Sermon: “Really?”

December 18, 2016: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16
Matthew 1:18-25

When Mary’s pregnancy became obvious, Joseph’s options were clear. They were a betrothed couple, which was a far more formal relationship than the engagements of twenty-first century America. The agreement was in place. There was a contract between their families. Breaking it, even before the wedding had been held and the marriage consummated, required a separation agreement that was, in fact, a divorce. And adultery, with Mary’s pregnancy as evidence, was more than enough grounds for divorce.

That, says Matthew, was what Joseph decided to do, and to do it quietly. If he’d done it more publicly, there was another option, at least in the law recorded in the book of Leviticus. An adulterer could be put to death by stoning. You might recall the Jesus interrupted just such an event during his ministry, as told in the gospel of John. I should say that Biblical historians aren’t entirely sure that would apply to a betrothed couple, or indeed how commonly it was done at all.

All in all, finding Mary expecting a child which was not his own meant that Joseph had the options of a public, scandalous accusation, perhaps with an execution, perhaps with a divorce; or a more merciful, private divorce, leaving her to the unknown “mercies” of her no doubt disapproving family.

Well, there was one other option. I doubt that Joseph even considered it. There’s no sign of it in Matthew’s rather spare account. But Joseph had the option.

He could have believed Mary. He could have believed her.

Matthew gives us no description of how Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy. We don’t know if she spoke to him, or if he learned about it from her family. We don’t know if she assured him that she’d been faithful to him, that this child was the love of God at work, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s grace. We don’t know if she tried to tell her family this, and whether they believed her, and whether they tried to persuade Joseph.

We just know that he decided to divorce her quietly.

Myself, I picture Mary telling him that she was faithful, that this child was a gift of God – a more direct gift of God even than is usual in a child. I picture her telling him directly, and honestly, with a sense of wonder in her eyes and in her voice. I picture him responding incredulously, with the one word, “Really?”

And then with a voice dripping with sarcasm and doubt, “Really.”

And then, as she continued to insist that her child was the gift of the Holy Spirit with a withering, scornful: “Really.”

I picture tears streaming down both their cheeks as Joseph leaves to follow his chosen path to end their marriage.

A few years ago I watched a documentary film called The Interrupters, about a Chicago program called CeaseFire that attempts to prevent some of the violence that plagues the third largest city in the US. Workers respond when they hear that someone is considering an assault on someone else, for reasons of pride or revenge or what have you. They go talk with that person, and listen to them, and try to offer them reasons not to pick up the gun or the knife or the baseball bat.

There’s one scene in the movie where a couple of the CeaseFire workers go to the house of a man known as “Flame-o.” Standing on his stoop, he’s a picture of fury, because police officers had searched his home and frightened his mother. He plans to go after the person who called the police, and he’s carrying a gun in his waistband.

As Flame-o repeats his plan for revenge over and over, you can see the despair come over the faces of the Ceasefire workers, that they will fail to prevent another death or injury. But then one of them offers to take Flame-o out to dinner, and listen to him.

“Really?” demands Flame-o. “You’re going to take me out to dinner?”




And that angry man is so surprised that someone will take the time, and eat with him and listen to him, that he leaves the gun behind, gets in the car with them, and off they go to a diner and he tells them his story.

The power of telling his story was so great that Flame-o preferred it to revenge.

Greater still, though, I think, is the power of telling your story and having it believed.

Because it happens to most of us most of the time – that is, we tell our story and people believe what we tell them – it’s harder to appreciate its power. The power gets revealed when we’re not believed, when people either reject our understanding or discount our experience.

We’ve seen that over and over again in conversations about racism and sexism in America. African-Americans describe the watchful eyes of clerks in the stores, women recount suggestive remarks during job interviews, and white guys – guys who look like me – say, “Really?”

Or they say, “Unbelievable.”

Sometimes, that’s just an expression of dismay, but all too often it means just what it says: “I don’t believe you had this experience. I don’t believe your life is different from mine. I don’t believe people treat you differently than they do me.

“I don’t believe you’re telling the truth.”

But when people tell their stories and they’re believed: It’s like water in the desert, a breeze in summer, a sunny afternoon after a week of rain.

What a gift Joseph could have given Mary.

What a precious gift we can give each other.

Instead of the “Really?” of doubt, we can offer one another the “Really,” of understanding.

What if we’re lied to? Because we will be, I’m afraid. We have been lied to, there are people lying to us now, and they, and others, will lie to us again. Some will tell you a truth they believe, but they’re mistaken. Some will seek to deceive, because it gives them an advantage. And some, I’m afraid, don’t seem to be able to distinguish what’s true and what’s not, and they’ll offer you the first thing that comes into their heads.

With those we care about, however, let’s start with trust and belief. With those we meet, let’s start with trust and belief. With those who’ve come to authority, with those who live different lives than we do, with those whose experiences differ from ours, let’s start with trust and belief. We may find reason to change our minds later, but let’s start with trust and belief.

Trust and belief are the foundations of love. On this fourth Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Love, let’s resolve once more to love one another, to strengthen what underlies all our expressions of love: trust and belief.

Ron Allen writes: “Joseph was face-to-face with an unlikely manifestation of the Realm of God. Matthew wants those who encounter this message and this movement in similar fashion to do as Joseph did. To believe the message is of God and to become part of the movement.”

Well, as Joseph did eventually. We could do better than Joseph, couldn’t we?

And let’s face it: we need to love one another as practice for loving God. Compared with many of the things we believe about God, believing a child was born of a virgin is relatively minor stretch. God has asked us to believe much more difficult things than that.

God has asked us to believe that we can forgive one another. God has asked us to believe that we can forgive ourselves. God has asked us to believe that we can live in peace with one another. God has asked us to believe that we can love one another. God has asked us to believe that one man’s faithfulness unto death reshaped all human relationships. God has asked us to believe that in Christ’s resurrection is our new life.

Faith is filled with “Really?”s.

Let’s take the road Joseph eventually did, and without asking for dreams of angels. Let’s believe in one another. Let’s believe in God. Let’s believe that God believes in us.



Photo of the mosaic “Joseph taking leave of the Virgin” in the Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey, by © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro /, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on December 18, 2016

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