it by drinking. Why else would he have this bottle sitting on his table? “I probably interrupted him just as he was taking a swig.” We need to know that there's often more to the story than what is apparent to us on the surface. This was certainly the case with Mary, but it's also often true in our daily lives, and we need to be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly.
The second thing to take note of is Joseph's response to the news of Mary's pregnancy in verse 19. Here it is in The Message: “Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” His duty, as he understood it under the Old Testament law, is to divorce her. Deuteronomy 24:1 allows for divorce if “something indecent” is found in a wife, and in Joseph's understanding this is certainly true of Mary. But he wants to do so in a way that at least shows some mercy. That will mean divorcing her with the minimum number of witnesses (only two) and not pressing charges against her. The fact is that she is going to be disgraced no matter what he does, but he's trying to do all he can to protect her from shame. But he's disappointed in her. He thought she was a godly woman, and she's been unfaithful to him, something he never would have expected of her. He wants to do the right thing, but he's not willing any more to spend his life with a woman like her.
Imagine being Mary in this situation. Her pregnancy is unlike any other in human history, so who is ever going to believe her if she reports the words of Gabriel? We don't know how long this situation continued after Joseph received the news and then deliberated about what he was going to do. But even a day or two of this kind of suffering would be overwhelming, knowing that she is innocent while everyone else is certain of her guilt. Mary was visited by an angel and given the most wonderful news imaginable, but then her life had been plunged into shame and suspicion as a direct result of God's work. God's interventions often lead to things we never expected or wanted. Joseph is disappointed in Mary, and I don't doubt that Mary is disappointed in Joseph's response; but I also suspect that Mary is tempted to be disappointed in God. Why hasn't He told someone else what is going on? It's a great thing that He sent Gabriel to announce Jesus' birth to her, but what's going to happen now? Is God just going to leave her hanging like this?
The last thing is that God intervenes, in verses 20-21. In the end, God lets Joseph in on what is happening by speaking to him in a dream: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” So Joseph now knows that there is something extraordinary going on, that Mary's pregnancy is not the result of unfaithfulness and that God is at work in a way that has never happened. “Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God is bringing a Redeemer into the world. But despite God's extraordinary work in their lives, Joseph and Mary will continue to live under the shadow of misunderstanding and suspicion. God intervenes to let them know what He is doing, but others will continue to suspect Mary of unfaithfulness, and they're not going to believe it if Joseph tells them about his dream.
When I was a young Christian, I was enamored with the importance of miracles. I and my friends thought that if we really had faith we would be doing things that made people take notice of God's presence among us. But I've since learned that God more often works in a hidden way, as He is doing here with Mary and Joseph. Mary's pregnancy is miraculous, but not in a public, demonstrative way. No one around her can tell that there's anything out-of-the-ordinary about her pregnancy. And Joseph's dream is also only given to him; it's not the sort of public thing that causes everyone around him to sit back and take notice. But in this time when everyone around them is whispering about Mary's unfaithfulness and maybe wondering whether Joseph himself is the father of the child or whether he is just going ahead with the marriage to protect her, both Mary and Joseph experience God in a truly extraordinary way. No matter what everyone around them thinks, they are both faithful to God and continue to trust Him, and He makes Himself known to them, even though He does so in a hidden way.
So how can we learn to experience God in our disappointments, when things aren't turning out the way we hoped or expected? I think the first thing is to stop. Don't act in haste, and don't start drawing premature conclusions. Joseph didn't fly off the handle when he learned about Mary's pregnancy; he didn't do anything right away. He took time to deliberate about what he should do and how he could, despite his disappointment in her, still preserve her dignity as much as possible. He waited, and when God did intervene Joseph hadn't acted in a way that he came to regret.
The next thing is to bring our disappointments into God's presence in prayer. The temptation is to allow them to drive us away from God, to become bitter and turned in on ourselves. “God hasn't held up His end of the bargain, so why should I continue listening to Him?” What happens then is that we shut ourselves off from whatever God is planning to do in our lives. Things we experience as disappointment could be a step toward something better that God has in mind, but if we allow our disappointment to drive us away from Him we'll likely miss whatever God is doing.
How do we bring our disappointments into God's presence? Partly by abandoning pious notions about prayer. Too often we express things in prayer that we think should reflect our feelings but really don't. But listen to Jeremiah: “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land” (15:10); or “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (20:7). Jeremiah is not living a life he would have chosen for himself. He doesn't enjoy pronouncing judgment and being at odds with the people. But he copes by telling God how he feels about it, bringing his complaints to God. That's one of the great things about praying the Psalms; the Psalms help us give voice to things we might not otherwise know how to pray about. God is able to handle our truthful words in prayer; and when we cry out to Him in anger or disappointment, He is able to hear the cry of our hearts and then continue molding us into His image. He is not threatened by our anger and is able to transform it once we bring it into His presence in prayer.
But we need to know that encountering God will not necessarily change the situation that we're disappointed about. The only direct intervention from God in this passage is His appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him what is going on. This enables Joseph to accept the situation and go ahead with his plan to get married. But both Mary and Joseph are still surrounded by gossip about her pregnancy. Most of the time we really don't know what God is doing, and the most important thing is to come into His presence and cry out to Him for help. He knows what we need to keep going, and He will come to us and give us strength, even though it may not be evident until later, when we look back and see that He was with us in a hidden way.
Listen to these words by St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they have pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty” (The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 1, p. 169). During this season of Advent we look back on Jesus' first coming as we anticipate the celebration of His Incarnation in the Christmas season; we look forward to His return in glory and majesty; and we pray that He will come to us both individually and as a church as we wait on Him and bring all our concerns into His presence.