A sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas
Last Sunday was a long time ago, wasn’t it? Since then we’ve all we’ve attended overflowing carol services, celebrated the midnight Mass, feasted on TV programmes galore, and, if you’re anything like me – promised faithfully, again and again, that the diet will start after Christmas!
But if you can cast your mind back as far as last Sunday, you might remember that I sat on a chair, and read a story of Mary being visited by the Angel. In my words of introduction, I explained that even though Matthew’s gospel reading focused very heavily on Joseph’s role in the annunciation, I felt that, being the fourth Sunday of Advent, we should properly give attention to Mary. Which I then did.
I also said that it was a curious fact of Matthew’s Gospel that his focus is pretty-much entirely on Joseph. I suggested that this was because Matthew himself was a Jewish man, who tended to view life from a patriarchal perspective. Luke, on the other hand, appears to us as more of a gentile, and certainly his Gospel seems aimed at gentile Christians – and that women feature much more strongly in his narrative.
But after our service, I was gently chastised by one of my very good friends in this congregation, who rightly implored me not to overlook Joseph’s pivotal role. (He also told me that he had enjoyed the re-telling of Mary’s story – so he wasn’t actually cross with me!).
And of course, he was right. As today’s Gospel demonstrates very well indeed, Joseph’s role in the birth of Jesus was absolutely front and centre. It was Joseph who could have (in the words of the King James Bible) ‘put Mary away’ in disgrace when her pregnancy became obvious. But Joseph trusted what he had been told in a dream, and stood by his wife-to-be. It was undoubtedly Joseph who negotiated a safe place for the birth of Jesus from a reluctant innkeeper. It was Joseph who responded to another dream, and led his new family to safety, as refugees from Herod’s power-crazed murder of Bethlehem’s children. It was Joseph who carefully shielded Jesus in Egypt, and then, when the time was right, settled his family in Nazareth.
Incidentally, it’s a little-noticed fact that Matthew’s account of the Nativity, unlike Luke, doesn’t describe Joseph travelling to Bethlehem from Nazareth. In fact, if we only had Matthew to rely on, we could quite easily believe that Joseph was already a resident of Bethlehem (just as the prophets had foretold). According to Matthew, Jesus only became a Nazarean because of the threat to his life as a child of Bethlehem. According to Matthew, the Wise Men visited the baby in the ‘house’ where Mary and Joseph were living, not in a stable at all.
But those are just fun facts for bible nerds!
The important, underlying emphasis of Matthew’s narrative is the vital importance of Joseph doing what God asked him to do. As the head of his brand new family, it is Joseph’s faithful obedience to God which saves and preserves Jesus for the ministry that is to come. Joseph does not do what we might expect a man in his position to do. He does not divorce his wife for shame. He does not ignore the messages he receives through his dreams. He doesn’t act all macho and try to protect his son from Herod’s soldiers with his own strength and cunning. No, he simply trusts and obeys what God tells him to do. He welcomes the new born king, and then safely shields him from harm until the danger of Herod is past.
There are two heroes in the Nativity story, therefore. Mary is a hero for accepting her fate to be the unmarried mother of a heavenly child. And Joseph is a hero for welcoming and then protecting the fragile baby Jesus, even at the cost of a massive journey into Egypt.
In the Bible, consistently, the heroes are always the ones who do what God asks or expects them to do. It’s one of the central, over-riding themes of Scripture, that God always has a plan for his people. Only by following the plan – doing what we are told – can we ever hope to establish God’s lasting rule on earth. The trick, of course, is to understand what God is, or isn’t, telling each of us to do.
As a priest, I quite often find myself being asked the question ‘what does God expect of me?’, or ‘what should I do in this or that situation?’. I honestly think that the questioners think that I must have a unique way of contacting God and asking for his opinion! Should I take the drugs my doctor has given me? Should I apply for a new job? Should I have another baby? How should I vote in the general election? How should I know?! You see, unfortunately, I don’t have a hot-line to God – and frankly I’m rather suspicious of anyone who tells me that they do – although the Bible certainly bears witness to the idea that from time to time, at pivotal moments in history, God will speak directly, or through an angel.
But in the every-day business of living, God actually leaves us alone, most of the time. He has already stated, abundantly clearly, how we are to live our lives. He then gives humanity the free will to decide whether we will choose to live as we’ve been called.
We are to love God, and love our neighbours. Or, if you prefer a more poetic phrase, we have been instructed through the prophet Micah, to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Say it with me – ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.
These were, in fact, the precise attitudes of Joseph. Doing justice meant that he could not ‘put away’ a young woman whose unplanned pregnancy was not her fault. Loving mercy meant that he needed to give her the protection she and her baby needed. Walking humbly with God meant trusting that God’s plan for the baby were far superior to anything that Joseph himself might have tried.
Jesus too had to follow that plan of doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. It was that plan which ultimately led to his saving death on the cross, as the writer to the Hebrews reminded us earlier on.
So, as a new decade comes into view, you may be someone who is wondering what God is asking of you. Perhaps you are facing one of those decisions which comes along in every life, from time to time. I cannot make that decision for you. What I can do is invite you to consider whether the choice you have to make will extend God’s kingdom of Love, or crush it. All I can do, with the full weight of Scripture and God’s story behind me, is invite you to carry on doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Just as Joseph did. Perhaps that’s the greatest new year’s resolution any of us could make. Amen.