The text is specifically an exorcism text. And if I am being honest, these texts are outside of the philosophy and experience of many people. If you’ve had an experience of spiritual evil, you’ve been forced to change your philosophy and these texts are strong comfort. “Even the Spirit’s obey Him.” If you grew up early accepting Spiritual reality, then the Biblical accounts are formative on your philosophy of them. But if you are part of the great sweep of de-mythologized WEIRD de facto atheists, exorcisms and real spiritual evil are embarrassing stories. The purpose of this sermon is not exactly to defend the idea of personal evil. Let’s just say I know that it is a fact. The purpose of this sermon is two-fold. First to proclaim the gospel which is that Christ has freed us from anything such uncleanness can throw at us. Yes, the unclean spirit is partially correct. We initially have more in common with them than we do with Jesus “the Holy One”. But Christ has taken mankind into himself. We now have a place and our sin is cast out; even if it leaves kicking and screaming, it is forgiven. The second purpose is to think about a way that might give even a sceptic second thoughts.
At the word cloud would tell you, this is “Doubting” Thomas Sunday. But there are really two things in the text. The Thomas story is one of unbelief to belief and the things that stand in the way. The biggest of them I think is simply shame. The sermon goes into that in the 2nd half. The first half is the commissioning of the disciples. We believe, how then do we live? Jesus gives some directions here. The first half of the sermon looks at what it means to be sent as Christ was sent and the role of the Holy Spirit.
What is the virginity of Mary all about anyway? That is what this sermon is about. Matthew tells you, but he tells you by pointing you at the Israel’s story, in this case at Ahaz and Isaiah. I’ll cut this short, it is about hope. It is about how God conceives hope, when all our natural hopes are gone. But this sermon takes a longer look at that. And why the Virgin Birth should conceive hope in all hearts.
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.