Biblical Text: Matt 1:18-25
I’ve just start reading this book, only just past the theses declarations, but I’m somewhat amazed at them. The book is supposed to be the culmination of a generations scholarship on sexuality in the ancient world. And that culmination is supposed to be the upsetting of prior or simplistic thinking. This is what is startling to me: his theses are more or less what I have been taught my entire benighted life in the church and that horrible bastion of it called the LCMS. My guess at what that means is that scholarship is now distant enough from the church that it can “discover” the church’s understanding and roughly agree with it without really knowing.
How does that intersect with a small parish sermon. Well, the text is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Our kids program is next week, so instead of doing John the Baptist, The Return we took Advent 4’s texts on Advent 3.) And Matthew’s account is really about the virgin birth. Coming off of the genealogy, Matthew had something to explain and an Old Testament prophecy to link in (Isaiah 7:14). In the ancient world (which the modern world is growing ever closer to) shame was the regulatory principle. Actions were governed less by any personal sense of a cosmic right and wrong but more by a social agreement upon what is honorable and what brings dis-honor or shame. The gospel disrupts all of that. It is a proclamation of freedom. Freedom from shame and freedom for right action. The core of the shame system was slavery. A slave could not have honor, so it didn’t matter how they were treated. And many were treated as sex slaves. It was an everyday occurrence. So, sexuality would be a defining sphere of shame. Caesar’s wife had to be beyond repute because Caesar was at the top of the honor pyramid and less than that would bring shame. And you can fill in the rest from slave to Caesar and all the forms of human sexuality.
Now the Jews had a much better grasp of sin or personal adherence to a cosmic code, but they were always fighting the honor system. Think of every time Jesus goes to a meal with the Pharisees and takes note of how they are sitting(Luke 14:7) or mocks those who like to parade around in fancy clothes (Mark 12:38-40). Pure honor/shame status clubs. Hence why Jesus calls the woman giving two mites better because she is much closer to the cosmic standard of justice.
Then comes the story of Joseph and pregnant Mary. This is pure shame vs. sin. Mary is sinless. The child is from the Holy Spirit. This is how God has chosen to act. How God has chosen to act, if Joseph goes along with it will bring him great shame. His village was still calling Jesus “Mary’s Child” at the start of his ministry (Mark 6:3). Honor/shame called for stoning. God said this is how I am going to save my people. Honor/shame says that God couldn’t be associated with anything that is shameful or lowering of status. God is born as a baby from a humble virgin. God is Immanuel in the midst of his people. In the midst of their shame. And he brings grace. And grace itself is shameful, because you can’t pay it back, because you are not in control.
God is no respecter of shame. He does care about sin and the law, but he also has given the remedy. Jesus, who saves His people from their sins.