Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Samuel 1: 19-28+Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10)+Titus 3:4-7+Matthew 1:18-25

We sometimes forget, I think, how close to disaster this Christian project was from the very beginning. Our ears are tuned to modern interpretations, to contemporary usage of certain words, like “engaged.” In the time of Jesus and in this culture, an engagement, a betrothal, was legally binding. Joseph would have paid a bride price to Mary’s father, and she would continue to live in her father’s house for another year. The couple was married in every way except not yet living together, and it took a formal divorce document – a get – to break the marriage, even if not yet consummated.

And if Joseph had done so, had he “dismissed her quietly” as some translations put it, Mary would have been doomed to destitution or even death. Stoning was the punishment for such things. And that would have been the end.

 Of course, we know that none of that happened. But imagine, for a moment, the very human characters who inhabit our story in Matthew’s telling.

There is a 2nd century source known as the Infancy Gospel of James that tries to flesh out the miraculous story of the birth of Jesus. It is from this source, attributed to the older half-brother of Jesus, that we get names for Mary’s parents (Anna and Joachim) and the roots of the immaculate conception. In this non-canonical telling of events, Joseph is a widower who is chosen to take the pure and innocent 12-year-old Mary from her service as a temple virgin and provide for her until their marriage. Her pregnancy supposedly occurs when she is 16. So Joseph, the widower with older children of his own, has been waiting, as he promised, until time for the marriage to be consummated, and then his fiancée turns up pregnant, claiming that she is innocent of any wrong-doing. Is it any surprise that he plans to divorce her? Set her aside? He’s an honorable man. He doesn’t want to cause her shame or harm, but neither does he want to marry a faithless woman.

And what of Mary? She didn’t ask for this. She’s young and pregnant. Even today, someone young and pregnant who is not partnered has increasingly limited options and faces stigma and judgment. How much more terrifying when a pregnancy without marriage was a violation of religious and cultural law. And, if Mary has developed any kind of affection for this man who is to be her husband, she knows how she has hurt him. Why should he believe her claims that she was never with another man?

Just as with her pregnancy, it took an angelic messenger to move our story forward. Appearing to Joseph in a dream, the angel appeals to scripture to support the claim:

Look now! The virgin shall conceive a child in her womb and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:14, trans. WG)

The messenger tells him to go ahead with the plans to marry his betrothed, and he does.   Miraculous pregnancies are nothing new in our scriptures as we have seen in Sarah and the mother of Samson and, today, Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. Her story begins, as so many do, with a man with one very fertile wife with lots of children and the more-loved wife who has none. Hannah would go to Shiloh, then a holy shrine, and pray, and on one occasion she is there weeping and wordlessly moving her mouth in prayer. The old priest, Eli, assumes that she is drunk.

Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. (1 Samuel 1:14-18)

Did you catch that? Hannah does not tell Eli what she prayed for or why she was so vexed. He simply said that the God of Israel would grant her petition.

And that is what happened.

 Our text this morning picks up the tale with Hannah and her husband Elkanah returning home where she conceived the baby who will be the prophet, Samuel. And just as Mary does later on, Hannah rejoices in song with many of the same themes in the Magnificat: “the bows of the mighty are broken…The GRACIOUS ONE makes poor and makes rich; brings low and also lifts up…God raises the poor from the dust.”

And when the boy Samuel is weaned, she takes him back to the old priest to be raised in the temple, having dedicated his life to God as did Samson’s mother before her and John the Baptist’s mother after. In gratitude for God’s blessing, these women offered their sons.

 And Mary did the same with Jesus. She brought him into a world that would be a dangerous place for a messiah. When he is presented in the temple, the old man Simeon foresaw that “a sword would pierce her (own) soul, too.” (Luke 2:35)

There are many places in this world where childbirth and early childhood are incredibly risky for the babies and those who give them birth. It is not hard to imagine how precarious it must have been for Hannah and for Mary. And even though Mary would ultimately witness the death of this same son on a cross in Jerusalem, through her, and through him, God’s salvation for all of us was assured.

So yes, it could have turned out differently. Absent an angelic dream, Joseph could have sent Mary away. But that’s not how God willed the story to unfold, not for Mary, not for Joseph, and certainly not for us. Jesus came, and the world was never the same.

ASEPSermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas