Advent 4 A: Being A Righteous Man

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 7:10–16

Psalm                    Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19

New Testament     Romans 1:1–7

Gospel                   Matthew 1:18–25

Our Gospel lesson today is about that other parent of Jesus. We love Mary, but owe it to ourselves to study Matthew’s story. It has many lessons for us about our relationship to God, and about the meaning of our lives.

This is a Gospel lesson, all about a choice. What should Matthew do about Mary? What should he do about a calling from the Holy God?

And so it is also about our many and confounding choices—the kinds of things we write to advice columns about and take to psychologists and pastors. If you are at that point where you fret about what to do in your relationships, consider well our saint of the day: Joseph.

This is the famous choice Joseph has: what to do about his pregnant betrothed.

Keep in mind that marriage in Joseph’s day was a contract between families, and family was everything. Today we eat are meals at home, make our money at the office or the factory, answer for our misbehavior in the courtroom. But, for Mary and Joe it’s all in the family.

And in Joseph’s day a betrothal or engagement was a very public thing, and it was absolutely binding. It was all important and sacred to keep the promise of betrothal because family, and the joining of two families, depended on it.

And in those days, for women, virginity before marriage wasn’t a joke. It was everything. The bloodline determined blessing and inheritance. Mixing the blood or the sperm was an attack on all society.

So, the fact that Mary was found to be with child was proof of the kind of betrayal that the Law of Moses said could justify a death sentence because it had the potential to destroy everything for both Joseph and Mary.

So, our story centers on Joseph’s choice. Mary is with child after betrothal, but marriage and moving in with Joseph.

In this story of the CHOICE, there are two essential conditions on which the choice turns. The first is revealed to us in this phrase: “Mary’s husband, Joseph, BEING A RIGHTEOUS MAN…”

This sets us up. Joseph thought,  

Shall I do what is lawful, or what is good?

Shall I do what I am allowed to do to protect my world, our what I should do to protect Mary’s?

In other words, “I am a righteous man. So, what is the righteous thing to do?”

We are told that “being a righteous man” changed everything for Joseph. It made his choice for him. He would not expose Mary, but divorce her. He would break the betrothal quietly. The cat was out of the bag. The horse had left the barn. He couldn’t change all that. He couldn’t completely protect Mary. But he would not expose her to public disgrace.

The key for us, I believe, is in what this means, to be a righteous man. The word “righteousness” is scattered all around the Bible; and because it is biblical, we often assume it means something that is beyond the reach of us mere mortals. But when we think back on all the Bible says about righteousness, the sum of it all is this: “Be a decent person who does more good in the world than bad, and when you screw up, let God forgive and fix you.”

The Bible doesn’t call us as individuals to change the world. That’s the work of Christ, and of the body of Christ—the whole of the chosen people of God.

The commandments tell us what righteousness means for individuals. Mainly it’s avoiding the worst:

Don’t turn your back on the Holy God.

Don’t disrespect family.

Don’t steal or disrespect property.

Don’t make disrespect sexuality.

Don’t break your marriage vows.

Don’t kill people

Don’t lie about others or run them down to your advantage.

John the Baptist in Luke, when asked what the fruits of repentance are, he says, don’t rip people off. And if you have two coats and you see someone who is freezing to death because they have none, share from your surplus.

We are not far from righteousness when we casually say to each other, “Hey, shape up! Behave. Be a straight up guy.” That’s pretty much what the Bible has to say about being righteous.

It says a lot when Matthew tells us Joseph chose not to expose Mary to public disgrace. He just didn’t compromise his morals. He thought of someone else. His choice was not to do what he could get away with and what would make him look good. He chose not to make life worse for Mary.

Basically there are two things that get in our way of understanding righteousness:

Assuming the demands of righteousness are too high.

And assuming lowest common denominator standards for ourselves. 

As we said, we can assume that bible talk about righteousness is about things too lofty for humankind: being saints…changing the world all by ourselves…being impossibly perfect. That sort of thinking automatically discourages us.

But just as discouraging is the assumption of the very low standards that are fed by the belief that our instincts and emotions are things that happen to us—that we have no control over. So, in all our talk about how poverty causes crime, we can surrender to the belief that if we are poor we just won’t be able to help ourselves. We will steal. We will sell drugs. Or, since sexual arousal does happen to us, then broken vows and adultery must follow. We can’t help ourselves—it just happens to us. It’s getting to be a rare thing to see a movie or TV show that doesn’t assume it’s impossible to resist the urge to sleep around.

Such thinking, that we are captives of our basest instincts and emotions, discourages us from thinking we can rise above the low bar pollsters, and sociologists, and so-called scientists set when it comes to the challenges of our day. Can we think beyond our pocket books, our class, our nationality, our race, our political party or our religion and just simply choose not to expose others to disgrace with our choices?

So too, we are discouraged by these low standards, and we think being righteous like Joseph must be impossible for us.

This all brings us to this all important SECOND ESSENTIAL CONDITION in the Joseph story: God’s Promise to carry us beyond morality. God’s promise is part of God’s Holiness—God’s otherness.

You see, there is more to Matthew’s story, and to being righteous, than being nice.

Enter the Angel of the Lord, who says, “Don’t fear to take Mary as your wife. God’s doing a great thing, and you can be part of it.”

God has plans for Joseph and for all of us–plans that take us beyond being good and decent—plans to make us part of the healing of this world.

And so, once again, Joseph makes his choice. “I’m righteous. God made me capable of doing the right and the holy thing. That’s who I am. It’s my character. So I’ll hold my breath, put my doubts aside, and do what the angel calls me to do.” Such a choice is anything but safe. It was an ordeal for Abraham, much suffering for the prophets, and a death sentence for Jesus. But righteousness leads us there.

You see, the holiness of God takes us beyond goodness, reason, truth, and all we value, because it calls us to think bigger. It challenges us to say, “Though I am nice, I may be wrong. My dreams may be too small. I need to grow. And all things are possible with a holy God.” 

God keeps God’s promises by being God with us and for us, Emmanuel. Luther reminds us that God is with us in the Word of God preached and shared, in baptism water, in the Eucharistic body and blood, in the mutual consolation and conversation between brothers and sisters in Christ. But we all know God can be with us in all sorts of unexpected ways. Even in accidents and coincidence, in angel visits, and in dreams and visions—God is with us and for us. Never, ever underestimate God’s ability to be with us.

So, the angel tells Matthew and us, “If you stick with me, Jesus will come of it.” No, you won’t be super human. No, you won’t change the world all by yourself. But you will take your very humble little part in God’s great plan, and Jesus will come of it, to save us all from our sins.”

So the angel tells us today. Being righteous, make the right choices. Be decent to one another. And then surrender to the Holy God’s plans to bring salvation and healing in Christ to the world.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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