I remember my senior year in high school. I lived in a small community surrounded by farms and ranches. The only time it looked like it had snowed was during cotton harvesting season when the sides of the road were littered with errant strands of cotton that had escaped their modules while being transported to the gin; or those that had escaped the metal fingers on the cotton strippers. Wide open spaces dominated along with the boredom that accompanies a rural, agricultural society. The fact that kids snuck out and away from parents to engage in underage drinking was nothing new. Neither was it new that kids would have romantic rendevous. These things have always been taking place as far as I can tell. But, having four, five, or even six high school girls under the age of 18 walking around school pregnant–now that was unheard of.
And they literally had no shame.
They wore their pregnancy as a badge of sorts, and if anyone raised any sort of moral objection, they were met with fierce attack. "You can’t judge me!" they would scream. Teen pregnancy had somehow become acceptable.
Perhaps the changes that began in the 1960's finally began reach a tipping point around this time. For I remember the "Jerry Springer Show." How many of you are actually going to admit that you remember that show as well? Remember how Jerry captivated his audiences by bringing in the most outrageous things that he could? Remember how there would be questions during the show that said something like, "Did your uncle sleep with your girlfriend and your sister at the same time? We want to have you on our show." Suddenly, aberrations like this went mainstream. The non-acceptable was made acceptable because of the lure of money and 15 minutes on national television. And when people actually showed up on this show–and had their fights, they were defiant as all get out. They had a "you can’t judge me attitude." They had absolutely no shame. None. Nada. And millions of people saw this. They saw such behavior rewarded. And it hasn’t stopped.
Even the porn industry isn’t shoved underground into seedy theaters and specialized places. If you have access to a computer and the internet, this stuff is literally a few clicks away. Even Playboy magazine has stopped having nude women in it. Why? There is no need for such a magazine. People flaunt their naked bodies on the internet with reckless abandon. And you know what is scary? Do you know what is even worse? So do teens under the age of 18. Of course, they don’t post such photos on the internet because of legalities, but millions of kids with cell phones are snapping naked pictures of themselves and sending them to friends without any shame at all. They don’t care. And, for the most part, society turns a blind eye. Society shouts from the roof tops, "Express yourself, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. You have nothing to be ashamed of!!!"
Contrast this with what is happening in our lessons from this evening. Each of these lessons, as different as they are, set forth a very real reality for both Mary and Joseph. Both of these lessons, when seen in their societal context shout loudly and clearly that sometimes, when you follow the will of God, you will face shame and ridicule.
This is quite a contrast to last week’s lesson regarding Zechariah and Elizabeth. In their case, God removed their shame. This couple had been barren, and in the societal context, this brought them tremendous shame because of the Old Testament based believe that God controlled the womb. If a couple had children, God had opened the womb and blessed the couple. However, if a couple were barren, God had kept the womb closed as a form of punishment. Without children, you were considered cursed by God. Last week, we heard how God removed that shame from Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the reading closed with Elizabeth praising God for removing her shame.
Oh, but ever the astute theologian, Luke shows us something very different this week. Luke shows us that following in the footsteps of God’s plan is no guarantee for the removal of shame. In fact, in the case of Mary and Joseph, the acceptance of God’s will for their lives means a lifetime of shame heaped upon them by the rest of society. How so? Let’s look at these two texts before us. Don’t worry, I am not going to go through them with a great deal of detail because that would take far too long, but I am going to look at them to point out the common thread running through them.
First, please take note of the Lukan text where the angel Gabriel visits Mary. Gabriel approaches Mary and says, "Greetings favored one!" Technically, the word favored one should be translated a little differently. It should be translated "graced" one. This is why Roman Catholics say in the Rosary, "Hail Mary, full of grace!" This mirrors exactly what Gabriel says to Mary here, and it is important. The word carries the connotation of having received a special favor from a benefactor. In this instance, that benefactor is God, the Lord, as Gabriel says.
Mary is in awe of these words. She is a peasant girl, probably in her teens. She carries no special significance. She has no special standing in the community. She is not well known. Yet, the angel says she has found special favor with the Lord. Is it any wonder she is much perplexed and tries to think this through? How in the world has she found favor with the Most High God?
Gabriel then lays it all out: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ This is a highly significant statement and it deserves much explanation; however, we do not have time for a thorough break down tonight. Let the words stand as they are said, plainly.
Mary responds again with a question, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" Unlike her cousin Zechariah, this is not a question of doubt. Zechariah said, "How will I know...? Mary asked, "How can this be...?" the nature of the question is very different. Mary is not doubting. She wants to understand.
Gabriel continues, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God."
Now, before we get to Mary’s final words, let me talk about the implications here. Let me remind you that Mary was betrothed. She was promised to be married, but she was not married yet. If indeed she were to become pregnant, everyone around would think some very unholy thoughts about her. Contrary to some who say that in this time people didn’t have all the understanding of how babies are conceived; folks knew exactly how it happened. They didn’t understand about X and Y chromosomes, but they knew that sexual intercourse produced babies. And they knew if you got pregnant outside of wedlock, you were engaging in something you weren’t supposed to be doing. Unlike what happened during my final years of high school, shame was not only given, but it was felt: deeply and hurtfully. The angel Gabriel has announced something great and wonderful, but it came with a cost: deep and utter shame.
And Mary says, "Let it be with me according to your word." She accepts this burden of shame.
Similarly, Joseph accepts the burden as well. Whereas Luke tells us the story through Mary’s eyes. Matthew tells us the story through Joseph’s eyes. Joseph is also visited by an angel in his dreams. But before that dream, Joseph knew that his betrothed had become pregnant. He didn’t know the child was of the Holy Spirit because of what he had intended to do. Joseph, being a righteous man, but also a compassionate man, was going to dismiss Mary and save her from shame. He could have had her stoned–God’s Law afforded him that right. But he didn’t want to have her killed. He would send her away privately, and very few would be any the wiser.
However, the angel appeared to Joseph and rendered his plans worthless. ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’
Again, this saying deserves much consideration, but again, because of time this evening, we will allow it to stand as plain as possible. Therefore, let us also consider the consequences for Joseph if he were to follow this advice: Joseph too would have been put to shame. For he would be marrying a woman who was unclean; unfaithful; a sinner. Folks would whisper behind his back, "Does he know what kind of woman he is marrying? Doesn’t he understand that she is sinful? Doesn’t he know that God frowns upon such things?" The gossip would fly through the village, and people would have long, long memories. Shame would be a daily part of Joseph’s life.
And he accepts it. He accepts the will of God even though it will cost him dearly.
Mary and Joseph will pay the price for doing God’s will. They will be looked down upon. They will be whispered about. They will lose honor and status in their community. They will be shamed. Society will reject them, and this is but a foretaste of what will happen to their Son.
For in Jesus we will see utter shame and rejection at its worst. In Jesus, we will see a man–a man who is also God–rejected by the crowds. He will be accused of blasphemy. He will be accused of being a false Messiah. He will be beaten, mocked, spat upon, and hung naked on a cross. The public shame and rejection by man is intended to discredit Him and prove Him a phony–a liar. But even this is small potatoes compared to the ultimate rejection Jesus faces on the cross.
For you see, not only is Jesus rejected by man, He is also rejected by God. You may scratch your head in wonder at that statement, but let me assure you, it is true. Because Jesus became the punishment for all sin. Jesus became the sacrifice of atonement to pay for all sin ever committed. Jesus bore the weight of that sin upon Himself even though He did not have to. He lived the perfect life and did not deserve what He received. So why did He receive it? Why did He have to die? Why did He cry out in forsakenness from the cross?
He did it because He could not bear the thought of losing us. He did it because He couldn’t bear the thought of His creation spending eternity apart from its creator. He did it to change our hearts away from our selfish; self-centered living and capture them with the love of God who is willing to die for us. He did it because He loves us.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Jesus endured shame and rejection to bring you close to God.
And isn’t it funny that in our culture today; if you stand up for the values of the sanctity of marriage, for sexual relations to be saved for marriage, for loving people who are vastly different than yourself, for daring to proclaim the exclusivity of Jesus, for daring to believe in Absolute Truth and that this Truth has been revealed in Jesus, then you are the one who is shamed? It is small wonder though. Just as following God’s will brought Mary shame, and Joseph shame, and Jesus ultimate shame; we should not be surprised if we are shamed as well. May we have the courage to be shamed. Amen.